BEIRUT — The leader of one the most feared and effective Syrian rebel groups told Al Jazeera news service Thursday that the nearly 3-year-old conflict was close to an end and that his forces – considered to be among the most radical – held the upper hand over both the Syrian regime and secular rebel groups.
Speaking as the chief of the Nusra Front, Abu Mohammed al Joulani, designated as al Qaida’s top representative in Syria, said in his first media interview that the group rejected peace talks scheduled for late January and warned Sunni Arab states of betrayal by the West as America and Iran begin discussions to end their 30-year feud.
“The battle is almost over, we have covered about 70 percent of it, and what’s left is small. We will achieve victory soon. We pray to God to culminate these efforts with victory. It’s only a matter of days,” he told an interviewer, his face and the interview location hidden for security reasons.
The Nusra Front – along with its ally and occasional rival, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS – has emerged as the most effective and dreaded of the Syrian rebel groups fighting to overthrow the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Nusra is noted for its fierce style of fighting and open embrace of suicide operations. The undemocratic, anti-Western rhetoric of Nusra, ISIS and the newly formed Islamic Front, an umbrella group of Islamist rebels, has made Western backers of the revolution increasingly uncomfortable.
Addressing the West’s role in the Middle East, Joulani warned Sunni Muslims throughout the region that America would ruthlessly abandoned them in favor of Shiite Muslim Iran, reinforcing the increasingly sectarian overtones of the revolution, which pits mostly Sunni Muslim rebels against the Syrian state and its close ties to Iran and their Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah.
“Those (Sunni-led) regimes are now running out of options as a result of the superpowers turning against them,” he told Al Jazeera, framing the entire region as a sectarian battlefield. “The ferocious tide of the Safavid (Iranian Shiite) regime is now coming. If the Assad regime remained in power, which is in the interest of the superpowers and the (Iranians), then the next target will be the Arabian Peninsula, now known as Saudi Arabia.”
“The majority of oil is located to the east of Saudi Arabia, in al-Ihsaa, Qateef and Dammam. These areas would be targeted . . . taken away and given to the new ally, Iran,” Joulani warned.
Regarding a post-Assad Syria, which Joulani repeatedly claimed was imminent despite a widespread perception the regime was gaining ground in the ugly civil war that has killed well over 100,000 people, he refuted claims that Nusra wanted to control the country in a Taliban-style theocracy.
Instead of direct Nusra or al Qaida control over Syria, he said, the next government should be formed by a group of Muslim clerics, according to Islamic law. That distinction, according to analysts, was likely to be a superficial one.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero