In messaging that suggests Al-Qaeda's Syrian franchise is trying to soften its image to fellow rebel factions, the leader of the Nusra Front says his group has been ordered to focus its fire on the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and that it has no agenda to attack the West.
"We are only here to accomplish one mission, to fight the regime and its agents on the ground, including Hezbollah and others," Abu Mohammed al-Golani told Al Jazeera in an interview conducted in northern Syria.
"Nusra Front doesn’t have any plans or directives to target the West. We received clear orders [from Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri] not to use Syria as a launching pad to attack the U.S. or Europe in order to not sabotage the true mission against the regime," he said. “Maybe Al-Qaeda does that but not here in Syria."
The interview comes as the Nusra Front continues to prove itself one of the most powerful rebel factions in Syria’s multifaceted war, second only to its rival, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). As part of the so-called Fatah Army, the Nusra Front and a coalition of mostly hardline factions have advanced across northwestern Syria in recent weeks, most recently capturing the critical town of Jisr al-Shaghour. Last month, the coalition drove Syrian forces out of Idlib, making the city just the second provincial capital ever taken by the rebels since war erupted in 2011.
The group’s success has posed new dilemmas for the Gulf and Western states who back the rebels, especially the United States. The Nusra Front, which has been branded a "terrorist organization" by Washington, has radical designs on establishing an caliphate in Syria along the lines of what ISIL has already set up across Syria and Iraq. But it is also one of the most effective forces on the ground against both the Assad regime and ISIL, ostensibly aligning its immediate strategic priorities with that of the West.
In reality, analysts say, Western priorities have long been consumed by the rise of ISIL, which a U.S.-led coalition has targeted across Syria and Iraq, and which may fill the vacuum if the Assad regime collapses.
In the interview with Al Jazeera, Golani played up that narrative. Ever since ISIL split off from the Nusra Front in 2013 over leadership and tactical differences, the two have clashed all across Syria, he noted. "Assad forces are fighting us on one end, Hezbollah on another and ISIL on a third front. It is all about their mutual interests,” Golani said.
When queried about Nusra’s plans for a post-Assad Syria, Golani also towed a more moderate line. He said that after the war ended, all factions in the country would be consulted before anyone considered "establishing an Islamic state." He said his group would not target the country's Alawite Muslim minority, despite their support for the Assad regime. "Our war is not a matter of revenge against the Alawites despite the fact that in Islam, they are considered to be heretics,” he said.
Aron Lund, editor of the Carnegie Endowment's Syria in Crisis blog, said that Golani's messaging appears targeted less at the West, which is unlikely to ever accept Nusra as a partner in Syria, and more toward other Syrian rebels, possible funders in the region and even "Islamist opinion-makers around the Middle East." By positioning the Nusra Front as more moderate than ISIL, Golani is presenting his group as "the sensible Syrian jihadi faction."
"He's basically pleading innocent to the charges leveled at him by the U.S. and by some other Islamists, who say he's too extreme and he's working on behalf of non-Syrians and that the Nusra Front is unnecessarily antagonizing the West," Lund said.
But Golani did threaten reprisal if the U.S. continued to attack its fighters in Syria. He was referencing a series of unilateral American airstrikes on something called the Khorasan group, which Pentagon officials describe as an “external operations arms” of the Nusra Front that they say is actively plotting attacks on U.S. soil.
"Our options are open when it comes to targeting the Americans if they will continue their attacks against us in Syria. Everyone has the right to defend themselves," Golani said, reiterating his accusation that Washington is not serious about dethroning the Assad regime. "The West is targeting Nusra because they know we are the real threat to the Assad regime. This is why they came out and said they are only targeting this group that they called Khorasan.”
On Thursday, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar al-Jaafari, criticized Al Jazeera for airing the interview, saying it would be used “to promote terrorism and make threats to the government and people in Syria.”
Referencing the network's headquarters in Doha, Jaafari told Syrian state news agency SANA that it was “clear the Qatari regime is seeking with this interview, with the head of a terrorist group as listed by the U.N. Security Council, to clean up the image of Nusra Front,” which Damascus has long accused the Sunni Gulf states of backing.
Ahmed Mansour conducted the interview with Golani