The Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, has rejected a “revolutionary covenant” recently issued by a number of other prominent Syrian rebel groups.
The covenant was released by the Islamic Front, which is a coalition of several militant organizations, and four other insurgent groups on May 17. The text was clearly intended to address fears in the West about the role of extremists fighting Bashar al Assad’s regime and allied forces.
The rebels’ covenant began by promising that their “revolutionary work” is “derived from our authentic religion, staying away from fundamentalism and radicalism.”
The authors of the statement went on to promise “fair trials, away from any acts of revenge or retaliation” for captured regime officials.
The covenant listed the Syrian regime and its “mercenaries from Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah,” as well as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), as legitimate “military targets,” but stated that “military actions will be limited to the Syrian territories.”
Although the covenant says the insurgents “welcome the opportunity to communicate and cooperate with regional and international parties,” the signatories portrayed their efforts as being nationalistic.
“Our revolutionary forces rely in their military operations on Syrian elements only, and believe that the military and political decisions in the revolution should be entirely Syrian, rejecting any type of affiliation to foreign entities,” the covenant reads. The rebel groups added that they seek to preserve Syria’s “territorial integrity” and reject “any project aiming at dividing these territories.”
The Al Nusrah Front’s rejection
The Al Nusrah Front begins its rejection of the covenant (described as the “charter of revolutionary honor”) by complaining that Al Nusrah was not consulted before its release. “Everyone knows that the most prominent problems of the jihadi battlefields, which the clerics have warned about, is the absence of consultation and the exclusivity of decision,” Al Nusrah’s statement reads.
The al Qaeda branch then offers nine reasons for rejecting the charter, arguing that its nationalistic focus is not rooted in the proper religious principles. The document “propagate[s] the spirit of citizenship and belonging to the land and the homeland, and this is in violation to what the texts of revelation determined regarding the brotherhood of faith irrespective of country, nationality, color, and the like,” Al Nusrah argues.
Al Nusrah objects to the statement’s “lack of clarity” and “precision,” its promise to limit the excesses of the fighting without also decrying negligence in the duty to wage jihad, and its general appeal to religious authority without offering specific references to Islamic texts and teachings.
The pledge to try Assad regime officials also violates sharia law, Al Nusrah says. The “severe apostates have no other choice in Islam beside the sword, and the tyrants of the regime … are among the people of great apostasy that Islamic law has commanded to kill whenever possible.”
The Al Nusrah Front finds the charter’s provision concerning assistance from external actors to be open-ended and ill-defined. “This was said but no names were specified.” Nor was the position of the unnamed external parties in question made clear with respect to Islam and “Muslims throughout the world.” And the charter does not explicitly state “the manner of said cooperation and meeting and the conversations taking place therein,” Al Nusrah adds.
Al Nusrah says that the rebel groups’ pledge to “seek to establish a state of justice, law, and freedom in isolation from” external “pressures and dictates” is suspicious and evidence that such “pressures and dictates” have already influenced the wording of the document. This is likely Al Nusrah’s way of saying that the charter was intended to appease foreign fears. The only type of state that is acceptable inside Syria is one established on the “sovereignty of sharia” and not secularism or democracy, the al Qaeda branch says.
And, finally, Al Nusrah rejects the covenant’s recognition of the “diverse social fabric and ethnic and sectarian denominations” fighting in the rebellion. Al Nusrah argues that “the manner in which the religion of Allah deals with groups, religions, and sects varies from one sect to another and it is similarly determined by the people of knowledge [i.e., jurists and clerics] that equating all of them [the different sects] is not allowed.”
Differences of opinion among allied organizations
No other insurgent organization is named in the Al Nusrah Front’s response. Not even the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), which has been disowned by al Qaeda’s general command, is named, even though the covenant says that the ISIS is a military target on par with the Assad regime.
The Al Nusrah Front and allied organizations have been fighting ISIS for months. One of the groups that is closest to Al Nusrah is Ahrar al Sham, which plays a leading role in the Islamic Front. Ahrar al Sham’s decision to sign the covenant, as part of the Islamic Front, may therefore reveal a difference of opinion between the two groups. However, Ahrar al Sham leader Hassan Abboud has said on Twitter that founding an Islamic state in Syria is still his group’s goal.
Both Al Nusrah and Ahrar al Sham have received support from al Qaeda’s senior leadership. Sanafi al Nasr, a top al Qaeda operative who relocated to Syria from South Asia, has said that al Qaeda dispatched operatives to assist both organizations. Abu Khalid al Suri, who served as Ayman al Zawahiri’s chief representative in Syria until he was killed in late February, was also a founding member and leader of Ahrar al Sham.
How the covenant impacts the relationship between the two groups, if at all, remains to be seen. The Al Nusrah Front was careful to say in its response that while the signatories were wrong to endorse such “objectionable material,” it does not deny their “virtue.”
Oren Adaki, an Arabic language specialist and research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, contributed translation assistance for this article.