In tactical shift, Syria’s al-Nusra announces break with al-Qaeda
BEIRUT - In a major shuffle in the jihadist order of battle, and at a critical point in the war in Syria, the leader of al-Nusra Front, arguably the most powerful jihadist group in the conflict, announced that his organisation has broken its ties with al-Qaeda.
In a rare televised message broadcast by Al Jazeera, Abu Mohammad al-Golani declared his organisation will rebrand itself as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — Front for the Conquest of Syria — and will have “no links whatsoever with foreign partners”.
That may be designed to earn it a seat at the negotiating table under UN-brokered peace talks due to resume in Vienna in August in a bid to end the 5-year-old Syrian war.
The word in jihadist circles has been for some time that al-Nusra was about to publicly sever its relationship with al-Qaeda, which launched the jihadist war in the late 1990s, in what was widely seen as a tactical, and politically pragmatic, maneoeuvre to oppose the Islamic State (ISIS) for primacy in the jihadist war in the Levant and no doubt to head off an expected joint assault by US and Russian air power against jihadist forces in Syria.
There seems to have been some behind-the-scenes ducking and weaving on what is an important ideological progression, though largely obscure to Western perceptions, in the confrontation between Osama bin Laden’s concept of jihad, or Islamic holy war, against the West and its Muslim adherents, and the Islamic State (ISIS) that has sought to eclipse al-Qaeda.
For weeks the buzz has been that the al-Nusra Front, which emerged as one of the most effective of the rebel groups opposed to the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad, was going to make the break from al-Qaeda to present what might be seen as a more moderate Islamist front.
Golani, a Syrian, had been expected to announce the split July 27th but did not do so. No one knows why. Before he finally did so, Ayman al-Zawahiri, a veteran Egyptian jihadist who took over al-Qaeda after bin Laden was assassinated by the Americans, on July 28th gave the break his blessing from his Pakistani hideout.
“We direct the leadership of al- Nusra Front to go ahead with what preserves the good of Islam and the Muslims and protect the jihad of the Syrian people,” Zawahiri deputy Ahmed Hussein Abu al-Khayr said in an audio message.
The plan seems to be for al-Nusra to make a tactical transition under that it would present itself as a more moderate Islamic group that is more Syrian nationalist than jihadist, thus exempting itself from the wrath of a proposed Russian-US onslaught on “terrorist” forces in Syria.
On the face of it, al-Nusra’s ideological sleight of hand, if it works, could be a game-changer on the Syrian battlefield.
Severing ties with al-Qaeda will mean the loss of funds and arms but those considerations are heavily outweighed by the group’s repositioning, much to the pleasure of the Syrian Opposition, which has been pressing the front to cut loose from the jihadist cause to strengthen the more secular alliance battling Assad.
Knowledgeable sources say the decision to separate from al-Qaeda was taken by the front’s Shura Council, headed by Golani, as a direct result of the unfolding and perplexing Russian-US military agreement, which is aimed exclusively at eradicating al-Nusra.
That arrangement is a complicated one that calls for joint military operations, intelligence sharing and the cooperation of Syrian authorities. For it to pass, Moscow has to convince the Syrian government to cease its military operations against US-backed Islamic groups, designated as “moderate” by the Americans, while the United States has to use its considerable influence to distance those same groups from al-Nusra, especially in the countryside of the strategic provinces of Idlib and Aleppo.
Since its launch in early 2012, al- Nusra has seized control of towns and villages in northern Syrian, including entire pockets in the Aleppo countryside, and has been in full control of the strategic city of Idlib in north-western Syria since mid- 2015.
The break with al-Qaeda could spare Idlib from non-stop strikes by the Russian and Syrian air forces. It would also force other groups like the Turkish-backed Ahrar al-Sham, another Islamist group, to distance itself from hard-line jihadists and perhaps to join forces with the rebranded front.
Rebel groups have never hidden their admiration for al-Nusra’s fighting ability. Now, with the severing of the al-Qaeda affiliation, many will gather the courage to stand up for the rebranded al-Nusra, regardless of its atrocities and jihadist record, simply because it inflicts maximal pain both on regime forces and ISIS.
What matters is what al-Nusra’s fighters bring to the war in terms of intelligence, arms, and military capabilities. Its high-profile defection will soon be felt on the battlefield, and all eyes will be trained to see who will now join the rebranded group.