Nusra Front seeks image makeover in West

Al-Qaeda’s Syria franchise is striving to reinvent itself as a legitimate opposition force more acceptable to the West, but it is unlikely to succeed, analysts said Thursday.

In a rare television interview, Nusra Front chief Abu Mohammad al-Golani vowed not to use Syria as a springboard to attack the West and said he would be willing to protect minorities.

“It’s all part of a normalization process that Al-Qaeda in Syria has been seeking to do for some time now,” said Charlie Winter, an analyst on jihadism at the London-based Quilliam Foundation.

“It wants to appear more palatable to the West … It was kind of like an infomercial for ‘Al-Nusra, the moderates,’” he said of Wednesday’s interview with Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera.

The Nusra Front and its extremist rival, ISIS, have been designated as terrorist organizations by the United States since 2012.

In recent months, the Al-Qaeda branch has become one of the most powerful forces in northwest Syria after a series of victories in Idlib province, including the provincial capital and a large military base.

But the group is seeking to transform its image in the West to one of a legitimate political opponent to Syrian President Bashar Assad, analysts said, and Golani’s interview was the first step.

“Nusra is trying to change the West’s opinion, to make it see Nusra as a political actor and a Syrian opposition actor,” director of Carnegie Middle East Center Lina Khatib said.

“This is one of the main reasons Golani was sending messages of reassurance to the West.”

The shift may be part of a renewed push by regional powers, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to bolster Syrian opposition groups, analysts said.

Qatar, in particular, “had a relatively moderating influence on Nusra that was clear in this interview,” said Thomas Pierret, a Syria expert at the University of Edinburgh.

His face covered in a black shawl, Golani accused Washington of coordinating with the Syrian government over airstrikes on jihadi-controlled territory. But he said Nusra had been instructed to focus on toppling Assad, not attacking the West.

The militant chief also played down fears of future attacks on Syrian minorities, including Christians and Alawites, the sect to which the Assad clan belongs.

It was a clear juxtaposition with ISIS, which has carried out atrocities including videotaped beheadings and mass killings, sowing fear among minority communities in the Middle East.

Golani’s messages were “an example of the pragmatism with which Nusra has begun to act,” Khatib said.

“Nusra has political ambitions, and Golani’s interview is the beginning of presenting the group as a political actor in Syria, not just an extremist Islamist organization,” she told AFP.

Nusra Front itself has been accused of indiscriminately targeting civilians with suicide attacks, car bombs and executions.

The jihadi leader attempted to walk a fine line between mollifying other Islamist leaders in Syria and positioning his group as a more moderate choice than ISIS.

“Golani was trying to say to the world that he’s not like this extremist [ISIS],” Winter said. “At the same time, he tried to appease the jihadist community. He needed to toe the line between satisfying both camps.”

Despite this careful positioning, analysts do not expect the West to change its view of the group.

“Golani effectively ‘reassured’ the West and minorities, but did not compromise in doctrine or in terms of Nusra’s links to Al-Qaeda,” Pierret said.

With an “Al-Qaeda in the Levant” flag featured prominently on the table in front of him during the interview, Golani seemed to dispel rumors that his group would split with Al-Qaeda’s central command.

“I don’t think Golani imagines he’ll change the mind of the U.S. president, or that many Alawites or Christians will think he seems like a great guy,” said Aron Lund, editor of the Syria in Crisis website.

Despite his apparent overtures to minorities, he conditioned their protection on turning to “his own Salafi interpretation of Sunni Islam,” Lund said. “He’s not stepping away from his ideology.”

Winter said there was “a propensity to forget that Golani came from the Islamic State of Iraq, the forbearer of [ISIS].”

While Nusra may seem to be more moderate than its jihadi rival, “it’s all a temporary phase of the broader question of their implementation of jihad,” he said.