With al Qaeda now seen by the U.S. as likely the only group in Syria “militarily capable of challenging the Assad regime’s grip on power, the U.S. is in the uncomfortable position of having to rehabilitate 9/11 and current terrorists into supportable “moderates.”
by Whitney Webb
Last week, Foreign Affairs, self-described as the “leading magazine for analysis and debate of foreign policy,” published an article titled “The Moderate Face of Al Qaeda.” The piece takes note of the fact that al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, long known as Jabhat al-Nusra or al-Nusra Front, changed its names numerous times in order to present itself as “moderate” in comparison to other terror groups operating in Syria, particularly Daesh (so called Islamic State).
Most counter-terrorism and foreign policy analysts noted at the time that al Qaeda-affiliated rebels’ attempts at rebranding were intended to improve its chances of receiving funds from foreign governments and to protect itself from Syrian, Russian airstrikes by becoming part of the “moderate” opposition. Indeed, al Qaeda’s name changes led the group — allegedly responsible for the 9/11 attacks and the ostensible justification for the U.S.’ War on Terror — to be dropped from the U.S. and Canada’s terror watch list.
However, Colin P. Clarke, the author of the Foreign Affairs article, takes a different approach, arguing that the rebranding “just might have worked” to redefine the once-reviled terror group “as a legitimate, capable, and independent force in the ongoing Syrian civil war” that is “dedicated to helping Syrians prevail in their struggle.” He further argues that this “could spell a situation, at least in the long-term, in which al Qaeda begins to resemble the Lebanese group Hezbollah,” a legitimate political party with a long history of fighting actual terror groups like al Qaeda and Daesh.
Clarke goes on to praise al Qaeda’s “penchant for cooperation” and notes that “the group has even publicly announced that it will refrain from attacking the West” in order to focus “its finite resources on overthrowing the Assad regime” — which, according to Clarke, is the “top priority of Syria’s Sunnis.”
Though Clarke’s words paint a picture of a “moderate” al Qaeda franchise, the evidence from Syria makes it clear that the group is still as extreme and abhorrent as ever. The war crimes of al Qaeda-affiliated rebels in Syria are numerous and well-documented. They have massacred civilian communities, specifically targeting religious minorities such as the Druze and Shia Muslims. Those who were permitted to live under al Qaeda rule were subject to stonings, amputations, floggings and worse for violating legal codes adopted by the group. A recent massacre of civilians, conducted by al Nusra and other al Qaeda affiliates in Syria, targeted evacuation buses of Shia civilians, killing over 200 innocents. The dead included 116 children who were lured towards a bomb with the promise of food by terrorists affiliated with al Nusra.