Hussein Malla/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Jabhat al-Nusra’s split from al-Qaeda offers the west a unique and crucial opportunity to create a fully inclusive and strengthened transition in Syria while dividing al-Nusra’s supporters.
Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State are the only opposition groups banned from the Syrian peace talks and excluded from the government/rebel cessation of hostilities, while organizations like Ahrar al-Sham, ideological and military allies of Jabhat al-Nusra, are allowed to take part.
This has enabled the Syrian government to continue bombing and attacking rebel-held areas, such as Aleppo, under the pretense of attacking Jabhat al-Nusra. The justification for including Jabhat al-Nusra on the list of terrorist groups and excluding them from the talks stems from their origins within al-Qaeda, and the fear that their resources and experience will be utilized to stage attacks against the west. These attacks, however, have never materialized.
To be clear, Jabhat al-Nusra in its present form cannot exist in a post-war Syria. There will be no Islamic State or authoritarian Islamic regime replacing Assad and there will be no safe-haven for terrorist attacks to be planned against anyone. There are, without a doubt, violent and anti-democratic segments of Jabhat al-Nusra, but there is also a fluidity to the organization’s general ideology.
This is no more evident than when examining the leadership conflicts that plagued Jabhat al-Nusra in the fall of 2014, when in the wake of major territorial losses to ISIS, the largely pragmatic deputy leader Abu Mariya al-Qahtani was replaced by the more radical and al Qaeda aligned Jordanian cleric Dr Sami al-Oraydi.
Furthermore, while in some areas Jabhat al-Nusra enforces strict Sharia law and carried out executions, there are many regions where, according to Charles Lister, the local populace has largely embraced the Salafi group. This may be in part because many ideologies now fight under al-Nusra's flag.
Some moderate rebels have joined the group, as its strength gives them the best chances of survival and launching successful attacks against Assad. Additionally, some foreign fighters have found that, despite holding different ideologies from those of Jabhat al-Nusra, it was the easiest opposition group for them to join.
Charles Lister argues that "the international community must...more forcefully push for a diplomatic settlement [in Syria] so as to prevent the establishment of a longstanding jihadi safe haven.”
By inviting Jabhat al-Nusra to the negotiating table, the organization is forced to debate the future of their movement. How much of a localized Syrian group are they, how much control do foreign fighters and clerics hold over the organization, and how many of its members truly desire an Islamic State at the expense of a peaceful Syria with full political representation?
If Syria is to become a democratic country, Islamists must be allowed to participate. Allowing even conservative Islamists, like the Salafists who support Jabhat al-Nusra, to run in local and national elections gives the Syrian people full agency in choosing their own government.
It is entirely possible that the Tunisian example will occur: the Islamist party wins the national elections, fails to follow through on its promises, and is promptly voted out of office. But the exclusion of one ideology from the infant Syrian electoral process will only entrench and radicalize the Salafists in Syria, just as it has done to the Salafists in Jordan and Egypt, and the Sunnis in Iraq.
Inviting Jabhat al-Nusra to the negotiating table does not mean acquiescing to their every demand. Instead, it allows an alternative to violence for those members who no longer wish to fight or who do not share the leadership’s strict interpretation of Islam. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there are many disillusioned fighters among the Syrian Salafist opposition.
By providing a non-violent path for Jabhat al-Nusra fighters, the west can separate the members who only want to overthrow Assad from those who would use violence to implement their vision of Islamic governance.
The Syrian members of Jabhat al-Nusra may feel that diplomacy is the best route, while the more hardcore foreign fighters will likely choose to continue with violence. By offering the choice of non-violence, the west can hope to split al-Nusra, allow a peaceful way out for those who wish it, isolate the violent jihadi elements of Jabhat al-Nusra, ensure the wholeness of the Syrian political transition, and force the Syrian government to focus its fight on IS.
In this way, the Syrian political transition is strengthened while Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State are simultaneously weakened. Yet this will only work if real, tangible progress is made in the negotiations and a peaceful transition appears feasible. Otherwise, Syrian opposition fighters will see no choice other than to continue fighting.