The leader of the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, has said that the group’s primary objectives are the capture of Damascus and the deposition of Assad, not attacks against the West. The BBC reports:
[Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-] Julani said al-Nusra had been instructed by the overall leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to avoiding launching attacks abroad that might jeopardise its operations in Syria.
“We are only here to accomplish one mission, to fight the regime and its agents on the ground, including Hezbollah and others,” he stressed, referring to the Lebanese Shia Islamist movement that is fighting alongside government forces.
“Al-Nusra Front doesn’t have any plans or directives to target the West. We received clear orders not to use Syria as a launching pad to attack the US or Europe in order to not sabotage the true mission against the regime. Maybe al-Qaeda does that, but not here in Syria.”
He also denied the existence of the Khorasan Group, a branch or cell of the Nusra Front which U.S. strikes have also targeted in Syria. Only last week, a CIA official warned of the dangers of this little-known group, saying that it had Western targets in its sights.
This interview may well be only “self-serving propaganda”, as U.S. officials commented; it is certainly at least partly that. But it also seems to show a greater strategic sophistication. Recently backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, having piled up a string of victories, and facing a weakened enemy, Nusra has good grounds for believing the end of the war is in sight. It seems to be plotting how to win the peace, as well. Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Nusra was conspicuously treating captured territory more gently than ISIS, and in the al-Jazeera interview, Julani “also promised to protect Syrian minorities that disavowed Mr Assad.” Both of these measures are designed to conciliate the Syrian population. Combined with the vow not to attack the West, they also seem designed to placate Western fears. Nusra, in sum, seems to be making a bid to be seen as an acceptable post-war government (or as part of one) by both its subjects and the international community.
If so, this will put the U.S. in a bind. The U.S. does not want al Qaeda involved in a government in the heart of the Middle East, to put it mildly. On the other hand, there has long been a segment of U.S. foreign policy opinion that has favored working with lesser enemies, no matter how repellent, against greater ones as the quickest way to achieve results for the least U.S. blood and treasure (and, often, with the added bonus of both enemies being bruised in the fighting).
But whether the U.S. wants such a thing to come to pass or not may be irrelevant; we may have already forfeited our chance to choose. The Saudis and the Turks have made their move, and unless we are willing to seriously increase our involvement in Syria (backing whom—Assad? ISIS?), Nusra seems to be the front runner to take the greater part of the joint. Soon, therefore, we may find ourselves in a world where, fourteen years after 9-11, al Qaeda has moved from the mountains of Afghanistan to the palaces of Damascus. This would be a strategic failure on a monumental scale. The wages of ‘leading from behind’ continue to grow.