Robert Fisk: Al-Nusra is pitching for US backing. But can there be a ‘moderate’ Islamist terror group?

Al-Nusra’s PR campaign began on al-Jazeera, which just happens to be funded by Qatar

It’s an obvious pitch. Just when the Americans are frothing around for something sane to say about their non-existent policy in the Middle East, along comes the al-Nusra Front – al-Qaeda beheaders and sectarian killers – to suggest that they are just the “moderates” Washington wants to fight the Assad regime in Syria. The word comes from the boss himself. Is al-Nusra anxious to attack the West? Think not of it. An enemy of the Christians, Alawites and other minorities in Syria? Perish the thought. Syria’s minorities can come “into the bosom of Islam”. And al-Nusra believes the “Islamic State/Islamic Caliphate/Isis/Isil/Daesh” is “illegitimate”.

We have this on the word of Abu Mohammed al-Golani, the black-cowled boss of the Islamist militia which has been competing with its “illegitimate” Isis chums in the battle against the “infidels” of Syria. No sooner does al-Nusra take Idlib, Jisr al-Shughour and Ariha from the Syrian army than Isis takes Palmyra from the Syrian army. Competition indeed. But al-Golani is clearly our man. The “Caliphate” is “illegitimate” because “scholars” have rejected it. Isis had killed 700 members of al-Nusra. They should “repent and return to the Sunni people” (the phrase suggests that al-Nusra is just as it always was).

The PR campaign began last month on the al-Jazeera channel, which just happens to be funded by Qatar. And much of the “resistance” to the Assad regime in Syria just happens, of course, to be funded by Qataris. Just as many of the militia’s weapons happen to be paid for by Qatar. It has even been suggested – oh how unkind Middle East conspiracy theorists can be – that Qatar wants to run a post-Assad Syria as an enemy of the Hezbollah and a potential protector of Israel. There is no better friend of America, obviously.

Outside Damascus, you can still see the half-built palace of the Emir of Qatar’s father – from the days when he and the Assad family were friends – and it’s curious that around 18 months ago Qatar was reported to have paid millions for the release of 14 Christian nuns held hostage by al-Nusra in the partly Christian town of Yabroud north of Damascus. On their release, the good and extremely expensive nuns thanked al-Nusra for their good treatment – and later thanked President Bashar Assad for their release as well (which didn’t go down very well with Syrians, whoever’s side they were on).

With the nuns’ release, Bashar’s lads could take over Yabroud from al-Nusra with scarcely a shot fired. There was even some speculation at the time that Qatar might find a role for the Assad family in a “new” Syria – and even rebuild the whole country, turning the miniscule, gold-encrusted statelet of Qatar into the owner of a massive piece of real estate that would stretch from the Jordanian border to Turkey.

Then the present Emir could finish construction of his dad’s palace, dictate the terms of the next Middle East peace, and push Saudi Arabia out of the role of regional Arab kingmaker. This would be an empire on a far bigger scale than al-Jazeera.

And a lot safer bet than the World Cup. But do not laugh, dear reader. That’s how dreams float around the Middle East. And just listen to what the good Mr Golani – who gave his interview to the channel’s interviewer Ahmed Mansour, apparently in northern Syria – had to say about his ambitions in Syria. “Our mission,” he said, “is the downfall of the regime, its symbols and its allies, like Hezbollah.”

 

Which is US policy in a nutshell – if that policy exists – and Jolly Golani even added the comforting remark that he had received orders from the central command of al-Qaeda (always supposing such a central institution exists) that he should not attack the West. No worries then about the jihadi boys being sent back to Manchester to blow up England, or to Washington to finally bring down the Capitol. Why, Mr Golani – who wisely kept his face out of the camera – even said that “a small number of Americans” were members of his forces. So no problems with translation when the first CIA arms shipments arrive!

The problem is that the CIA’s weapons have been pouring into Syria – almost all via Turkey – for years; and they’ve ended up, inevitably, in the hands of Isis and al-Nusra and the now virtually non-existent “Free Syria Army” and all manner of lesser creatures, as weapons tend to do when they cross borders and turn into currency the moment the “bad guys” want to buy them from the “good guys”. You can be sure that if Washington doesn’t know much about al-Nusra, its intelligence operatives on the ground are already on first name terms.

It’s all pretty short term, of course. The US supported the Assad regime for years. Hafez was the Lion of Damascus in the old days – the “key to Middle East peace”, I seem to recall – and then Bashar became the bright young technocrat who was going to modernise Syria and make his father’s peace with Israel. George W Bush loved him so much he sent some US renditioned prisoners to Damascus for a spot of serious interrogation by Syria’s torturers.

Then came the Arab revolutions and the US backed the opposition to Assad – it seemed a bright as well as a moral idea to the State Department at the time – and then the Baath Party of Syria decided otherwise and out of the desert floor came the head-choppers and throat-cutters of the jihadis. The sequence is so powerful that you can understand why many Arabs are convinced that Isis – let alone al-Nusra – are creatures of America. Do not ask, for instance, why Isis has done nothing for the Palestinians – or why wounded al-Nusra fighters on Golan have received treatment in Israeli hospitals.

The Middle East’s wars – the real horrific ones with blood and gore, rather than computer graphics and TV coverage with “blobs” over the faces of the dead – will generate forests of books and PhD theses in years to come. Exactly whose side the US thinks it is on in Syria will be the theme of many of them. Meanwhile, we have the killers of al-Nusra fighting the killers of Assad while claiming – in effect – that their throat-slashings are less painful than the Isis variety. At least al-Nusra does not release videotapes of all its executions. Good PR. And the Americans, in some form, are sure to take the bait.