Some of the Actors Left the Stage, but the Play Goes on, with Jolani in a New Costume!
The new US administration is in place now after a few tumultuous months of campaigning, elections, and all the events that followed. As confirmations of appointments are underway, the administration is slowly pulling the curtains to reveal the stage for what we are supposed to believe is a new play; nevertheless, we see in reality that the same storyline continues with many of the same characters. Though we cannot deny that the storyline has made a few leaps forward, as well as the characters. Hasn’t one of the American play’s characters “radically” change his costume? We mean al-Jolani, of course. Isn’t this in itself a huge development?
The efforts by the US to find ways to strip al-Nusra of its classification as a terrorist organization are not new, and we have discussed them in previous articles including one from last February, titled The Comedic Play Starring the Trio: Jeffrey, Malley, and Jolani, and another from last April, titled The “Compassionate” US, Abu al-Fath al-Farghali, and Wholesale “Coincidences”.
After that, the subject seemed to be put on a backburner, falling into the background of the main scene, until last week, when an American journalist, Martin Smith, posted on his Twitter account that he had just returned from Idlib where he was hosted by none other than al-Jolani, who appeared in a picture with Smith, wearing a shirt and a suit jacket, a change from his usual “jihadist” outfits. Al-Jolani’s appearance in this outfit is a “natural” step in a series of appearances here and there (in a recent one of which he appeared in an Idlib neighborhood restaurant eating a traditional Syrian dish) to transition into looking like an ordinary, even a peaceful man with whom it is possible to deal. A day after the photo was posted, the International Crisis Group (of which until very recently, Robert Malley was president and CEO), published an article titled In Syria’s Idlib, Washington’s Chance to Reimagine Counter-Terrorism.
Paving with Fire
From the beginning, the article lays the groundwork for getting the reader to think that it is a grave mistake to keep al-Nusra listed as a terrorist organization by saying “the ‘terrorist’ label affixed to Idlib’s strongest rebel group undermines a crucial ceasefire and blocks potential paths to avert a military showdown.” The authors of the piece make a strong opening play by putting the word “terrorist” between quotation marks, thus giving the sense that it is an undeserved and unjust way to characterize the group.
They then try to force the reader to make the choice between something as silly as a label and avoiding a military catastrophe in Idlib. The article later states that “HTS’s continued status as a ‘terrorist’ organization… presents a major obstacle” to averting violence, and what is needed to make Idlib and Syria and even the entire world a better place is merely a policy that defines clear benchmarks for HTS (and other terrorist groups) to meet to shed off this label.
Throughout the article, the authors throw in disclaimers using some of the cons associated with al-Nusra, but always ensuring to provide examples of “positive” behavior that support their main proposal for the way to deal with this group, in addition to a few hints here and there at how much more “Syrian” al-Nusra is now compared to how it was. Some of the basic qualities of al-Nusra that the authors offer, are:
- It is actually fighting terrorists: it has not only broken ties with al-Qaeda and hardline jihadists, but it is also fighting them in Idlib, by hunting down ISIS cells and al-Qaeda-linked Hurras al-Din, and making that its priority along with suppressing elements that oppose the fragile ceasefire in Idlib or that threaten local stability, thus guarding Idlib and Syria from being used as a stage for international jihadist operations.
- It is moderate: the leadership of the organization is steadily working to become a local Syrian actor capable of governing Idlib, and while its governance, represented by the “Salvation Government”, is Islamist, it is not draconian.
- It treats women and minorities well: there are two favorites for Western audience. Women under HTS rule can go to university, can work, and do not have to cover their faces; Christians in Idlib have told the authors that local authorities have improved their treatment of local populations.
- It is Syrian: the authors throw in the article their most important argument, which is how Syrian al-Nusra is, by noting, for example, that HTS has a “Syrian founder Abu Muhammad al-Jolani”, and it has expelled its non-Syrian jihadists, for which it should be applauded despite all the atrocities it committed.
- It is not an international threat: in a repetition of what James Jeffrey had said when he was atop his sabotaging task, the ICG blatantly whitewashes al-Jolani by showcasing that he had disagreements with ISIS and its former leader, al-Baghdadi, and others like al-Zawahiri, by refusing to carry out attacks in Istanbul or generally conducting attacks outside Syria; based on this, the authors admit that this “helps explain why [US] drone strikes in Idlib typically target jihadists operating outside HTS but not the group itself”
- It is exploited by Russia: the authors try to argue that Russia, the biggest enemy of the US and the West, benefits from HTS’s designation to justify attacks on Idlib
These are the main justifications used to propose that there should be a new US approach in the Syria and the region, at least with regards to “designated ‘terrorist’ groups that show signs of being willing and able to forgo the tactics and positions for which they were originally designated”.
The approach, according to the authors, should take into account the desire to reduce “reliance on primarily military means” (an issue that resonates well among Americans) and to create “conditional pathways … to exit their ‘terrorist’ box”. This, according to the authors, would require:
- Defining standards as to what HTS would need to do for NATO countries to stop labelling it as “terrorist”
- Introducing incentives to encourage HTS to meet these standards on a continuous basis, like conditionally increasing stabilization support in exchange for ceasing crackdown on civilian critics, expanding operation space for Western-backed CSOs, and demonstrating commitment to political and religion pluralism
- Once this is agreed on by the US, Turkey, and European partners, reaching out to Russia to address its concerns about attacks from Idlib at its military base and regime-controlled areas
Thus, it is obvious that there is no intention or even desire to actually eradicate terrorism or terrorist groups, or even address the root causes of their appearance in the first; but instead to keep them alive and under control.
Even more alarming, is the blatant proposal to use them as leverage in the war to hold on to the collapsing throne of a unipolar international system, which could also be understood from Jeffrey’s warnings, which he issued in a recent interview, in which he expressed deep concern that Russia is playing a role in the Middle East it has not played for over 50 years.
The authors conclude that the potential benefits from such approach (that is lifting the terrorist designation off al-Nusra) outweigh the disadvantages, and the risks appear to be minimal, especially that this would give the US and Europe influence and leverage in northwestern Syria. Additionally, and with the utmost insolence, they propose that Idlib could be the place to test a new approach and new tools for dealing with terrorist groups, thus blatantly proposing to use Idlib with the millions of Syrians living there as an experiment field for the US.
The Same Policy
Based on the foregoing, it is clear that the policymaking efforts have not changed, and we might expect to see an increase in proposals and ideas such as the ones advanced by the article that we are discussing here, that is to adopt a policy that ultimately aims to achieve at least the following goals:
- Attempt to solidify isolation of the northwest and freeze Syria’s state of de facto division into at least three parts by recognizing and supporting a government there in addition to other Syrian groups and personalities benefiting from the crisis, and over which the US has leverage.
- Perhaps among the main motives for pushing for a “new approach” in dealing with al-Nusra is the likely scenario of working on parallel elections this year, in which the existing de facto division will be deepened; and for elections of this kind to take place in the northwest, it is necessary to jump over some “worthless formalities”, such as that the greater part of the area in question is under the control of a terrorist organization.
- Undermine what the Astana track, particularly Russia and Turkey, have achieved in the political process and in the northwest, in both of which, despite all attempts thus far, the US and its Western allies have not been able to cause damage and consequently create a fissure between the two as a major regional alliance, which forms the beginning of a new regional-international system.
- Maintain a state of war and attrition that feeds into further delaying reaching the necessary conditions to proceed with the political solution through the full implantation of UNSC Resolution 2254, as this would be a clear success of efforts that reflect a new international balance of power, in which the US has a very minimal role.