As I sat before a sumptuous Syrian breakfast in eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, one morning in March 2013, one of my hosts saw me smiling.
The man, a member of the Nusra Front – the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria, on which I was preparing a report for Al Jazeera Arabic – laid the food on the floor and asked me: “Is there something you want to say?”
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I replied in the affirmative, with an even broader smile.
“We used to cover al-Qaeda of Osama bin Laden, and their hosts, Mullah Omar’s Taliban in Afghanistan. They would never go beyond offering simple tea and bread for breakfast. Things now seem entirely different,” I replied, gesturing towards the dozen dishes placed in front of me.
With humility, my host insisted that I should start my breakfast.
I think of this little anecdote to illustrate the change that has undertaken al-Qaeda in Syria. In this ancient melting pot of religions and civilisations, it is the kitchen which is key to comprehending sociology.
No trademark turban
Then came Abu Mohammad al-Jolani’s rare and exclusive interview with Al Jazeera Arabic. Seeing the Nusra leader – whose face was not shown on camera – the first thing that struck me was his traditional Syrian dress. He did not wear al-Qaeda’s trademark turban.
Jolani defied al-Qaeda’s legacy of going after minorities, telling the Alawite community – the backbone of dictator Bashar al-Assad’s support – they would be welcome in a Syria after Assad.
“If any of you abandons the regime and repents his actions against the Syrian people, he will be forgiven and have the right to live as a Syrian citizen,” he said. He said there was no risk for the Druze community, as its villages in Idlib controlled by the Jaish al-Fatah faction will remain safe. Even Walid Jumblatt, Lebanon’s Druze leader, praised Nusra’s approach. Jumblatt went on to advise the Druze of Syria to stand against the Assad regime – though their strongholds in southern Syria are still under regime control.
According to some recent leaks, Nusra leaders have reportedly held meetings … in which it was decided to leave the al-Qaeda umbrella and operate exclusively as a Syrian party aiming to establish an Islamic state.
Jolani did not miss the opportunity to directly address the West.
“Our battle is with the Assad regime, and we have nothing to do with the US – although it bombed us so many times,” he said. Echoing the sentiments of many ordinary Syrians, he criticised the US for appearing to side with Bashar al-Assad in the Washington-led alliance’s fight against ISIL – itself a one-time offshoot of al-Qaeda.
Keeping relations warm
Unexpectedly, he did not abandon al-Qaeda or withdraw his allegiance from its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri – who, like the British monarch, has symbolic resonance without much in the way of practical authority.
According to some recent leaks, Nusra leaders have reportedly held meetings – stretching on for many hours – in which it was decided to leave the al-Qaeda umbrella and operate exclusively as a Syrian party aiming to establish an Islamic state.
Such a move, whenever made, would not only satisfy Nusra’s followers, but also pull the carpet from under the feet of ISIL. It emerged from the interview that Jolani has yet to endorse any such move.
This generation of al-Qaeda appears entirely different from the previous incarnation of the nebulous network under the leadership of bin Laden. Zawahiri lacks bin Laden’s charisma, which has hit al-Qaeda’s perceived relevance and recruitment. Egyptians, for example, are joining ISIL-affiliated groups on the Sinai Peninsula instead.
The civic state sought by liberal and secular forces is extremely difficult to help establish.
First, it is the Islamist forces that exercise real power on the ground, while the West yields zero impact. Second, the Syrian people have become more aggressive and militant in reaction to the unabated killing and destruction that has plagued their country for years – and neither the international community nor the liberal and secular forces have come to their rescue. The Islamists, however, stood their ground, fought against the regime and sacrificed themselves over the past four years.
The US and the West can react to Nusra as they deem suitable. Washington used to depict the PLO as a terrorist outfit – but then took a U-turn.
The Taliban in Afghanistan were once the main target of the US military, but is not currently designated a “terrorist organisation” by either the UN, UK or US. The White House does not even brand Hezbollah or Iranian Quds Force’s Qassem Soleimani “terrorists”.
Short-sighted or pragmatic?
Some see Washington’s policy as short-sighted and stupid – but others like to call it pragmatic. The verdict on Nusra is not out yet.
Intelligence reports and experts’ assessments agree that the Assad regime is gasping for air as the noose tightens. The international community must respond to the realities on the ground.
By now, the time for forgiveness for the Assads or Hezbollah has surely passed. They can continue to swear allegiance to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, if this offers some lease of life. In Ramadi and Anbar, the US-supported Shia groups fighting ISIL shout sectarian slogans “Ya Hussain!” and “Ya Khamenei!” as they battle through Sunni heartlands.
The Obama administration may be at ease with the idea of armed groups alien to the Iraqi population fighting on behalf of Baghdad – but continues to have a problem with Syrian fighters – such as those who make up Nusra’s ranks – fighting in Syria. This dichotomy will not serve the West’s interests.
No doubt the recent changes – both military and political – in Syria, show that the tide is turning against the regime. The challenge now is how to accommodate everyone in tolerance and to build bridges to unite the shattered country.
If Syria fails this challenge, the country is heading for an even deeper round of destruction and despair – one that will draw in its regional neighbours and beyond in a downward spiral of division and violence.
Ahmad Zaidan is Al Jazeera’s Islamabad bureau chief. He is a Syrian journalist who has covered the war in Syria since 2011.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.