Robert Fisk — The Independent July 29, 2016
Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani is at it again. Qatar’s ruler has been trying to get Jabhat al-Nusra off America’s infamous “terrorist” list once more – and calculating that the institutional memory of the world’s media is that of a street dog. He’s right.
Last year, Tamim’s Al Jazeera satellite channel produced a tiresome two-part interview with Mohamed al-Julani, Nusra’s CEO, in which the poor man boasted that he had absolutely nothing against Christians, Alawites or Americans. Nusra just wanted to get rid of that pesky Assad chappy in Damascus, he told the world, along with Assad’s Russki friends. Syrian Christians to Lebanon and Syrian Alawites to the grave? Nonsense. That was the claptrap peddled by the rotten, horrid Isis of which the Saudis were so enamoured.
Then in May this year, ol’ Doc Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s luckless successor, told Mohamed al-Julani that he could dissociate himself from the original al-Qaeda. Bingo. The split cometh. America’s enemies were breaking apart. Nusra would be the new “moderates”, worthy of America’s backing, certainly of Britain’s – whose then-Prime Minister, David Cameron, had invented 70,000 “moderate” Syrian rebels for the world to support against Assad.
And now, wearingly, we are being served up the same old cocktail again. Claiming that he is giving his first ever recorded message – a palpable nonsense since al-Julani had bored us all last year with the same stuff – the BBC told its audience that “Syria Nusra Front announces split with al-Qaeda”. And yet again, we were treated to al-Julani distancing himself from al-Qaeda and telling us that Nusra is now changing its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Front for the Liberation of the Levant).
Al-Julani did – though this was missed by the “experts” in the networks – make passing reference to Bin Laden, giving the murdered al-Qaeda leader’s blessing to the split because he had once said that the interests of the Muslim homeland “take precedence over any state”. So the break with al-Qaeda was mutual and all in the interests of the suffering Syrian people, and so on, and so on. Washington dismissed the story as a “rebranding” exercise – without giving the slightest indication that the whole tale was a reboot. The Algerians have a good saying for this: boiling old stones in the saucepan.
So let’s take a look into the saucepan. It’s all about the growing military power of Nusra – or “Fateh” or “Sham” or whatever nonsensical nomenclature we are now supposed to dream up for this twaddle – and the fact that it’s now far superior in fighting tactics, personnel and guns to the supposedly apocalyptic Isis. The latter may be able to massacre French and Syrian and Belgian and Iraqi citizens to their hearts’ content, but on the ground – in Syria, where it matters – they are turning into a pretty feeble bunch. Ask the ruthless soldiers of Assad’s army and they’ll tell you that Nusra is becoming far more important than Isis.
Even more to the point, however, is Sheikh Tamim, whose new rule in Qatar – analysed in an earlier piece by me this week – embraces a soft version of Nusra. His father, the former Emir Sheikh Hamad, poured weapons and cash and resources into Nusra. This got him into very hot water with the Saudis (who have a horrible liking for Isis), the other Gulf states, America, the EU, Nato and just about every entity in the world that thinks it is fighting a “war on terror”.
So when the new Emir Sheikh Tamim took over from his dad with the help of his mother Sheikha Moza – again, see my recent take on the whole Qatar phenomenon – he produced a new policy. While giving medicines and “soft” aid to Nusra, they’d be sending no more arms shipments to these folk. As detectives used to say in the 1950s, a likely story. But Tamim stuck to it, and his Al Jazeera channel clanked out the long interviews with the Christian-loving, America-adoring al-Julani last year – and then gave the same al-Julani more airtime this week to claim that he was no longer associated with al-Qaeda.
It’s not so much a series as a serial: “Cleaning Up Al-Nusra” should be the title. Turn it into a respectable army of “moderates”, give it a spanking new name, and then the Americans and Russians will stop bombing the daylights out of it and Qatar’s loyal militia will destroy the Assad regime and … well, if that happened, Qatar would control the future of Syria, a territorial empire far more influential than the increasingly decrepit Al Jazeera.
Tamim’s father Hamad was much more forthright about these matters. He had no qualms about supporting Nusra, guns and all. The Qatari emirate is, after all, a Sunni Wahabi institution and the then Emir Sheikh Hamad had the help of his prime minister, Sheikh Hamad (yes, alas, the same first name but indeed a distant relative) bin Jassem. Once Tamim took over in what Lebanese economist Marwan Iskandar calls a “white coup”, Hamad bin Jassem lost his job.
But as Tamim then tried to wash Nusra of its sins and al-Qaeda supposedly cleared the way for a split, Foreign Policy magazine (owner: Graham Holdings Company, The Washington Post) carried a tendentious story about how al-Qaeda was trying to integrate itself into Nusra and overshadow Isis by becoming part of the “mainstream opposition”. According to the author of the Foreign Policy article, Charles Lister, al-Qaeda was thus trying to take control of Nusra – and the best way of thwarting al-Qaeda’s ambitions would be “to dramatically scale up assistance to vetted [sic] military and civil components of the mainstream opposition inside Syria”. These “components”, Lister made clear, were “moderates” – the same old gofers, presumably, who used to be the Free Syria Army and are now called the Syria Democratic Front or the New Syria Army or whatever mythical warriors remain from David Cameron’s 70,000-strong legion.
In other words, Lister was trashing the whole idea of the Nusra “split” with al-Qaeda. In fact, he told readers that four top al-Qaeda leaders had recently arrived in Syria to set up yet another “emirate” in Idlib province. The Syrian opposition – the nice, “moderate” pro-American opposition, that is – needed a “substantial expansion of military, political and financial assistance”, according to a Free Syrian Amy “commander” quoted approvingly by Lister. So much for Tamim’s efforts to clean up Nusra.
But hold on a moment. Among Lister’s academic jobs, he’s a “senior consultant” in the “Sheikh Group’s Track II Syria Initiative”. The Sheikh in question is Salman Sheikh, director of the Brookings Doha Centre in Qatar and fellow at the centre for Middle East Policy. And the Brookings Doha Centre belongs to the Brookings Institute and its co-chair is – you guessed it – none other than Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem, the former prime minister of Qatar’s ex-ruler Sheikh Hamad whose son – the new Emir Sheikh Tamim – is now trying to present Nusra as a shiny brushed-up guerrilla army fit for acceptance by the rest of the world as a real opposition to Assad.
Tamim’s father’s former prime minister now seems to be of the opposite point of view. In other words, there’s a bit of a tussle going on in Qatar. Dare one call it a power struggle? For it’s down in Doha, not in the plains of Syria’s Idlib province, that the future of Syria is being decided. As for the Front for the Liberation of the Levant, I suppose it will have to be called the FLL or referred to by its Arab acronym of JFS. But please, no more Nusra “splits”.