Jabhat al-Nusrah Media Official: “A comment on David Ignatius’s article in the Washington Post”

Below I’ve translated the response from Abu Ammar al-Shami, head of Jabhat al-Nusrah’s media office, to David Ignatius’s July 19 Washington Post article. Abu Ammar’s rebuttal of Ignatius is a demonstration of the political trap the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate has set for the United States and its allies.

Ignatius’s article contends, based on U.S. official sources, that Jabhat al-Nusrah seems to be plotting external operations against Europe and the United States and that is operatives have tried to infiltrate Syrian refugee communities in Europe. Ignatius’s report comes as the United States seems to have struck a tentative agreement with Russia on expanded military and intelligence coordination with Russia against both Nusrah and the self-proclaimed Islamic State. (Ignatius’s article also says, based on an upcoming Institute for the Study of War forecast, that Nusrah will merge with Ahrar al-Sham later this year, which I think is unlikely.)

Jabhat al-Nusrah has repeatedly denied that it intends to conduct attacks abroad, a denial that Abu Ammar repeats in the tweets I’ve translated below. Nusrah leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani stressed in an interview last year that – as per instructions from al-Qaeda leader Aymen al-Zawahiri himself – Nusrah’s mission is to topple the Assad regime and institute Islamic rule in Syria, not to endanger the Syrian jihad by using Syria as a launching pad for attacks on the West.

Abu Ammar dismisses the U.S. government suspicions relayed by Ignatius as just another false pretext for war, a prelude to a military campaign against Jabhat al-Nusrah that will strengthen the Syria regime of Bashar al-Assad and pave the way for a U.S.-sponsored political resolution in the regime’s favor.

But when it comes to Jabhat al-Nusrah’s ambitions beyond Syria – and here’s the thing – who knows. Aside from Nusrah insiders and maybe some regional and international policymakers being fed information of variable reliability by secret squirrels, I don’t know if anyone has confident or reliable insight into what Nusrah is planning.

In the same interview in which he denied plotting to strike the West, Jolani said that if American bombing continued against Jabhat al-Nusrah, then Nusrah’s “options are open.” “If this situation [i.e., U.S. bombing] continues as is,” Jolani said, “I think there will be ramifications that won’t be in favor of the West and America.”

So Jabhat al-Nusrah can, hypothetically, flip that switch. And if it has been sending members abroad, it may be doing the advance work to ensure it has operatives in place and that its options are, indeed, open.

But what Jabhat al-Nusrah has also done is to make itself so central to Syria’s insurgency, particularly in the Syrian north, that any stepped-up campaign of U.S. bombing on Nusrah will inevitably weaken and endanger the broader armed opposition to the Assad regime. And absent a high-profile attack on the West and a claim of responsibility on Nusrah letterhead – not suspicions of attack planning or nebulous warnings – expanded targeting of Nusrah will be read by many in the Syrian opposition as an intervention on behalf of the Assad regime.

So Jabhat al-Nusrah gets to have it both ways. It can – maybe, allegedly – prepare for external operation contingencies. And at the same time, it can claim innocence and wrap itself in a broader Syrian opposition constituency that the United States and its allies are reluctant to alienate.

As for Syria’s other rebels, Nusrah asks them for their aid and brotherly solidarity. But, left unspoken, there is a reverse edge to Nusrah’s appeals for aid: As Nusrah has made clear, it reserves the right to dismantle any faction it judges to be a Crusader stooge or an enemy of the Islamic project in Syria.

As the United States potentially gears up for an expanded campaign on Jabhat al-Nusrah, it seems Nusrah has lashed itself to Syria’s rebels – and their fate is now shared, like it or not.

Translation follows: Continue reading

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Addendum on the Twitter Account Attributed to Khaz’al al-Sarhan

After the publication of my recent article on the New Syrian Army for The Century Foundation, New Syrian Army commander Khaz’al al-Sarhan has denied that the Twitter account in his name with which I corresponded belonged to him.

A full accounting of my correspondence with the account and attempts to verify it is available at the bottom of the original article. What follows are screenshots of my conversation with the account over DM. Continue reading

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The Century Foundation: “Suppose America Gave a Proxy War in Syria and Nobody Came?”

New from me for the Century Foundation:

Last Wednesday, the New Syrian Army—America’s best, maybe only, hope to challenge the self-proclaimed Islamic State in its east Syrian stronghold—launched a daring attack on the heart of Islamic State territory.

By Thursday, it had gone wrong. Islamic State had been waiting, and the New Syrian Army only barely avoided being annihilated by circling jihadists.

For the United States, it was just the latest in a series of mostly unsuccessful attempts to field a Syrian Arab proxy force against Islamic State. The defeat was yet another example of how America’s agenda has run up against the factional and personal politics of Syria’s rebels, as well as the basic disconnect between the U.S. priority of combating Islamic State and most rebels’ aim of toppling the regime of Bashar al-Assad.


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War on the Rocks: “Russia Is in Charge in Syria: How Moscow Took Control of the Battlefield and Negotiating Table”

New from me at War on the Rocks:

Russia has leveraged its September 2015 military intervention on behalf of the Assad regime to establish itself as the central military actor in Syria’s war. Russia has, in turn, used its military primacy to oblige others — including the United States — to treat it as the gatekeeper to a negotiated solution to the conflict.

But Russia is now invested heavily in a political process that, thanks to uncooperative Syrians on all sides of the war, seems unlikely to pan out, leaving Moscow to grapple with how to deliver “success” in Syria. Unless America is willing to risk a dangerous and unpredictable confrontation with Russia, the course of Syria’s war hinges on what Russia does next.


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The Daily Beast: “The Home of Syria’s Only Real Rebels”

New from me on The Daily Beast:

Syria’s northwest Idlib province is a tense, sometimes scary place, pulled between Islamist and jihadist factions vying for control but too intertangled to really fight each other. Now Idlib – for better or for worse – has become the heart of Syria’s armed rebellion against the Assad regime.


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RFE/RL’s “Under the Black Flag” Blog: “Al-Qaeda Speaks The Language Of Syrian Sectarianism”

New from me on RFE/RL’s “Under the Black Flag” blog:

Jabhat al-Nusrah’s top religious official makes an appeal for jihad in Syrian terms – and it turns out that when al-Qaeda wants to tap into an indigenously Syrian sentiment to fuel their jihad, it looks to toxic, even genocidal, sectarianism.


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On Ahrar al-Sham and Elitism

A follow-on note on my War on the Rocks piece today about Ahrar al-Sham deputy leader Ali al-Omar’s recent lecture, and what it means for how Ahrar presents and understands itself:

Continue reading

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