Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 5, 2015

A closer look at Jabhat al-Nusra

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 9:58 pm

Jabhat al-Nusra fighters

On September 27th I tweeted this in response to someone else’s 140 character revelation that American-trained “moderate” rebels had traded weapons to al-Nusra in exchange for safe passage into Syria: “Good. I hope they use it to blast the Syrian military to hell.”

As some of you may know, I have little use for Twitter except as a place to forward links to my blog. It is simply impossible to express complex ideas in 140 characters. My tweet was nothing much more than a wisecrack but some like Jacobin’s David Mizner interpreted it as me “celebrating the delivery of US arms to Al Qaeda.”

For Mizner, Patrick Higgins, Adam Johnson, Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn and David Bromwich, there is a prima facie basis for lumping all those who fight against Assad as “jihadist”. Since the FSA has collaborated with al-Nusra against the Baathist military, this is proof positive that it is an accessory after the fact. Of course, you will find no acknowledgement in all of their writings that the FSA and al-Nusra have done more to combat ISIS until the more recent period than the Baathists. In a May 2015 al-Monitor article, the conflict between Nusra and ISIS was clearly established:

Several areas of West Qalamoun have been witnessing since two days, a fierce wave of raids conducted by Jabhat al-Nusra against IS strongholds and checkpoints, and clashes erupted between both groups.

As a result of the campaign, dozens of IS members, including leaders and emirs, were arrested. On the first day, about 47 members were detained, according to sources.

For many in the Baathist amen corner, there is an incentive to put Nusra in the foreground since any identification with al-Qaeda is bound to summon up images of 911, bin-Laden, shoe bombers, Sharia law, forced wearing of the hijab, bans on smoking and drinking—in other words all the things that get the vigilant attention of Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, and Christopher Hitchens when he was alive.

Ten years ago political Islam was more acceptable than it is today for obvious reasons. When jihadists were sticking it to the marines in Fallujah, it was a cause for celebration. In 2004 Mike Whitney took the side of the insurgents there without questioning their political or religious beliefs. Apparently reports such as the one that appeared in the November 10, 2004 Washington Post did nothing to persuade Whitney or anybody else in the amen corner to support the marines:

In Fallujah, [foreign fighter] Abu Thar was assigned to a group called Monotheism and Jihad. The group is headed by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian who has asserted responsibility for many of the most extreme terrorist strikes in Iraq, and who last month allied his group with al Qaeda.

Can you imagine Mike Whitney praising anything called Monotheism and Jihad today? Well, maybe if it was based in Seattle and was blowing up Starbucks, he might.

For reasons having to do with my unwillingness to take anything at face value, I never found the presence of al-Nusra in Syria to be a game changer. If the FSA was willing to work with them, more power to them.

But the recent torrent of pro-Assad propaganda prompted by the Russian entry into the war and the bombing of towns that are supposedly under the control of “al-Qaeda” convinced me to take a closer look at al-Nusra. If my taking a closer look at the group condemns me as a jihadist sympathizer, so be it. I have been called worse things over the years.

If you are looking for the typical al-Qaeda type sectarian terrorist attack, wouldn’t it make sense to look for something in the Nexis database with the keywords “Nusra mosque bombing Syria” as I just did? If you don’t have access to Nexis, try Googling it. What you will discover is that the preponderance of articles close to the top reveals this incident:

An explosion in a mosque in northern Syria killed 25 members of al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, including one of its leaders, as they attended Ramadan prayers, a monitoring group said on Friday.

Director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) Rami Abdel Rahman said the death toll could rise as dozens of civilians were also injured in the explosion during Iftar prayers in the city of Ariha.

“Twenty-five members of Al-Nusra Front, including a leader of the jihadist group, died in an explosion inside a mosque in the city of Ariha, in Idlib province,” the Britain-based observatory said.

Of course, if car bombs were going off in front of Alawite or Shi’ite mosques in Syria, you’d expect Robert Fisk to report it. What about beheading? This is the sort of thing, after all, that got Obama and Putin to start raining bombs on Syrian villages, after all. Well, Robert Fisk did report that Nusra beheaded seventy Baathist soldiers back on October 29, 2014. This is the only reference to such an atrocity I could find. However, it is significant that his article does not refer to any media account that puts the blame on Nusra. Perhaps he was embarrassed that the only source of this news was the Daily Mail, a newspaper that editorialized in favor of Mussolini and Hitler in the 1930s and that has lost seven lawsuits since 2001 over bogus reporting.

If the ultimate goal of Jabhat al-Nusra is to create an Islamic state based on Sharia, there’s not much relevance to what it is doing today, which is indistinguishable from all the other militias in Syria—namely to defeat the Syrian army until the Baathist state is overthrown. It is also worth noting that Iran, the supposed arch-enemy of al-Nusra, is also an Islamic state based on Sharia law. I guess some Islamic states are more equal than others.

Since Hassan Hassan’s book on ISIS is so highly regarded, I thought it would be worth it to check out his March 4, 2014 article on Nusra that appeared in The National. Titled “A jihadist blueprint for hearts and minds is gaining traction in Syria”, it describes a group that is anything but fanatical:

The strategies derived from [Islamist theoretician] Abu Musab’s guidelines to win hearts and minds are largely four-fold: provide services to people, avoid being seen as extremists, maintain strong relationships with communities and other fighting groups, and put the focus on fighting the regime.

Throughout Syria, Jabhat Al Nusra is known to be a pragmatic group that does not impose its ideology in liberated areas and can even turn a blind eye to those who have to deal with the regime for daily needs. In one statement, Jabhat Al Nusra’s leader warned his followers: “Beware of being hard on them. Begin with the priorities and fundamentals of Islam, and be flexible on the minor parts of religion.”

Abu Musab heralded the rise of what he called “the third generation of jihadis”, which is exactly what we may be witnessing now. By the first and second generations, he means the jihadists in Afghanistan and Iraq who committed grave mistakes that undermined jihad.

As it turns out, Patrick Cockburn—one of the grand Poobahs of the amen corner—wrote about Nusra in his new book “The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution,” that is about as dodgy as Fisk’s recycling of the Daily Mail.

In Adra on the northern outskirts of Damascus in early 2014, I witnessed [Nusra] forces storm a housing complex by advancing through a drainage pipe which came out behind government lines, where they proceeded to kill Alawites and Christians.

Writing for the Daily Beast, Idrees Ahmed put Cockburn’s reporting under a microscope where it belongs. He wrote:

Cockburn was witnessing a war crime.

But there is a problem. The atrocity may or may not have happened, and it seems unlikely that Cockburn witnessed it.

Before Cockburn published the first edition of his book in August 2014 and promoted himself to the status of witness, he had devoted only two articles to Adra; neither mentions him witnessing a massacre. Indeed, according to the first—published in his January 28, 2014, column for The Independent —Cockburn arrived in Adra after the alleged incident and was told the story about rebels advancing through a drainage pipe and massacring civilians by “a Syrian [regime] soldier, who gave his name as Abu Ali.”

The story about a massacre in Adra, allegedly carried out by Islamist rebels, was briefly reported on before disappearing in a swirl of contradictory claims. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have no record of it. The Russian broadcaster RT covered it, but used fake pictures, which it subsequently had to withdraw.

For the sordid details on Cockburn’s account of Adra, read Idrees Ahmed’s article here.

13 Comments »

  1. An excellent commentary in Al Nusra.

    Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

    From:”Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist” Date:Mon, Oct 5, 2015 at 18:59 Subject:[New post] A closer look at Jabhat al-Nusra

    louisproyect posted: ” Jabhat al-Nusra fighters On September 27th I tweeted this in response someone else’s report that American-trained “moderate” rebels had traded weapons to al-Nusra in exchange for safe passage into Syria: “Good. I hope they use it to blast the Syrian mi”

    Comment by les evenchick — October 5, 2015 @ 10:40 pm

  2. Thank you Louis for pointing out one of the most egregious of the contradictions of the Putin/Assad supporters such as Mike Whitney, et al., namely, their support for Hezbollah, Hamas, Shiite militia’s from Iraq, and the Islamic Republic regime, while at the same time they tell us that al-Nusra people are about the most evil bunch of people on earth because of their religious zealotry.

    Just for a few examples … The Islamic Republic has stoned women to death; has hanged people in groups, in public, for being gay; tortures socialists and student activists or ANYBODY who dares to criticize the regime; tortures of political prisoners include rape (the mullahs literally call it “corrective rape”, and have pronounced it as ‘necessary for restoring faith’); they have even lashed people publicly for singing and dancing to popular songs, such as when a group of youngsters made videos dancing to the song, Happy, by Pharrell: not a revolutionary song calling for the overthrow of the regime, but Happy! A song that merely celebrates being happy. (Maybe, just maybe, much like the Islamic Republic regime, Mike Whitney and gang think being happy is immoral. Who can guess where these people get their ideas from!)

    Now … If all these things are not considered equally as bad as (or possibly worse than) what al-Nusra has done, then these people clearly do not understand the meaning of the word “zealot”. The Putin/Assad supporters are filled with absolute contradictions; they think they can hold two completely opposite positions at the same time and consider that as being perfectly consistent.

    And all of this is not even getting into the fact that the Syrian revolution started as a huge social upheaval that contains the aspirations of many different social groups and sub-classes, and that the impetus for the revolutionary push has always been to have more freedom and more control over their own lives and not be ruled by the brutal Assad family that considers Syria as their own private property, which they can treat (or abuse or simply wipe out) any which way they want.

    Comment by reza — October 5, 2015 @ 11:53 pm

  3. Damned if the Syrian Revolution isn’t the most misunderstood in all human annals, thanks I reckon to a peculiarly malevolent juncture of history, characterized primarily by a complete void in proletarian leadership, as it should be no surprise that the further down on their knees the working class gets — the harder they are kicked.

    I didn’t need a bunch of article reading, Google searching, and book learning to conclude that Nusra fighters probably aren’t the monsters that most media portray them as since the first report I heard of Putin’s airstrikes claimed they struck a neighborhood controlled precisely by Nusra!

    When the Butcher of Grozny, certainly the most under-reported atrocity in the last 1/4 century, perpetrated by a political figure far more repulsive & brutal than Czar Nicholas, fires guided missiles at lightly armed urban guerillas at war with a bankrupt regime that barrel bombs apartment buildings and farmers’ markets, then the facts speak for themselves.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — October 6, 2015 @ 1:55 am

  4. I’d only add for consideration to Proyect’s timely, cogent and well written piece as well as Reza’s thoughtful and accurate reply: what about the fact that Hezbollah, who embraced precisely: “The strategies derived from [Islamist theoretician] Abu Musab’s guidelines to win hearts and minds are largely four-fold: provide services to people, avoid being seen as extremists, maintain strong relationships with communities and other fighting groups…” did the same thing in Lebanon fighting the Marines in 1983 and repulsing the Israelis less than 10 years ago?

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — October 6, 2015 @ 2:13 am

  5. Turns out I’ve answered my own question by the small yet decisive all powerful line I left out of Lou’s quote that reads: “and put the focus on fighting the regime”.

    That’s exactly what Hezbollah has never done: “put the focus on fighting the regime”. For how could they since they were essentially the Stalinists. They were the Viet Cong in the Middle East’s Vietnam. They’re great at fighting off foreign attacks but worthless at focusing on fighting their own corrupt, pathetic, bankrupt regime which is the start & the hallmark of any real progress.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — October 6, 2015 @ 2:51 am

  6. It further turns out that history will probably owe some credit to Musab’s strategy since the simple 4 pronged “…strategies derived from [Islamist theoretician] Abu Musab’s guidelines to win hearts and minds are largely four-fold: provide services to people, avoid being seen as extremists, maintain strong relationships with communities and other fighting groups, and put the focus on fighting the regime” are precisely the keys to every meaningful revolutionary victory, von Clausewittz and Sun Tzu be damned.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — October 6, 2015 @ 3:19 am

  7. “If the ultimate goal of Jabhat al-Nusra is to create an Islamic state based on Sharia, there’s not much relevance to what it is doing today, which is indistinguishable from all the other militias in Syria” – That’t because they are all – except for the Kurds – fighting for a state based on Sharia. This piece is scandalous beyond popular frontism.

    Comment by Hamid Alizadeh — October 6, 2015 @ 1:39 pm

  8. In the interests of transparency, Hamid Alizadeh is a member of Alan Woods’s group. He has written in the past that the sarin gas attack in East Ghouta might have been the result of a “tragic mistake” by the Baathist military. That is what I would call a real scandal.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 6, 2015 @ 1:53 pm

  9. What does that even mean? What he wrote was that Assad had no reason to use gas, because he was – at that time it seemed – winning the war. If that is the only objection you can come up with to Alan Woods’ article on Syria then your arguments are quite weak, aren’t they? I mean secondary school students of Formal Logic would probably not even see that as a real argument. But then again you have no problem twisting Jabhat al-Nusra into some kind of revolutionary group so Logic, neither Formal nor Dialectical, seems to be something you bother too much about.

    Comment by Hamid Alizadeh — October 6, 2015 @ 2:34 pm

  10. What does that even mean? What he wrote was that Assad had no reason to use gas, because he was – at that time it seemed – winning the war.

    What in hell’s name does a “tragic mistake” mean? Don’t you know how asinine that sounds? Your problem is that you live in an ideological bubble and do not realize that this serves the Baathist PR machine. When Saddam Hussein used poison gas against the Kurds, was that a “tragic mistake”? God help us if you can imagine such a thing. Leon Trotsky must be spinning in his grave.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 6, 2015 @ 2:40 pm

  11. “Assad had no reason to use gas, because he was – at that time it seemed – winning the war.”

    Wrong. In the minds of all sentient beings conscious of justice he was always losing the war because he had zero legitimacy, being a son of a bitch fathered by one of the worst, most despicable monsters in the 20th century’s Monster Hall of Fame, and had rampant military defections precisely at that time while getting more brutal by the day

    The only entities that ever said he was winning were Stalinoid PR outlets and misinformed miscreants in the Western Press for while his rampant slaughter certainly cleared the streets he was defacto losing legitimacy day after ruinous day..

    That this smug Richie Rich butcher bastard still promotes misery amongst Syria’s most humble of long suffering toilers goes a long way to proving there’s no certainly no omnipotent & omnibenevolent God administering justice in this pitiless Universe.

    Shame on the apologists of this shameless & disgusting regime.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — October 7, 2015 @ 2:54 am

  12. A much more level headed article. Well done

    Comment by Rick MacAllister — October 13, 2015 @ 6:00 am

  13. […] Now, none of this excuses al-Nusra, a group that is most certainly does not share the goals of the revolutionary movement that emerged in Syria in 2011 but in terms of its overall record in Syria, it is far less savage that the regime as I explained in an earlier post. […]

    Pingback by Andrew Cockburn joins the Baathist amen corner | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — December 29, 2015 @ 7:39 pm


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