The Comedic Play Starring the Trio: Jeffrey, Malley, and Jolani
The statements exchanged between Russia and Turkey regarding Idlib occupy the greater part of the current political-media scene relating to Syria. This includes a sweeping flood of “analyses” that hopes for the end of the Astana and Sochi tracks, and even the crumbling of what has now become known to everyone as a strategic alliance between Russia and Turkey.
Since the issue referred to occupies the majority of the scene, very important clips related to the developments of the US position from Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Nusra Front or al-Nusra) are “inadvertently” omitted and not given sufficient analysis, even though these “clips” – as we claim – constitute the heart and essence of the scene.
In this context, on February 20, an interview, which the International Crisis Group (ICG) headed by Robert Malley had conducted with al-Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, surfaced.
Malley had worked as a special assistant and advisor to Obama in the “fight against ISIS” campaign, and held many positions within successive US administrations, including as a special assistant to President Clinton on the Arab-“Israeli” conflict. That is, dealing with him as head of an “independent” research center and “not representative of the US establishment” – as he introduces himself – can only happen if under the influence of a large amount of some substance or as a result of some sort of an inexcusable naivety.
Jolani to Jeffrey: at Your Service, Lord!
The good news is that current US officials, and not only the “retired” ones, are beginning to offer a great service to anyone interested in researching and exploring the real US objectives and policies, not the media and diplomatic ones. This task required, among other things, a careful follow-up and study of the reports published by “independent” US research centers. Now, US officials openly, or somewhat openly, declare their policies. The most important example of the aforementioned, and one related to the subject herein, is Jeffrey’s famous statement on January 30, which is approximately the same date on which the interview referred to herein with al-Jolani took place. In his statement, Jeffrey said: “We [the United States] recognize that there are terrorists in Idlib. There’s also a very large group, the al-Nusra or Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group, HTS, that is an al-Qaida offshoot. It is considered a terrorist organization, but it is primarily focused on fighting the Assad regime. It itself claims – we haven’t accepted that claim yet, but they do claim to be patriotic opposition fighters, not terrorists. We have not seen them generate, for example, international threats for some time.”
We emphasized portions of the statement to highlight them, which would help us in handling the interview with al-Jolani, who seems to be, along with Robert Malley, using Jeffrey’s statement as a guide for them during the interview; a guide that is a “check list” they should be implementing step-by-step.
Before focusing on the meeting with al-Jolani, there remains pointing out that talk about declassifying as a terrorist organization al-Nusra, which declared its allegiance to al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda in April 2013, is not new. This is something that has been repeated and accompanied the changes in al-Nusra, starting with changing its name from Jabhat al-Nusra to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and later announcement of a new formation under the name Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). With every shift it made, opinions and analyses emerged saying that al-Nusra could somehow turn into a non-terrorist faction.
Al-Nusra’s last transformation was in January 2017 – the announcement of the formation of HTS – that is, more than three years ago. The press and political circles addressed this transformation for a short period, then the issue completely disappeared in what seemed like a clear consensus that the organization is still a terrorist one and the change is nothing more than changing the name.
Although the al-Nusra has not provided any new signals during the past three years, not even deceptive or superficial like changing the name; nevertheless, talk of Syrianizing al-Nusra has returned to the forefront in conjunction with the military strikes targeting it, and in conjunction with the clear realization of the fact that implementation of the Sochi Agreement is underway quickly and irreversibly.
In this context, it is possible to go back, for example, to an analysis published by the British “independent” Chatham House in May of last year under the title “Reviewing the Turkish-HTS Relationship”.
“Milestones” to the Heart of Washington
Based on the roadmap, which Jeffrey outlined in his aforementioned statement, the four-hour theatrical interview with al-Jolani took place.
In the introduction, the research center bombards its readers with a bipolar dilemma that has no solution except by removing the terrorist label off al-Nusra. The center explains the two available options from its point of view, describing them as the only realistic options, one of which must be inevitably chosen: either end al-Nusra through a military operation, which is something that will result in an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe; or search for a formula to reach an understanding with it.
The entire meeting, just like Jeffrey’s statement, are two different tools to certify that the only option is to come to terms with al-Nusra and lift the terrorist label off it. In order for this option to be marketed, it is necessary to have as many convincing assurances and promises as possible offered by al-Jolani and adopted by the US, or drawn by the US and with which al-Jolani complies – in fact, there is no serious difference between the two aforementioned options.
In this context, the meeting with al-Jolani should start with a justification for his declaration of loyalty to al-Qaeda in 2013, where al-Jolani expresses that he had no other option in confronting ISIS, which wanted to seize and finish off his organization to absorb it. An argument of this kind belongs to a well-known class: between the bad and the worst, where you always have to put the spotlight on the worst, then the bad will become good.
The next step is to stress the existence of an ideological difference between al-Qaeda and al-Nusra. Since it will not be convincing in any way to say that al-Nusra is a non-religious faction or that it is a secular faction, for example, you must search within religious formulas for those that can be internationally dealt with as moderate. Here, al-Jolani uses a precise expression when he says: “HTS’s ideology today… is based on ‘Islamic jurisprudence, just like any other local Sunni group in Syria’.”
It is well known among specialists that Salafi jihadism is not convinced by saying Islamic jurisprudence as a source of legislation, not even as the only source of legislation (that is without other sources). In contrast, Salafi jihadism uses Islamic Sharia as a single source of legislation. According to Islamic jurists, there is significant difference between Islamic jurisprudence and Sharia; jurisprudence focuses on general approaches, ethics, and intentions, while the Sharia has specific regulations that completely block any civil character of the state. To better clarify, and as a matter of amusing irony, based on his words, al-Jolani will not only be moderate, but can also be expected to abide by the 2012 Syrian constitution, article 3 of which states: “Islamic jurisprudence is a main source of legislation.”
However, even if we accept the amusing hypothesis that puts the work of al-Jolani “in accordance with the Syrian constitution,” there would still be some problems that must be solved. There is the problem of foreign fighters within al-Nusra, whose nationalities span the world, and who constitute a significant portion, at least in terms of quality, within Al-Nusra.
Robert Malley’s center volunteers to also solve this problem by including within the interview a report, which the interviewer describes as facts that are beyond doubt. In this narrative, the interviewer says: “In the course of his leadership, and over time, Jolani sidelined or expelled most hardline and non-Syrian voices in HTS who opposed it apparent ideological transformation, thus rendering it more Syrian and less transnational jihadist in orientation.”
More Foreign Fighters
If we continue within the comedy in which James, Robert, and Abu Muhammad are acting, and we repeat along with them that the problem of foreign fighters within al-Nusra has been solved or that it is on the way to being solved by the triumphant leader al-Jolani, we will still have the problem of two other major organizations. One of these organizations is mostly made up of foreigners, and that is Hurras al-Din (the Guardians of Religion); the other consists entirely of foreigners, specifically Uighurs, that is the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP).
At this point, Robert jumps to the stage to throw in an intentional interceptor when describing Hurras al-Din by saying: “it is the official branch of al-Qaeda in Syria”, which implies that al-Nusra is not an official branch thereof, and perhaps not a branch at all. Sometimes, the director needs to emphasize some quotes within his play for more persuasion.
Returning to the two organizations and their problem, al-Jolani himself, who was the problem at the outset of the interview, will now turn into the savior hero; and he himself, and no one else, will be able to control the two organizations and subjugate them to “Syrian” goals.
Regarding this, al-Jolani says: “We have contained Hurras al-Din.” Regarding the Turkistan organization, he says: “They are committed solely to defending Idlib against regime aggression. As Uighurs, they face persecution in China – which we strongly condemn – and they have nowhere else to go. Of course, I sympathize with them. But their struggle in China is not ours, so we tell them that they are welcome here as long as they abide by our rules – which they do.”
Humanitarian Organizations, Washington, and Neighboring Countries
As part of the polishing and Syrianizing process, there remains only some grime that needs to be cleaned; this includes pledges to facilitate the affairs of civil society organizations and not to attack any of their members, as well as not to interfere in civil affairs. Most importantly, pledging not to attack any of the “neighboring” countries, and of course the list-topper thereof is “Israel.”
It is no coincidence that earlier this month (February 10), Foreign Policy magazine published an article on Idlib by an “Israeli” writer, Elizabeth Tsurkov. The article included a statement that Tsurkov obtained from Taqi al-Din Omar, HTS’s director of media relations. Tsurkov herself revealed in a tweet on her official account on Twitter that Omar agreed to give her the statement despite knowing that she holds Israeli citizenship – in this context, we cannot forget the “Israeli” admissions of treating in its hospitals up to 1,400 wounded al-Nusra fighters and sending them to fight again in southern Syria.
Furthermore, there is no harm in al-Jolani lovingly criticizing the US because it “mistakenly attempted to create or back groups that had no presence or support in Syria.” One can complete the sentence: al-Jolani has a substantial group on the ground and he, rather than anyone else, deserves Washington’s support. Of course, first, a confession must be made to Rabbi Robert Malley that al-Jolani made a mistake with regard to the US and other things, but the circumstances were difficult – conditions of war.
The Makeup Segment
The last segment, which is necessary after a hot bath, is some cosmetic powders on al-Jolani’s face, so that he appears in the last scene a complete “patriotic opposition”, just like the director wants him to be. The makeup is represented by some promises that al-Jolani is open to dealing with the opposition in all its forms; further even, open and humble: “We need to talk to the opposition. We are under no illusions that we can govern Idlib on our own.”
The Final Scene
As in all plays, the plot should escalate continually to the climax; there, the solution occurs.
Rabbi Malley’s center asks al-Jolani about the reality of his demands for regime change. Al-Jolani responds: “If you ask me to be realistic and to accept that there is no international will to effect regime change, the world should also be realistic and accept that over half of Syria’s population, some 12 million people, chose not to live under the regime control.”
I do not know whether it is appropriate for applause to roar after this conclusion, which would come with the gradual dimming of the lighting on the scene of al-Jolani standing in Brecht’s golden square (at the front left side of the stage), and then the curtain closes. What I do know for sure is that there is something yet to be said before the curtain closes: this finale should not remain open-ended, it should be clear and comprehensible, even if the director does not want us to fully understand it; the audience also has the right to think on its own and explain what it sees.
Before the Curtain Closes
Joking aside, we recall here what Jeffrey said on 14 November 2018, that is, more than a year ago: “We also think that you cannot have an enduring defeat of ISIS until you have fundamental change in the Syrian regime.” We compare this to what he is saying these days: “We’re not asking for regime change, but for the regime to change its behavior.” To complete the picture, we add to this comparison the confession room of Rabbi Malley – who is meanwhile hosting al-Jolani – which reached the same result: the issue is not in regime change, but that half of the population does not want to live under regime control. Does the equation seem difficult to explain?
The interpretation can be summed up with one word: partition. The Syria we know will be at least three parts: one under the control of the regime, one in the northeast under US supervision, and a third under the jurisdiction of the newly triumphant leader of Dante’s purgatory: Abu Muhammad al-Jolani.
Can partition become a reality? No, this is impossible in light of the existing international balance, and in light of regional rejection (except the Zionist one and some of its cohorts). So?
The issue is clearly as follows: al-Nusra should be preserved; a special status should be preserved for the northeast and it should be prevented from rapprochement with Damascus under any circumstances; and the nature of the existing regime should be preserved without any change. In one word, the conditions for the continuation of the war and the crisis should be preserved, even getting it produce self-destructive dynamics, so that the US only spends the minimum required to keep the fire burning.
Chasing after the rehabilitation of al-Nusra these days – including through the ludicrous theatrics like the one above – before being completely eliminated through the implementation of Sochi, carries great importance for Washington, because the collapse of any of the three abovementioned andirons will get the Syrian people off the incinerating US fire, and would allow for a real move towards full implementation of UNSC Resolution 2254.
A Universal Theatre and a Universal Play
We claim that everything in this article is nothing more than one chapter in a greater universal play, and this is not the place to scrutinize its chapters. Nevertheless, there is no harm in pointing quickly to one side of its plots.
With the removal of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) Organization from the US foreign terrorist organization list in 2012, and what we are seeing these days in terms of the approach of a peace deal between the US and the Taliban, as well as an attempt to save al-Nusra through “Syrianizing” it, all of this and more, indicate a huge shift in Washington’s policy in its alleged war on terrorism. The title of this transformation is the transition from the war against terrorist groups to the war against “terrorist states” – we must always remember the US 2018 defense strategy: “Strategic competition among countries – not terrorism – is a primary concern for the national security of the United States”. In this sense, terrorist groups that were a pretext for US interventions around the world, will go back to playing their first role based on which they: local groups of “freedom fighters”, combatting the influence of US enemies – the Soviet Union and China at the time, and Russia and China today. At the same time, a group of countries will become terrorist states, and topping the list will be Russia, China, Iran, and even Saudi Arabia, Turkey, etc. In this context, we should not lose sight of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) passed by the US Congress in 2016, which gave the US the right thereby to breach the sovereignty of states that it considers “sponsors of terrorism”.