Syria's Nusra chief says Hizballah, Assad 'will be defeated'

Syria's Nusra chief says Hizballah, Assad 'will be defeated'
The head of al-Qaeda's branch in Syria tells an Arab TV channel that his group will defeat the Lebanese Shia movement, and bring down the Assad regime.
3 min read
al-Nusra Front has made gains in recent weeks as part of an anti-Assad alliance (AFP)

His face permanently obscured from view by a black scarf, al-Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammed al-Jolani took the opportunity presented to him by a prime-time interview with al-Jazeera channel to assert that Syria's Assad regime would fall, and that his group would not attack the West.

Speaking to veteran journalist Ahmed Mansour, Jolani, whose al-Nusra Front is al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, also threatened Alawites, the sect to which president Bashar al-Assad belongs to, and said that Christians would not have to pay a poll tax, called a jizya, for now, but may have to in any future Islamic state.

“The Alawites are responsible for the deaths of almost a million Syrians,” Jolani said. “If the Alawites decide to leave Assad behind and renounce their beliefs that deviate from Islam we will protect them.”

Al-Nusra Front is part of an alliance of opposition groups called Jaish al-Fath, which is opposed to the Islamic State group (IS, formerly ISIS) as well as the Assad government. The alliance has made progress in recent weeks, taking the provincial capital of Idlib in northwest Syria and a large military base.

'Hizballah next'

Despite their alliance with more moderate groups, the spread of al-Nusra will stoke fears of a backlash against minority communities in Syria.

Jolani said that the Shia Lebanese militant group Hizballah was high up on his group's priority list. The groups have recently been fighting in the Qalamoun mountains, on Syria's border with Lebanon.

“The fighting in Qalamoun will decide Hizballah's fate. It is trying to protect its eastern border, which we consider one of the ways into Damascus,” he added, before saying that the fall of Bashar al-Assad would bring down his ally Hizballah.

Jolani also added that IS had been using the fighting in Qalamoun as an opportunity to attack al-Nusra from the rear. Jolani was originally sent by IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to Syria from Iraq to set up the local al-Qaeda affiliate in the early days of the revolution, before IS' break with al-Qaeda. Since the split the two groups have become bitter enemies.

Nevertheless, despite al-Qaeda's sworn enmity to the United States, and the latter's designation of al-Nusra as a terrorist organisation in 2012, Jolani said that al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had ordered the group not to use the Levant as a base to attack the West.

“The instructions that we have are not to use the Levant as a base to launch attacks on the West or Europe, so as not to muddy the current war,” Jolani said.

Jolani, who was filmed from behind, sitting in a golden-crusted chair, said that the US was aiding the Assad regime, in light of its airstrikes against al-Nusra. He also denied the existence of the “Khorasan group”, which the US says is an al-Qaeda offshoot operating in Syria and planning attacks on the US.

Pro-Qaeda websites reported a week ago that airstrikes in Idlib targeted the planned location of the interview, which was conducted by Mansour in one of al-Nusra's headquarters, leading to the filming being moved to a different location an hour before the interview was set to begin at the request of al-Nusra's security.