So ol‘ Doc Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s chief executive successor, has told the Syrian Jabhat al-Nusra that it can dissociate itself from Al-Qaeda. Good public relations: Nusra doesn’t like the Isis “caliphate” very much, but as long as it remains a Qaeda clone, it can’t get off America’s terrorist list and qualify to join the (non-existent) 70,000 Syrian “moderates” dreamed up by David Cameron and a lot of American television networks.
Qatar's relations with Nusra raises questions. It denies direct ties with the group, and yet six months ago the Qatari Al-Jazeera channel interviewed Nusra’s leader, Mohamed al-Jolani, who said that it had nothing against Christians, Alawites or Americans – only that pesky president in Damascus who’s got Hezbollah, Iran and Russia on his side.
Have no doubts about the Qatar link. Nusra boys have just released three Spanish journalists held in northern Syria for the past 10 months, after which the Qatari state news agency boasted that the Qatari authorities were involved in freeing them. You bet they were. Had the unlucky three fallen into the hands of those other morbid sons-of-the-desert, Isis (for whom many Saudis seem to have an unhappy affection), then the reporters would have had their throats cut on videotape against a soundtrack of yet more mushy "nasheed" music.
When a group of Christian nuns fell into Nusra hands in Syria in 2013, Qatar helped to bail them out via Lebanon – at a reported price of more than $1m a nun – and was duly thanked by the Lebanese security authorities. If readers are getting a little bit suspicious, perhaps wondering if the Qataris are trying to take over the armed Syrian opposition from Isis and its Saudi Salafist brothers, they may well be right.
But now the flip side of the story. Just a week ago, an essay appeared in Foreign Policy magazine, the bi-weekly co-founded by the late Samuel Huntington (of Clash of Civilisations infamy) and now owned by the Graham Holdings Company (which formerly owned the Washington Post). The author Charles Lister’s thesis, if such it can be called, is that al-Qaeda is trying to take total control of the Nusra and overshadow Isis to become the primary Islamist power in the region.
Nusra, according to Lister, is “rebuilding a military coalition and plans to soon initiate major offensive operations south of Aleppo” in order to spoil US and Russian efforts for a truce in the city. The best way of thwarting Al-Qaeda’s ambitions “is to dramatically scale up assistance to vetted [sic] military and civil components [sic, again] of the mainstream opposition inside Syria,” he writes. All this, of course, because we’ve so far given “insufficient backing” to those “moderate elements of the opposition” who can’t compete with the “battlefield power and capacity to control territory” of Nusra.
So far, so good. Far from breaking free of al-Qaeda, Lister’s version of Nusra suggest that it’s been ever more deeply penetrated by al-Qaeda – or “Al-Qaeda Central”, as he calls it – to the point where Saif al-Adel, “the most influential living al-Qaeda figure other than Zawahiri”, has arrived in Syria. And Adel has done so “almost certainly”, as Lister adds reassuringly, with “three other key al-Qaeda figures”.
These guys are now supposedly discussing the setting up of yet another "emirate” in Syria’s Idlib province. But the recent cessation of hostilities “catalyzed a dramatic re-empowerment of Syria’s moderate protest movement and the revitalisation of the most [sic, yet again] moderate elements of the opposition” which doesn't suit Nusra/Al Qaeda.
An anonymous Free Syrian Army (ie: ‘moderate’) commander is quoted by Lister as confirming that al-Qaeda forces “represent everything we are opposed to, they are the same as the regime. But what can we do when our supposed friends abroad give us nothing to assert ourselves?” What “a broad spectrum of Syria’s opposition” need, therefore, is “a substantial expansion of military, political and financial assistance”.
These Free Syrian Army groups, Lister says, now number 50 – phew! – vetted by the CIA, all of which “operate in coordination with locally legitimate [sic yet once more] civil, political and judicial bodies”.
So who is the writer Charles Lister? Among his various academic duties, he’s a senior consultant for the “Shaikh Group’s Track II Syria Initiative”. The “shaikh” in question is not a Middle East potentate but Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Centre in Qatar and fellow at the Centre for Middle East Policy, formerly the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy (the “Saban” being Haim Saban, the American-Israeli film and television mogul who donated $13m to the centre and has given substantial funds to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign).
Lister, according to his various CVs, was a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre and has helped negotiate a process of “engagement with the leaderships of over 100 Syrian armed opposition groups”. Which is an awful lot of rebels – far more than the 70,000 conjured up by Dave Cameron.
So what’s going on down in Doha? The Brookings Doha Centre belongs to the Brookings Institute and its co-chair is Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber bin Thani al-Thani, a member of the Qatari ruling family and former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. Is the real debate, therefore – far from being thrashed out in Idlib province – really going on down in Qatar, whose present leadership has gone a long way to clean up Nusra’s reputation and to present it as the real moderate “opposition” which deserves all that CIA help?
A final point. Isis has been bloody quiet recently, in every sense of the word. No gory videos, no nasheed songs. Why? Because it’s losing ground to the Syrians and their allies? Because it lost Palmyra?
Or because it’s waiting to find out whether Nusra is going to be the darling of the Syrian opposition – and thus America and Europe – or targeted by all of us as an even more apocalyptic version of Isis?