Negotiations should take place now with the al-Qaida-linked Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra to avoid more Iraq style violence in Syria, according to Noman Benotman author of a new Quilliam Foundation report on the group.

Talks now could help the Syrian oppostion come terms with the group and avert a wider conflict, he told the Guardian. “We should negotiate now” Benotman said, and he warned of “disaster” if talks are delayed until after Assad falls. He suggested that mediators from Gulf states could lead the negotiations. As it stands al-Nusra is heading for conflict with regional countries, the international community and pro-democratic Syrians, Benotman said.

“Now is the opportunity, at least to exhaust non-military tools and means,” Benotman said.

He warned of “Iraqi scenario” if the negotiations don’t take place. “They are capable of replicating the Iraqi code,” he said.

They are 100% against democracy. There is no room whatsoever in their thoughts for democracy. They regard it as the opposition of Islam.

Jabhat al-Nusra has overestimated its support in Syria, Benotman claimed.

They think that if they manage to defeat the regime on the ground, they will get support from the vast Sunni community in Syria. But the vast majority in Syria don’t do politics based on religion. That’s what al-Nusra is completely missing.

Last month Syrians demonstrated in support of Jabhat al-Nusra after the US banned the organisation as a terrorist group. Benotman said these demonstrations were an expression of frustration with the international community rather than a show support for jihadis.

Ideologically there is no difference between Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaida, Benotman said. Both groups are committed to setting up Islamist states. The two groups are also logistically closely linked through veterans of the conflict in Iraq who are prevalent among the leadership in Syria.

With 5,000 members the group is relatively small, but it is militarily effective because many of its fighters have experience of guerilla warfare, he said.

Benotman said there was some evidence to suggest that Jabhat al-Nusra had infiltrated the Syrian government. Some of the group’s successful operations against government targets appear to have been based on inside information, including plans of government buildings, Benotman said.

The group has secured funding from unofficial sources in Gulf countries, but all of its arms have been secured by raids on the Syrian army, he said.