Gian Marco Liuni
Last updated: 22 January, 2013

“After all, do Syrians really want an Islamic state?”

The popularity of the Salafi-Jihadi organisation Jabhat Al-Nusra is soaring. As soon as the group was branded a “terrorist organisation” by Washington in December, thousands protested in Idlib, Aleppo and Damascus, exalting Al-Nusra’s bravery and heroic gestures to liberate the country from Assad. Such grassroots support is most appalling to the West, since the group wants to establish an Islamic Caliphate in Syria and resorts to Al-Qaeda-like tactics to violently implement it.

The puzzle is therefore how Al-Nusra is gaining such resonance, admiration, and even popular legitimacy. Do the Syrians want an Islamic State? The truth is that in assuming so, we would overestimate the link between the Syrians’ short-term need to find an efficient liberator and the willingness to follow such radical agenda at times of peace. Jabhat al-Nusra is building its popularity on the ability to address the civilians’ primary needs while carrying out the most effective military operations against the regime. But this does not mean their ideological aim matches the kind of Syria most citizens wish to see out of this bloody conflict. The popularity of the hardcore narrative is just temporary. There are many points to understand how Al-Nusra’s jihadism appeals to moderate Islamic thought, allegedly the mainstream political ideology among Syrian Sunnis.

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First of all, Jabhat Al-Nusra is one of the few forces to be almost entirely made up of Syrians, with the exception of its strand in Damascus. The group concentrates on independence and quality, rather than quantity: it numbers barely 6,000 units with no need to resort to foreign ‘labour’, unlike moderate Suqour Al-Sham and Al-Tawid Brigade who aim to gather wide coalitions of 40,000 fighters. This enhances peoples’ perception that Al-Nusra does not follow any foreign agenda and do fight solely for the Syrians. The sense of autonomy is important as Syrians have abandoned hopes that there will be a foreign intervention in their favour.

Secondly, Al-Nusra’s popularity has to do with both its military efficiency and the communitarian aspect of its ‘protocol’. Especially in the more industrial areas of Aleppo the population is growing frustrated with the shortages of water, bread, and the disruption of local businesses. There is a lack of trust towards the FSA, who run liberated areas on a mafia-like style, with fighters lacking of discipline and abusing the population.

With Jabhat Al-Nusra things are surprisingly different. Militarily, they avoid killing of civilians. As documented in many videos they tend not to ‘chase’ Assad’s forces as these are pushed out of an area: as soon as the army retreats, they suspend operations so not to destroy houses, markets and local businesses further, having understood that in doing so they would then be responsible for feeding the involved population. Besides, Al-Nusra has humanitarian issues ‘experts’ who address water shortages and food. In a few villages bordering Turkey in the North, Shari’a is used to punish those bakers who increase bread prices, a practice that would harm the community as a whole. Most importantly, these community-oriented fighters follow a self-imposed ‘code of conduct’ which does not tolerate any abuses on the population or any looting. In brief, its success lies in its ability to efficiently take over the administration as areas are liberated from Assad’s rule.

Finally, there are economic considerations. Many fighters from ideologically affine groups, such as Ahrar Al-Sham, tend to switch to Al-Nusra for the simple reason that it is better equipped militarily, and assures protection and financial support to the whole family of those who join in. Ideology is not the priority: most fighters come from a rural background who wave the flag of moderate Islamism and Jihadi-Salafism with little distinction on the content. The same fighters have a loose interpretation and knowledge of these concepts, and fight for a general idea of ‘Muslims’ rights’. Hardcore jihadi believers form the leadership, but this conviction is disconnected from the ‘labourers’: fighters on the ground usually do not even know their superiors outside of the cell they belong to.

In the end, does the popularity of jihadists mean the Syrians want an Islamic Caliphate? There is no relevant evidence answering positively to this question. Such radical ideology will not manage to spread beyond its North-West stronghold. Besides the above mentioned factors, there are historical reasons for that.

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Driven by the fragmentation of the Syrian society, the Muslim Brotherhood split abruptly in 1972 over ideological divisions; the Aleppo-Hama wing could not tolerate any dialogue with the Ba’athist secular regime, while the Damascus fringe was ‘open’ to such an approach. Beyond ideology, the many land reforms the Ba’athists inaugurated resulted in massive expropriation of land which completely alienated the vast Aleppine landownership. These factors, among many others, have radicalised the North-West, considered more socially and economically conservative than the rest of the country.

Interviewed after the success of the operation to take the Taftanaz airport and its surroundings, the Al-Nusra commander told Al Jazeera that “these lands should be given back to the peasants and farmers who Assad originally stole from, and not the FSA”, signalling that right-wing populism can easily swipe away support from the moderates here. Nevertheless, urban-rural and North-South divides will force Al-Nusra to face its limits as the war endures.

In conclusion, the support for Jabhat Al-Nusra uncovers a deep social fault-line dividing Syrians. Higher and upper classes have come to see the uprising as a rural-driven effort with little advantages for them. Military steadfastness, humanitarian assistance and stable channels of supply have become more important than the ideology, ultimately favouring jihadists who do not have to wait for any outside orders or money for bringing home results.

At the same time, this does not necessarily mean that Syrians wish to implement a Western-style democracy; rather there is a whole ideological spectrum between Egypt’s democratically elected Islamism and the Salafi conception that men have no right to govern themselves. As long as the international community fails to draw a clear picture of who is fighting for what in Syria, all of its in-actions are shaping the tolerance and the perception Syrians will have of liberal-democracy in the future. A courtesy to Jabhat Al-Nusra.

BY THE SAME AUTHOR – Gian Marco Liuni: The new coalition for Syria – time to trust?