The market for extremism has been so disrupted by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and its penchant for extraordinary brutality that even a group as notorious as al Qaeda is now able to reposition—or, one might say, rebrand—itself. In Syria, al Qaeda has tried to paint itself as a more reasonable jihadist force with which other rebels on the ground and outside states can cooperate.
One indication of al Qaeda’s success in this regard is that its Syrian affiliate group, Jabhat al Nusra, now openly receives financial and other material support from major U.S. allies, an arrangement that would have been unthinkable four years ago. Al Nusra plays a critical role in Jaysh al Fatah, the rebel coalition fighting against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in northern Syria. Jaysh al Fatah, in turn, is backed by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. (The United States and other Western countries are more suspicious of the coalition and find regional powers’ decisions to back it alarming, but they have not gone out of their way to end the support.) Despite the more reasonable face that al Nusra has tried to show the world, its treatment of the Druze of Idlib province is little better than the brutality ISIS has inflicted on Yezidis, Kurds, and other minorities unfortunate enough to find themselves within their reach.
There are several reasons al Nusra has been able to curry favor with regional governments despite its treatment of minority groups. For one, Sunni states’ competition with Iran looms as their greatest concern, leading them to support an organization that has been effective at weakening the Iran-allied Assad regime even if its behavior is otherwise concerning. In addition, whereas ISIS is eager to fight every actor and state that falls short of its extreme ideals, al Nusra has skillfully integrated itself into the anti-Assad forces, making it appear as a more organic part of the landscape. Further, even if al Nusra doesn’t do ISIS has embarked on a campaign of mass slaughter and brutality against religious minorities, al Nusra has instead favored reeducation and forced conversion. But the group’s endgame is the same: to extinguish disfavored religious minorities (those who are not eligible for the status of dhimmis, or protected—albeit subjugated—minority groups).
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