Al-Nusra is playing realpolitik
Al-Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani has declared the mainly Syrian group is no longer affiliated with al-Qaeda and has renamed it Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.
The rebranding of al-Nusra is not a total split from al-Qaeda, however, but an attempt to gain support from the Syrian public and build legitimacy within the country with the aim of gaining dominance over the Syrian opposition. The move is a part of al-Nusra’s strategy to ensure its survival in Syria.
In a video statement, which has been viewed as al-Nusra’s official split from al-Qaeda, Jolani stated the new organisation has no affiliation with any external party but he did not deny that he and his forces continue to follow al-Qaeda’s ideology and position on world affairs. Jolani praised al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and quoted former leader Osama bin Laden.
Jolani said Jabhat Fateh al-Sham was created to “preserve the jihad of the Levant” and to integrate the group with rebel factions in Syria. In an audio recording released shortly before Jolani’s video, al-Qaeda deputy leader Ahmad Hasan Abu al- Khayr gave his authorisation to al-Nusra “to proceed with that which safeguards the interests of Islam and Muslims and protects the jihad of the people of the Levant”.
Despite Jolani’s ambiguity on al-Nusra’s or Fateh al-Sham’s affiliation with al-Qaeda, the group operates with an extremist ideology and aims to establish a strict Islamic rule over post-war Syria. The group’s practices will continue to be alien to the majority of Syrian society as well as to the people’s understanding of Islam.
Jolani suggested that distancing al-Nusra from al-Qaeda would give no justification to the United States and Russia to attack his group. Al-Nusra’s real aim, however, is not to mitigate threats from world powers but to integrate itself among the Syrian rebels and strengthen its standing.
Al-Nusra has been one of the most powerful actors in Syria and the majority of rebel forces — including those of secular, nationalist and Islamist orientation — rely heavily on al-Nusra for fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Unlike the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Nusra has embedded itself within the Syrian opposition. Since it was established in 2012, al-Nusra has made great efforts to build public support and promote its ideology in its areas of control. While Western-backed rebels have been poorly funded and unable to defend opposition areas, al-Nusra has proved that it has the funds and weapons to maintain control of territory.
Despite its efforts at gaining public support, al-Nusra has faced nationalist voices from within the Syrian rebellion that oppose its extremist ideologies. Al-Nusra has tried to silence those voices by targeting Western-backed forces. Since the beginning of the year, there has been an upsurge in al-Nusra attacks on forces funded by the West, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Residents in Maaret al-Numan, the home to FSA’s 13th Division, and other towns challenged al-Nusra by protesting its rule of the Idlib governorate. Under increasing pressure from civil society organisations, al-Nusra was forced to reposition itself or risk losing further public support. Al-Nusra’s rebranding is an attempt to gain back public support and build bridges with Syrian rebels who do not subscribe to al-Qaeda’s ideology, with the aim of gaining dominance in Syria.
As foreign powers try to counter the role of al-Qaeda, however, it is important to recognise that reliance on US and Russian air strikes would not be an effective strategy against al-Nusra. It is thoroughly embedded in local communities; air strikes would harm civilians and other rebels, which would encourage anti- Western propaganda and increase public support for al-Nusra.
It is critical that foreign powers acknowledge the solution to countering al-Nusra is to build up Syria’s nationalist rebels and empower civil society groups.
Al-Nusra has not revealed weakness by leaving al-Qaeda; it has demonstrated strength in its ability to consolidate power and dominate opposition ranks. The nationalist opposition must develop a political strategy of its own, promoting human rights, democracy and inclusivity, yet this cannot be achieved without unified Western support for the rebels and strict measures against the Assad regime and Russia to ground their offensives.