Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front is no more.
In a statement released Thursday, Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani announced that the Nusra Front would break its affiliation with Al Qaeda and reconstitute itself as the “Fateh al-Sham Front” (the Conquest of Syria Front).
The move seems nakedly political—an attempt to outmaneuver the ex-Nusra Front’s enemies inside Syria and abroad—and not a substantive revision of Nusra’s ideology and mission. Yet even if Jolani’s gambit is a cynical one, it nonetheless seems likely to complicate efforts by the United States and others to pry apart Nusra and Syria’s rebels and to link negotiations to resolve Syria’s war with a stepped-up military campaign against jihadist factions in Syria.
The Al Qaeda affiliate’s big announcement had been teased for a week with strategic leaks to Arab media and on Twitter, and it capped years of will-they-won’t-they speculation over the split. It probably won’t change much, at least not at first; but it could herald a seismic shift within the armed opposition to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad—and a further consolidation of jihadist strength at the expense of nationalist militias.
In Jolani’s Thursday video announcement, he announced the formation of the Fateh al-Sham Front, which, he stressed, “has no relationship with any foreign party.” The move, he said, was meant to spare the Syrian people further suffering and safeguard “the Syrian jihad”; bring the newly-dubbed Fateh al-Sham Front closer to Syria’s other rebels; and to undercut America and Russia’s pretexts for bombing Syria’s people as part of a counterterrorism campaign against Al Qaeda.
Yet even as Jolani technically divorced the Nusra Front from Al Qaeda, he made clear that the new Fateh al-Sham Front remained beholden to its erstwhile parent organization. Jolani opened the speech by thanking Al Qaeda’s leadership for prioritizing the well-being of the Syrian people over Al Qaeda’s factional interests, quoted Osama bin Laden on the importance of the collective good, and stressed that his announcement was in line with directives from Al Qaeda’s central command.
Earlier on Thursday, the Nusra Front had released an audio message from senior al-Qaeda leader Ahmed Hassan (Abu al-Kheir) in which he effectively blessed Jolani’s impending announcement. The recording included an excerpt from the January 2014 audio message from Al Qaeda leader Aymen al-Zawahiri in which Zawahiri first floated the possibility that Nusra could split from Al Qaeda.
The name change amounts to a rebranding exercise, and maybe an internal bureaucratic shift—but not a change in the jihadist group’s beliefs and goals, which are antithetical to those of secular, nationalist, and minority Syrians, as well as to a host of international powers.
The name change amounts to a rebranding exercise, and maybe an internal bureaucratic shift—but not a change in the jihadist group’s beliefs and goals, which are antithetical to those of secular, nationalist, and minority Syrians, as well as to a host of international powers. According to Jolani’s statement, Fateh al-Sham aims to realize God’s law on earth, work toward unity with Syria’s other factions to liberate the country from the Assad regime, and aid and serve Syria’s Muslims. He seems not to have distanced Fateh al-Sham from the Nusra Front’s ideology and program in any meaningful sense.
The announcement of the Fateh al-Sham Front was evidently aimed at three audiences: the international community, the Syrian opposition public, and Syria’s other rebel factions.
The move seems to have been spurred by a tentative new agreement between the United States and Russia to step up their intelligence and military coordination and jointly target the Nusra Front. The U.S.-Russian deal is part of an effort to restore the nationwide “cessation of hostilities,” which could create an opening for new negotiations on a political settlement to the Syrian war.
The Nusra Front was explicitly excluded from the cessation of hostilities but—as Russia has complained—the United States and its allies proved unable or unwilling to convince Syria’s rebels to effectively distance themselves from Nusra. Nusra eventually helped spoil the truce by pulling Syria’s northern rebels into renewed clashes with the regime (which had itself consistently violated the ceasefire).
In theory, the new U.S.-Russian deal could, by seriously targeting Nusra, force Syria’s other rebels to step back from the jihadist faction.
Except now there is no Nusra Front to target—according to the Nusra Front, that is. It remains unclear if U.S. and U.N. sanctions on the Nusra Front will immediately and automatically migrate to the Fateh al-Sham Front, or if America’s 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force now applies to Fateh al-Sham.
At least some in Nusra seem to think the move will disrupt the U.S.-Russian arrangement now taking shape.
According to one Nusra Front media activist in a post relayed by another prominent activist, Nusra’s “strength, with all its capabilities (and with the same ideological program) will transfer to a clean new name that hasn’t been designated on any grounds.” If America and Russia choose to bomb the Fateh al-Sham Front without legal cover, he wrote, “it won’t be so easy, or, at a minimum, it will delay their project and reshuffle the deck.”
This seems, frankly, like wishful thinking. Even if the Nusra Front’s various legal designations do not transfer to the Fateh al-Sham Front, the United States and most others seem likely to immediately re-designate the “new” organization. (That said, some regional states could try to use the split to lobby for new support to the group.)
“Affiliations may be a factor, but ultimately it’s [the Fateh al-Sham Front’s] actions, ideology, and goals that matter the most,” said State Department spokesperson John Kirby Thursday. Thus far, said Kirby, “we certainly see no reason to believe that their actions or their objectives are any different, and they are still considered a foreign terrorist organization.”
Yet even if the United States and other countries are nonplussed by Jolani’s announcement, the move could further poison Syrian opposition opinion against an international military campaign that targets Nusra and effectively weakens the armed opposition to the Assad regime.
Jolani’s dismissive reference to U.S. and Russian “pretexts” to bomb Syria echoes recent remarks by Nusra media officer Abu Ammar al-Shami in which he said U.S. allegations that Nusra has been planning attacks abroad were “flimsy reasons and false claims” meant to make the case for war.
Whether or not the United States is convinced by the Al Qaeda split or Abu Ammar’s denials is likely immaterial. The bare-minimum disavowal of Al Qaeda that Jolani offered suggests he might not care either.
What is likely more important to him is that he can now point to the symbolic concession he and Fateh al-Sham have made to, at least nominally, spare the Syrian people more violence and suffering. If the United States and Russia then continue to kill civilians as they bomb whatever Al Qaeda in Syria is called today, well, it’s just a vindication of Jolani and Nusra’s argument that Syria’s Muslims are under attack by an international conspiracy that is bent on reinstalling Assad, whether Al Qaeda is present or not.
Al Qaeda’s rebranding isn’t likely to change the West’s position, but it might further marginalize the remaining non-jihadist opposition.
The deeper problem for Syrians and foreign intervening powers who would like to see a brokered end to the war, is that there’s an ever-shrinking patch of middle ground between the rigid, zero-sum worldviews of Assad’s Baathist regime and the jihadists who now dominate the armed opposition. Al Qaeda’s rebranding isn’t likely to change the West’s position, but it might further marginalize the remaining non-jihadist opposition.
The Nusra Front’s break with Al Qaeda is, as Jolani said, meant to facilitate closer integration between the new Fateh al-Sham Front and Syria’s other rebels. Negotiations over a rebel merger have stalled before because of Nusra’s refusal to break its affiliation with Al Qaeda. As recently in January of this year, major opposition faction and Islamist movement Ahrar al-Sham reportedly rejected a proposed union because it refused to inherit Nusra’s Al Qaeda ties.
Now an alliance and joint commitment to Islamic government—which Al Qaeda had said was a condition for breaking Nusra’s affiliation —suddenly seems possible. Some top Ahrar leaders were quick to welcome the Fateh al-Sham announcement.
But a union between the Fateh al-Sham Front and Ahrar al-Sham seems like a major risk politically. Ahrar al-Sham may think they can bring Fateh al-Sham in from the political cold, but it is more likely that Ahrar—and any other group that signs onto a merger—will just be designated a terrorist group alongside Fateh al-Sham.
On the ground, meanwhile, it’s unclear how to square ambitions for a unifying project with the tensions that have been apparent between Ahrar al-Sham and the Nusra Front, to say nothing of friction between Nusra and other factions. Ahrar al-Sham and the Nusra Front have been at each other’s throats over how to jointly govern a single city, Idlib; some sort of overarching mujahideen shura council seems like a big ask.
And, again, there is so far no indication that Fateh al-Sham is ready to make serious ideological and practical concessions, at least not based on Jolani’s speech. As recently as a few weeks ago, Nusra refused to cooperate with an independent court stocked with hardline Islamist and jihadist judges. Nusra just reaffirmed its right to unilaterally eliminate any Western proxy militias that it does not like. This is not the mark of a group ready for compromise.
Fateh al-Sham may also have limited room for moderation if it wants to stem defections by its most ideological members, including foreign fighters who joined to wage a global jihad.
Whatever a nominally post-Al Qaeda Fateh al-Sham Front looks like, it apparently intends to dig its way further into the Syrian opposition.
Jolani seems to have been convinced that the United States and Russia posed an imminent danger. So Jolani reacted with an announcement that will do nothing to deter America and Russia—but will allow Nusra to further wrap itself in protective layers of the Syrian opposition public and other rebel factions.
Now, if the United States and Russia want to get at the Nusra Front—or the Fateh al-Sham Front, why not—they will have to go through the rest of the opposition. Any campaign to jointly eliminate Nusra and other jihadists will mean gravely wounding the Syrian opposition as a whole, not bombing some discrete black-flag target set. And that, after all, is how Nusra planned it.
Cover Photo: The leader of the group formerly known as the Nusra Front revealed his face in public for the first time when he announced the group’s split with Al Qaeda on Thursday. Source: Screen grab by author from Al Jazeera.