Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Al-Nusra Front becoming a force to reckon with in Syria

I came across some disturbing news today about the burgeoning influence of the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front in Syria. While the world's attention is focussed on the much more in-your-face campaign of Islamic State for a Muslim caliphate in Syria and Iraq, al-Nusra Front, which has long had its own plans for an Islamic state or emirate, has been quietly expanding its influence in the area.
Al-Nusra Front was once a radical, violent, Islamic group, very much in the traditional mould of al-Qaeda and ISIS. But, according to commentators in the know, in early 2014 it started to morph into something else, something more low-key but perhaps even more worrying. Unlike Islamic State (IS), it does not control large areas of territory, and it is not waging a traditional war. Rather, it is concentrating on embedding and insinuating itself into many of the different rebel groups operating in the region, and gradually indoctrinating the local population and presenting its case. It is carrying out its subversive agenda very effectively, and almost completely below the radar of most western observers.
Estimates are difficult, but the organization may only involve around 5,000-10,000 people, much fewer than IS, partly because it does not need to militarily acquire and hold large swathes of territory, but partly because it is very selective in its membership. Al-Nusra sees its work as winning over the hearts and minds of the local populace, and is doing so by making itself indispensable. For example, it has insinuated itself into the local education and governance system, it has increased its influence over the sharia courts, and it has even established a hold over the all-important bakeries of the region. It is, then, deliberately presenting itself as reasonable and professional, as the potential saviour of a region country with very few good options, and as an alternative to the random violence and deliberate destabilization of IS.
Make no mistake, though, al-Nusra is not there to install democracy and to rescue a desperate, war-torn country from its ongoing crisis. Rather, it is using the war to further its own ends. Al-Nusra Front is still very much a part of al-Qaeda, dedicated to a radical theocracy in the region, and al-Qaeda's leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has recently gone out of his way to hail its efforts. It is playing the long game, and no-one - probably not even al-Nusra itself - knows just how long that might be. They may not yet be ready to make a definitive move, but they are biding their time and gradually building up their strength with every year that the war in Syria drags on.
If al-Nusra succeeds in its plan - whether in 5, 10, 20 or even 50 years - the implications are grim. Over and above the subjugation of a once-proud nation, they will effectively provide a safe haven for al-Qaeda, and a launching point for further destabilization and terrorism in the Middle East and in nearby Europe. It should also be noted that many well-informed commentators see their success as a very real threat, not just some Islamic pipe-dream.

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