The reservations expressed in late 2012 by both Moaz al-Khatib, president of the Syrian National Coalition, and George Sabra, president of the Syrian National Council, regarding the US’s designation of Nusra Front as a terrorist organization, provoked vocal resentment among circles sympathetic with and supportive of the Syrian Revolution. Voices critical of Khatib and Sabra’s position talk of Nusra’s transnational character, its essentialist sectarian principles, and the way it embodies the “abandonment of universal values,” as Hazem al-Amin writes. Furthermore, according to Hazem Saghieh, the opposition risks losing any form of American support “so long as one of the beneficiaries of that support is a group intimately tied with Al-Qaeda”. In summary, the reservations of the National Coalition are seen to be lacking in political knowhow, and so Al-Amin asks: “where is the politics in the Coalition’s rejection of Washington’s decisions?”

In Syria, similar grievances with Khatib and Sabra were aired, but with more emphasis on Nusra’s reputation as takfiri, or as a sectarian terrorist group, than on any international political considerations. International politics is a domain in which the Lebanese are more prudent than the Syrians, for reasons to do with the particularities of Lebanon and Syria and their divergent political cultures. 

But I wish to defend the position of the National Coalition based on practical political considerations, which, to me, seem absent from this discussion, as well as from the very position of the Coalition.

Succumbing to the American verdict on Nusra as a terrorist organisation means that the National Coalition – considered to be the internationally recognised umbrella group under which the Syrian opposition operates today – would find itself in an antagonistic position towards the Islamist group whose “jihad” today is still limited to its confrontation with the regime. Consequently, this would reposition the relationship between the Coalition and Nusra from a space of politics to a space of war, and this is precisely what is unbearable for the revolution today for all kinds of reasons. If the coalition was to consider Nusra a terrorist organisation, as the US desires (to this day, it is the only government to put the group on a terrorist organisations list), then this could only result in a confrontational situation. In other words, it creates another problem for the revolution which already has enough on its hands dealing with the regime. In addition, in such case, would other armed resistance groups be expected to boycott Nusra in order to commit to American policy? None will do that, nor should they. 

Accommodating the Americans on this matter would isolate, to an extent, any political party from the armed resistance as a whole, and would, therefore, weaken its political position. 

Yet it is not only such practical political considerations that lead one to question whether it is wise to share the US’s concerns about Nusra, there is something more salient here. Nothing in America’s track record in dealing with Al-Qaeda, throughout its 11-year-old “war on terror”, offers a successful paradigm to be followed. One does not have to look further than Afghanistan, the crucible of American “counterterrorism”. Equally, neither the Pakistani provinces adjacent to Afghanistan, nor Yemen provide models worthy of praise. Perhaps the Americans today are refusing to negotiate with an organisation that has gravely hurt their pride and international prestige. But the great superpower should keep an open mind and start engaging politically with al-Qaeda, especially now that they have settled their old scores upon assassinating Bin Laden. A dialogue with al-Qaeda now would tempt the less extremist currents within the group to yield and may finally spell the end of a protracted and unwinnable war, thereby redeeming this otherwise recalcitrant group and giving it a greater historical role. But since the “the war on terror” needs “terrorism”, involvement in the rehabilitation of the security and emergency apparatuses in the new Syria may just be the pretext needed for the war to sustain itself. With the US as the main protagonist of “the war on terror”, one may ask whether all of this represents an American strategy for poking its nose in every security scenario.   

Generally speaking, we only see one of three possible political frameworks today regarding Nusra Front and its derivatives; 1) the struggle against the regime is fundamental, while the struggle against Nusra is peripheral and political; 2) the struggle against Nusra is as fundamental as that against the regime, which would mean conducting two battles at once; 3) the struggle against Nusra is the fundamental struggle, while the struggle with the regime is only a peripheral and political one.

It seems that the first option is in concert with the revolution and its trajectory today. The second option is illogical as far as the task of overthrowing the regime is concerned, and taking it would be tantamount to being lured towards certain defeat. The third option is simply an abandonment of the task of overthrowing the regime and a declaration of the demise of the revolution. This is the preferred option for the regime and adversaries of the revolution.    

Only these three options exist. Since the last option is rejected, while the second one is illogical, only the first one remains for us today. When the objective conditions change – if the regime falls or if Nusra reverted to clashing with other armed resistance groups – then things would have to be re-evaluated and a new position would need to be taken. 

Here, introspection becomes imperative: on the hypothesis that we agree to engage politically with Nusra, will it agree to engage politically with us? Fusing religion with warfare isn’t simply something that Nusra does; fusing religion and warfare is what Nusra is. There will be perpetual jihad until it can impress and impose its paradigm on us. Nusra’s sectarianism is essentialist, as was mentioned above, and is neither an instrument for governance, as is the case for the Assad regime, nor is it a likely political/diplomatic instrument as the case may be for various other political forces. This is a major problem indeed. 

Yet, this is also where practical considerations (lack of resources and the need to avoid additional conflicts, today as well as after the fall of the regime), intersect with basic political considerations; this is where we have to exhaust politics before arriving at the point of violent confrontation. This is especially crucial for Syria.

Negotiations alone do not constitute politics; they are merely procedural. Our political task then is to assimilate fighters from Nusra into the military or into civil society; to rehabilitate their ideological and political leaders in a way that is inclusive; and to conduct necessary and urgent security procedures that both demonstrate the future Syrian government’s tight grip on armed groups and work on excluding non-Syrian fighters. What is truly unacceptable is accommodating an armed organization that clashes with the public authorities or any sector of society. Aside from that, there would be no problem if Nusra metamorphosed into an unarmed Salafi organization. 

What is best for the Syrian public, advocates and opponents of Nusra, is to put them in the picture regarding the future government’s policies towards treating this issue and in winning over public opinion. 

Even if political means are exhausted in dealing with Nusra to no avail, this will only serve to convince the majority of Syrians of Nusra’s intransigence and its abstention from peaceful conduct. This is crucial because if confronting Nusra, or any other group, becomes unavoidable, then such a confrontation should be effectual, securing decisive advancements in further weakening an already isolated organization deemed by Syrian public opinion to be hostile, extremist and domineering.

Unfortunately, this is easier said than done, and the economic and political, as well as the security situation makes matters more difficult. In fact, it is this very situation that even more strongly warrants averting further conflict with Nusra. Rather than help in regulating Nusra and controlling it, confronting it can potentially exacerbate matters to such an extent that sees the emergence of more jihadist groups in Syria.

In any case, after the fall of the regime Syria is in need of a national reconciliation process on levels both official and popular. But it would be irrational to launch such a process while carrying out a war against a “terrorist organization”; an organization that, for all intents and purposes, only terrorizes the Assad regime and has a support base that does not appear to be insignificant.

In this context, and in discussing political practicalities, it is crucial for the National Coalition to have a politics that transcends merely objecting to the American verdict on Nusra. Equally, the coalition should cease to see Nusra as yet another battalion in the armed resistance; it isn’t. Even Nusra is aware of that. What is required now is for the coalition to establish official channels of communication with Nusra and to demand from it the following: to make clear its vision and objectives; to publicly commit to fighting the regime exclusively until the day it falls; and to give consideration to recognizing the coalition as the framework for national legitimacy in the regime’s place. It is worth noting that Nusra rejected the coalition upon its formation and considered it to be an instrument in the hands of the international forces that support it. This is an indication of costly future conflicts.

Yet, as things stand, the coalition’s position in defense of Nusra, an armed politico-religious organization that has not reciprocated its recognition, is politically incompetent. Now is the time for negotiations with Nusra, not later.

Finally, with respect to the conditions of the revolution today, this analysis confines itself within the space of political considerations and practicalities. Looking at the social and cultural spheres regarding this matter requires different approaches and criteria.   

*Takfir refers to the act of a Muslim individual or group accusing another Muslim individual or group of apostasy.