Al Jazeera op-ed tries to help Jabhat al-Nusra rebrand, fails badly

If you’ve noticed, I tend to cite Al-Jazeera English and Al-Jazeera America a lot around this place. This is because I think they genuinely do good work in a lot of parts of the world that the American media, with few exceptions, mostly ignores, like sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, and because they’ve built up a (well-earned, in my view) reputation for covering these places in a factual way. It helps their reputation that some of the serious criticism they’ve taken has come from regimes (in Egypt and Bahrain, for example) whose disapproval should be a badge of honor for serious journalists.

However well they may report the news, though, Al Jazeera certainly has some institutional biases that need to be acknowledged, and it’s quite helpful when they effectively do the acknowledging for us. Al Jazeera is, of course, owned by the Qatari government, so we can expect that it’s probably not the best source for negative news about Qatar, if there ever were such a thing I mean (though to be fair to Al Jazeera, they haven’t ignored this story either). There’s also the problem inherent to multiple language media platforms, in that what your Arabic website and TV station say, for example, may not correspond to what your English website and TV station say. I wish my Arabic were slick enough to toss in a bunch of examples of Al Jazeera saying one thing in one language and another in the other language, but frankly we’d be here until Christmas if I tried something like that. But one of Al Jazeera’s other biases comes through when it comes to coverage of inter-Arab conflicts, when the regime’s pro-Islamist, pro-Sunni, and pro-Salafi leanings are often clearly seen in the way the station/website approaches these stories.

Take, for example, Al Jazeera’s coverage of Jabhat al-Nusra Emir Abu Mohammad al-Julani’s big interview last week. First of all, the fact that Al Jazeera is Julani’s media outlet of choice (he’s already given them two interviews and apparently is planning to give them more) ought to be something of a red flag; a guy like that is going to want to put his message out over the friendliest airwaves possible. Second of all, we know to a near-certainty that Qatar has been heavily financing some of Syria’s most powerful Salafi rebel groups — if not Nusra itself, then groups that have been closely working with Nusra, like Ahrar al-Sham, the largest group in the “Jaysh al-Fatah” coalition that, along with Nusra, has recently taken control of Idlib Province. So you might expect that Qatar’s news station would have a favorable view of those Salafi rebels, maybe even including Nusra itself.

Sure enough, here’s Syrian journalist Ahmad Zaidan on the AJE website today, opining about what a swell bunch of guys this Nusra group is, not like their Al-Qaeda parents at all really. Sure, I realize you can’t and shouldn’t hold a news outlet responsible for the opinion pieces it runs, at least not as long as they’re within some basic bounds of responsibility, but Zaidan isn’t just a freelancer who got his piece run; he’s Al-Jazeera’s Islamabad bureau chief. So it’s safe to say he represents the company, isn’t it?

We can start with the headline: “Nusra Front’s quest for a united Syria.” That sounds nice, doesn’t it? A united Syria means no more civil war, and the civil war is bad, so no civil war must therefore be good. Good questing, guys! Of course, Nusra Front doesn’t just want any united Syria, or they wouldn’t have taken up arms and started fighting in the first place, you know? But let’s see where this is heading:

As I sat before a sumptuous Syrian breakfast in eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, one morning in March 2013, one of my hosts saw me smiling.

The man, a member of the Nusra Front – the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria, on which I was preparing a report for Al Jazeera Arabic – laid the food on the floor and asked me: “Is there something you want to say?”

I replied in the affirmative, with an even broader smile.

“We used to cover al-Qaeda of Osama bin Laden, and their hosts, Mullah Omar’s Taliban in Afghanistan. They would never go beyond offering simple tea and bread for breakfast. Things now seem entirely different,” I replied, gesturing towards the dozen dishes placed in front of me.

With humility, my host insisted that I should start my breakfast.

I think of this little anecdote to illustrate the change that has undertaken al-Qaeda in Syria. In this ancient melting pot of religions and civilisations, it is the kitchen which is key to comprehending sociology.

Wow, from tea and bread to the full English Salafi, or whatever. What a change! Clearly these are good people who will not carry out pogroms against Syria’s minority populations and/or plot terrorist attacks against targets outside of Syria, because, uh, their blood sugar won’t get too low, I guess?

Jolani defied al-Qaeda’s legacy of going after minorities, telling the Alawite community – the backbone of dictator Bashar al-Assad’s support – they would be welcome in a Syria after Assad.

“If any of you abandons the regime and repents his actions against the Syrian people, he will be forgiven and have the right to live as a Syrian citizen,” he said. He said there was no risk for the Druze community, as its villages in Idlib controlled by the Jaish al-Fatah faction will remain safe. Even Walid Jumblatt, Lebanon’s Druze leader, praised Nusra’s approach. Jumblatt went on to advise the Druze of Syria to stand against the Assad regime – though their strongholds in southern Syria are still under regime control.

Hey, Alawites, just abandon the Assad regime and you and Nusra be totally cool, you guys! Don’t worry about that time Nusra fighters massacred a bunch of Alawite villages (that was so 2013!) or about the fact that Julani also said in his interview that you’ll have to “return to Islam,” which means “stop being Alawites,” if you don’t want any trouble with a Nusra-led Syrian government. These are just details, I guess. When Human Rights Watch says that Nusra has “committed systematic rights abuses,” they’re probably just saying it because they haven’t had a full breakfast.

Jolani did not miss the opportunity to directly address the West.

“Our battle is with the Assad regime, and we have nothing to do with the US – although it bombed us so many times,” he said. Echoing the sentiments of many ordinary Syrians, he criticised the US for appearing to side with Bashar al-Assad in the Washington-led alliance’s fight against ISIL – itself a one-time offshoot of al-Qaeda.

We have nothing to do with the US, he says, our battle is with the Assad regime. Can this guy be any clearer? Nusra doesn’t want to attack the West. What? You’re wondering about what happens after the Assad regime is gone, and Nusra needs to find some other target to battle, as jihadi groups like Nusra can’t survive without a battle to fight? Well, um, I’m sure there would be…some…uhhhh…

According to some recent leaks, Nusra leaders have reportedly held meetings – stretching on for many hours – in which it was decided to leave the al-Qaeda umbrella and operate exclusively as a Syrian party aiming to establish an Islamic state.

Such a move, whenever made, would not only satisfy Nusra’s followers, but also pull the carpet from under the feet of ISIL. It emerged from the interview that Jolani has yet to endorse any such move.

See? Nusra is probably going to pull out of Al-Qaeda, at some point! Which will change everything, for some reason!

The civic state sought by liberal and secular forces is extremely difficult to help establish.

First, it is the Islamist forces that exercise real power on the ground, while the West yields zero impact. Second, the Syrian people have become more aggressive and militant in reaction to the unabated killing and destruction that has plagued their country for years – and neither the international community nor the liberal and secular forces have come to their rescue. The Islamists, however, stood their ground, fought against the regime and sacrificed themselves over the past four years.

This is nice for them, I guess. It doesn’t mean it would be in America’s interests to acquiesce to a Syria run by Al-Qaeda.

The US and the West can react to Nusra as they deem suitable. Washington used to depict the PLO as a terrorist outfit – but then took a U-turn.

Yeah, because the PLO actually changed — it renounced terrorism and started negotiating. Nusra won’t even renounce Al-Qaeda, let alone its ideology.

The Taliban in Afghanistan were once the main target of the US military, but is not currently designated a “terrorist organisation” by either the UN, UK or US. The White House does not even brand Hezbollah or Iranian Quds Force’s Qassem Soleimani “terrorists”.

The Taliban were state sponsors of terrorism, not a terrorist organization. Remember how they used to control Afghanistan? Nowadays they actually are on at least one US list of terrorist groups, the Specially Designated Global Terrorist list that Treasury uses to track finances, but this is very complicated by the fact that the Taliban are a deposed government fighting a civil war to regain control of Afghanistan, not a global network trying to wage a campaign of international terrorism directed at the US. “Terrorist group” does not mean “any group we don’t like”; the term has a specific meaning and it’s very questionable whether the Taliban meets it.

Hezbollah, meanwhile, is absolutely designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the US, and the Quds Force was designated a SDGT group, just like the Taliban, in 2007, even though designating part of a country’s military as a “terrorist organization” is legally questionable. The idea that the US no longer labels them “terrorists” is a misreading of the IC’s decision to leave them off of the most recent list of terrorist threats to the US, reflecting not that the US doesn’t see them as terror organizations, but that it doesn’t see them as current threats to the US. Unlike, say, Jabhat al-Nusra’s parent organization, Al-Qaeda.

Some see Washington’s policy as short-sighted and stupid – but others like to call it pragmatic. The verdict on Nusra is not out yet.

Welp, that’s it, we’re done here. Somebody hit the lights, and don’t forget to tip your servers. Goodnight folks!

The Obama administration may be at ease with the idea of armed groups alien to the Iraqi population fighting on behalf of Baghdad – but continues to have a problem with Syrian fighters – such as those who make up Nusra’s ranks – fighting in Syria. This dichotomy will not serve the West’s interests.

Yeah, here’s the thing: the Obama administration actually isn’t “at ease” with Iran-backed militias doing the bulk of the fighting in Iraq, but seeing as how they are the only real option to engage ISIS on the ground in Iraq right now, there’s not much that can be done about it. On the other hand, Nusra differs from those Iraqi militias in that a) the Iraqi militias are fighting ISIS, while Nusra has not been fighting ISIS, and b) those Iraqi militias aren’t part of a terrorist network that has already attacked America multiple times and openly acknowledges its desire to do so again. And yeah, I know, Nusra is going to leave Al-Qaeda, and good for them, but a) that doesn’t change the group’s basic ideology and b) we have no reason to believe that a Nusra “split” from Al-Qaeda would be anything more than cosmetic.

No doubt the recent changes – both military and political – in Syria, show that the tide is turning against the regime. The challenge now is how to accommodate everyone in tolerance and to build bridges to unite the shattered country.

If Syria fails this challenge, the country is heading for an even deeper round of destruction and despair – one that will draw in its regional neighbours and beyond in a downward spiral of division and violence.

Well, leaving aside the fact that I’m not sure Syria’s destruction and despair can get another “round” “deeper” (whatever that means), and that we entered that downward spiral a long time ago, let’s try being realistic about the limits of “tolerance” in a rebel coalition that includes Nusra and other fundamentally, ideologically intolerant groups like Ahrar al-Sham. I know it’s suddenly en vogue in places like Al Jazeera to pretend that Nusra is full of moderate populists who just want a democratic Syria that belongs to all Syrians, but wishing doesn’t make it so, and neither does a tasty breakfast.

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