Nusra leader: Group’s target is Assad regime, not minorities or the West

Al Jazeera reports: The leader of the Nusra Front, one of Syria’s most powerful rebel groups, has said that his group’s main mission is to dislodge the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and that it has no agenda to target the West unless provoked.

“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 said in an exclusive interview aired on Al Jazeera on Wednesday.

“Nusra Front doesn’t have any plans or directives to target the West. We received clear orders not to use Syria as a launching pad to attack the US or Europe in order to not sabotage the true mission against the regime. Maybe al-Qaeda does that but not here in Syria,” he said.

But his statements did include a warning against the US over its attacks on the armed group, which has been blacklisted a “terrorist organisation” by the US.

“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,” he said in an interview with the Doha-based network. [Continue reading…]

The Wall Street Journal reports: When a Muslim cleric criticized the Nusra Front last year for taking over his Syrian city and raising its menacing black flags, a representative of the jihadist group took to Facebook to send him an ominous message.

“Oh secularist, oh infidel,” the note read. “Sit quietly or your time will come.”

Yet when wider protests over Nusra’s draconian practices and rigid religious views soon followed in cleric Murhaf Shaarawi’s home city of Maraat Numan and elsewhere in Idlib province, the group took note. It curbed its threats to clerics and its attempts to spread its brand of Islam, said Mr. Shaarawi and other current and former residents of the province.

The response to public pressure underscores how Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria that is designated a terrorist group by the U.S., the U.K. and Turkey, in recent months has introduced a measure of constraint and conciliation into areas of Syria where it operates, the residents said. It is even sometimes doing so alongside Western-backed rebel factions.

That has put it at odds with its main jihadist rival, Islamic State. While both groups seek to establish a state governed by a strict reading of Islam, Islamic State has relied on violence or the threat of violence to achieve that goal. Nusra, on the other hand, is seeking to win a degree of consent from those it rules and has voiced an interest in governing with other rebel groups.

Nusra, one of the strongest rebel factions fighting President Bashar al-Assad, hasn’t lost its reputation for brutality. Syrian rights groups point to a litany of abuses against civilians since Nusra was formed more than three years ago, including disappearances and summary executions for alleged blasphemy and collaboration.

Still, the group appears to have started easing some its most unpopular religious edicts, not least its ban on the sale and smoking of cigarettes—an especially reviled measure in a country where a majority of men smoke.

It has also stopped requiring women to cover their faces and wear floor-length robes, and has moved to punish some fighters for harassing or assaulting civilians, a resident of Maraat Numan said. [Continue reading…]

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