Al-Nusra is pitching for US backing. But can there be a ‘moderate’ Islamist terror group? – Robert Fisk/The Independent
It’s an obvious pitch. Just when the Americans are frothing around for something sane to say about their non-existent policy in the Middle East, along comes the al-Nusra Front – al-Qaeda beheaders and sectarian killers – to suggest that they are just the “moderates” Washington wants to fight the Assad regime in Syria. The word comes from the boss himself. Is al-Nusra anxious to attack the West? Think not of it. An enemy of the Christians, Alawites and other minorities in Syria? Perish the thought. Syria’s minorities can come “into the bosom of Islam”. And al-Nusra believes the “Islamic State/Islamic Caliphate/Isis/Isil/Daesh” is “illegitimate”.
We have this on the word of Abu Mohammed al-Golani, the black-cowled boss of the Islamist militia which has been competing with its “illegitimate” Isis chums in the battle against the “infidels” of Syria. No sooner does al-Nusra take Idlib, Jisr al-Shughour and Ariha from the Syrian army than Isis takes Palmyra from the Syrian army. Competition indeed. But al-Golani is clearly our man. The “Caliphate” is “illegitimate” because “scholars” have rejected it. Isis had killed 700 members of al-Nusra. They should “repent and return to the Sunni people” (the phrase suggests that al-Nusra is just as it always was).
The PR campaign began last month on the al-Jazeera channel, which just happens to be funded by Qatar. And much of the “resistance” to the Assad regime in Syria just happens, of course, to be funded by Qataris. Just as many of the militia’s weapons happen to be paid for by Qatar. It has even been suggested – oh how unkind Middle East conspiracy theorists can be – that Qatar wants to run a post-Assad Syria as an enemy of the Hezbollah and a potential protector of Israel. There is no better friend of America, obviously.
Outside Damascus, you can still see the half-built palace of the Emir of Qatar’s father – from the days when he and the Assad family were friends – and it’s curious that around 18 months ago Qatar was reported to have paid millions for the release of 14 Christian nuns held hostage by al-Nusra in the partly Christian town of Yabroud north of Damascus. On their release, the good and extremely expensive nuns thanked al-Nusra for their good treatment – and later thanked President Bashar Assad for their release as well (which didn’t go down very well with Syrians, whoever’s side they were on).
With the nuns’ release, Bashar’s lads could take over Yabroud from al-Nusra with scarcely a shot fired. There was even some speculation at the time that Qatar might find a role for the Assad family in a “new” Syria – and even rebuild the whole country, turning the miniscule, gold-encrusted statelet of Qatar into the owner of a massive piece of real estate that would stretch from the Jordanian border to Turkey.
Then the present Emir could finish construction of his dad’s palace, dictate the terms of the next Middle East peace, and push Saudi Arabia out of the role of regional Arab kingmaker. This would be an empire on a far bigger scale than al-Jazeera.
And a lot safer bet than the World Cup. But do not laugh, dear reader. That’s how dreams float around the Middle East. And just listen to what the good Mr Golani – who gave his interview to the channel’s interviewer Ahmed Mansour, apparently in northern Syria – had to say about his ambitions in Syria. “Our mission,” he said, “is the downfall of the regime, its symbols and its allies, like Hezbollah.”