Below are some notes on Jabhat al-Nusrah chief Abu Muhammad al-Jolani’s recent “press conference,” which aired on December 12. In the conference, al-Jolani entertained questions from Mousa al-Omar of al-Ghad al-Arabi, Adham Abul-Husam of Al Jazeera, Muhammad al-Feisal of Orient and independent celebrity activist Hadi al-Abdullah. These notes aren’t meant to be comprehensive – there’s more to the conference, which is worth watching in full – but they do highlight a few of the things I thought were most interesting.
Destroy the Riyadh Conference
So al-Jolani’s main theme here is “burn down the Riyadh conference,” more or less. (The press conference was apparently recorded before Riyadh but released afterwards.) Al-Jolani argues that the Riyadh conference is integrally related to the Vienna negotiations process, which he says will retain President Bashar al-Assad in power, integrate opposition brigades with the regime’s military, and then compel them to turn on Nusrah, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and others viewed as jihadist irreconcilables.
Al-Jolani not only attacks the conference itself, but really goes in on rebel brigade participants, accusing them of “treason” for playing along with this international conspiracy. In what I thought was most shocking, he attempted to destroy the credibility of any agreement with rebel buy-in by arguing that, in fact, these brigade representatives exert no real command and control over their units on the ground and can’t compel them to abide by any agreement. This is the sort of argument that is a real dagger in the heart of any negotiations process because, after all, if rebel leadership can’t actually restrain their footsoldiers, then no agreement means anything. It’s also pretty insulting to the brigades that chose to endorse or participate in the conference, which is more or less everyone to the left of al-Qaeda.
Muhammad al-Feisal, Orient News: “Returning to the Riyadh conference, will you be bound by the Riyadh resolutions on the ground?”
Al-Jolani: “Of course we won’t be bound by any of it. We won’t abide by [these outcomes], and in fact we’ll work to make them fail.”
Al-Feisal: “And their impact on the ground, what do you expect?”
Al-Jolani: “I don’t think that anyone who went to negotiate at the Riyadh conference is capable of implementing [any agreement], even if he repeats whatever was dictated to him or impressed upon him. I don’t think he’s capable of implementing anything he promised on the ground.”
Al-Jolani also offers a pretty strikingly optimistic take on rebels and jihadists’ battlefield progress, arguing that negotiations have only resurfaced as an international priority because the regime continues to weaken and lose ground. Al-Jolani’s rejectionist stance on negotiations basically requires him to adopt this line so he can claim that acquiescence to talks and a negotiated resolution amounts, more or less, to seizing defeat from the jaws of victory. Still, in arguing for such a rosy outlook, al-Jolani occasionally contorts himself into weird positions. For example, he claims that the regime controls only 20 percent of Syrian territory, which is arguably true – but only if you exclude the country’s central Badiyyah wasteland, ISIS territory, and areas held by the Kurdish PYD/YPG. By that sort of reckoning, I’d guess that mixed rebels and non-ISIS jihadists probably don’t hold much more than 20 percent of the country themselves.
ISIS as a Second-Order Threat
While al-Jolani doesn’t seem to be inching towards a reconciliation with ISIS, he also makes it clear that fighting ISIS is not an urgent priority for Nusrah and that he’s personally uninterested in capturing Syrian public support by claiming to fight ISIS. When he discusses the northern Aleppo front, for example, he says that even before Nusrah withdrew south over concerns about the legitimacy of collaborating with Turkey and the international Coalition, Nusrah was not fighting ISIS or manning the front lines against the group. And in later discussing al-Qaeda’s historic victories and vanguard role, he claims both Afghanistan and Iraq as victories for al-Qaeda and defeats for America – somewhat odd considering that ISIS ate up al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Iraqi jihad has turned out to be, realistically, a total mess.
I think I’m still in shock from seeing the head of a Jabhat al-Nusrah affiliate subject himself to open and occasionally challenging questioning. Through the conference, these journalists and activists interrupt or push back on al-Jolani in a way that is very different from some of the staged “interviews” Nusrah has released previously.
Hadi al-Abdullah stands out for putting al-Jolani in a genuinely difficult spot in several instances. Take, for example, al-Abdullah’s question about Nusrah arresting FSA commanders, which prompted al-Jolani’s controversial denial that there’s such a thing as the “Free Syrian Army.” (I’m less exercised about this than some for reasons I’ve tweeted about previously.) Orient’s al-Feisal follows up with a question about Nusrah’s Dar al-Qada judiciary, which prompts al-Abdullah to offer a pretty real interjection:
Al-Feisal, Orient News: “A question from the street: If someone has a grievance about Jabhat al-Nusrah or about a detainee or something like that, where should he go?”
Al-Jolani: “He can go to the branches of Dar al-Qada, which are for the public. And there’s an office to receive complaints…”
Hadi al-Abdullah, interrupting: “Sheikh, Dar al-Qada, in one way or another, belong to Jabhat al-Nusrah. When someone goes [to Dar al-Qada], Nusrah becomes both the opposing party and the judge.”
Al-Jolani: “Jabhat al-Nusrah supports Dar al-Qada, but its judiciary is entirely independent. We provide it with support, we sponsor it, but its judiciary is totally independent. And those working in it, more than 80 percent of them, or about 80 percent, are independent. They don’t have any link to Jabhat al-Nusrah or anything like that…”
So, first of all, al-Abdullah is right. With the seeming exception of Hreitan (Aleppo), Dar al-Qada is basically a Jabhat al-Nusrah project that is not seen as effectively independent. But by challenging al-Jolani like this, al-Abdullah is calling into question the core of Nusrah’s governing program in northern Syria, of which Dar al-Qada is right at the heart. And he’s doing it to al-Jolani’s face, it’s bonkers.
The Al-Qaeda Affiliation
Short version, Jabhat al-Nusrah is not going to break its link with al-Qaeda. Al-Jolani doesn’t even promise to split with al-Qaeda if Syria’s jihadist or mujahideen factions join together to form a purely Islamic state – he says Jabhat al-Nusrah will be among the first soldiers of that state, but I don’t think that even implies Jabhat al-Nusrah will dissolve itself. He also continues to distance Nusrah from terrorist attacks abroad in only the most narrow terms. He says al-Qaeda has other people who handle those things, but Jabhat al-Nusrah just fights in Syria – for now.
Al-Jolani: “At this time, Jabhat al-Nusrah isn’t concerned with anything but fighting Bashar al-Assad and Hizbullah, who are hurting the people of Syria. Al-Qaeda has many roles that are divided; not everyone has the same role. Maybe al-Qaeda has people who fight America or work in Europe, but our mission is just…” (interrupted)