While struggling to compete for attention with rival Islamic State, Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra is the key power player in many rebel-held areas of northern Syria. This week the group announced it cut ties with al-Qaeda.
A fter more than five years of war, the Syrian battlefield has become extremely fragmented with local, regional and international alliances and rivalries all playing out at the same time. From early on, Islamist and jihadi forces from within and outside Syria entered the fold and subsequently became powerful players in various parts of Syria.
While Islamic State (IS), which gained notoriety for its brutal beheadings and massacres in Syria and Iraq, grabbed most of the headlines especially after the establishment of its so-called ‘caliphate’ in 2014, Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the Nusra Front, has over the years established itself as the power player in rebel-held parts of northern Syria. Its ties to al-Qaeda had caused particular worries in Western capitals, but also rebel groups in Syria.
On Thursday however, Nusra leader Abu Mohamed al-Jolani announced in a video recording that his organisation was cutting ties with al-Qaeda. Mr. al-Jolani said the move was made to “to remove the excuse used by the international community - spearheaded by America and Russia - to bombard and displace Muslims in the Levant: that they are targeting the Nusra Front which is associated with al-Qaeda”.
Reports of a potential split were first reported by Syria analyst Charles Lister of the US-based Middle East Institute. Citing sources in Syria, he said the group had been internally divided about whether to break away from al-Qaeda.
In an audio message, also released on Thursday, al-Qaeda told the Nusra Front that it could break organisational ties, “if they conflict with your unity and working as one body”. In the message, a deputy to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri said: “Your unity and unification is more important to us than any organisational link”.
“I read the al-Qaeda audio message as a basic go-ahead to declare a formal renunciation of ties, putting the ball in the court of the other factions to call on them to unite,” Mr. al-Tamimi told The World Weekly shortly before the official announcement.
Along with the reports about the changing relations between al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra, more information was released about the Nusra Front’s leader al-Jolani with a picture of him (until this week he had not publicly shown his face) circulating. Observers with sources in Syria said his real name was Ahmad Hussein al-Shar’a, born in 1984 in Daraa, southern Syria.
Nicholas A. Heras, a fellow at the Centre for a New American Security, told The World Weekly that al-Nusra had been under “strong pressure” from allies to dissociate from al-Qaeda, “because it makes them all a target”. Mr. Heras said in the current situation in northern Syria “something had to give: either Jabhat al-Nusra seriously considered disassociating from al-Qaeda, or its close and continuing allies would walk away from working with and supporting it”.
Commenting on the effect of the effect of the US-Russian agreement, a Nusra Front source told pro-opposition Orient News the group could be exposed to joint airstrikes, while adding that this would not lead them to unite with IS, the other target of the planned Russian-US cooperation. Local reports this week said Nusra has withdrawn from several fronts in the south where it was participating in battles against IS affiliates.
While the extent of Jabhat al-Nusra’s wider threat to the West is disputed, its strength on the battlefields of northern Syria is not. This has caused major headaches in Washington and other Western capitals, as Nusra has over the years collaborated with many local rebel forces, including ones backed by the US, while being designated as a terrorist organisation by the UN. The split from al-Qaeda could further complicate the situation.
The group for example threatened retaliatory attacks against the West in the aftermath of coalition airstrikes in September 2014. In a report published by the Brookings Institution, a US think-tank, Mr. Lister says Jabhat al-Nusra in comparison with IS “looks more likely to survive over the long term and to threaten local, regional and international security interests”. Yet in a controversially discussed interview with Qatari-owned Al Jazeera, Nusra’s leader Abu Mohamed al-Jolani said in May 2015 his group had “instructions” not to use Syria as “a base to launch attacks on the west or Europe, so as not to muddy the current war”.
“Inside Syria’s rebel-held north, it seems impossible for rebels to distance themselves from the Nusra Front when Nusra can operate anywhere it wants to,” analyst Sam Heller wrote for The Century Foundation. “At this stage in the conflict, Nusra seems like less one of many rival factions and more like a dominant umbrella over all the others.”
Its history of embedding itself among local forces - certainly not always peacefully as clashes with Western-backed groups and the kidnapping of several US-backed rebel leaders has shown - and participation in important battles against the regime of Bashar al-Assad will make it difficult for US-Russian airstrikes to precisely target Nusra operatives without causing other casualties. Speaking to The World Weekly, Mr. al-Tamimi said the proposed US-Russian cooperation to target the Nusra Front “had a role in spurring the latest round of talks and negotiations”.
It does not appear likely that the Syrian government, Moscow or Washington will quickly change their stance after Nusra’s rebranding. State Department spokesperson John Kirby told a press briefing shortly after the announcement that “thus far... we certainly see no reason to believe that their actions or their objectives are any different, and they are still considered a foreign terrorist organisation.”
Mohamed Okda, an expert on Syria who has been involved in negotiating with Syrian groups, called the breaking of ties a “tactical and political maneuver”, stating to The World Weekly that the Nusra leader was “ideological” and would not change his views overnight.
For these rebels, the Nusra Front simply isn’t the priority the United States would like it to be. For many, Nusra is now just another frustrating element of Syria’s war. Nusra is obviously menacing, but for Syria’s rebels it’s mostly something to be ducked and avoided - or appeased, if that’s what it takes to keep on fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad.”
Looking ahead, Mr. al-Tamimi said: “It is clear the intention of a formal renunciation is to embed more deeply in the Syrian insurgency while retaining the long-term goals of an Islamic emirate as a stepping stone to reviving the caliphate, rather than becoming 'more moderate' ideologically”. For Mr. al-Tamimi, the audio message by al-Qaeda confirmed “the project of a grander coalition to establish the Islamic emirate al-Qaeda envisions has Mr. al-Zawahiri's blessing”.
Mr. Heras concurred, stating that if a new opposition coalition with Nusra was formed, this would “entrench ideological extremist actors within the armed opposition in northern Syria”.
In the video statement broadcast by Syrian pro-opposition Orient TV and Al Jazeera, Mr. al-Jolani announced the establishment of the Front to Conquer the Levant (Jabhat Fateh al-Sham), a name that had previously been circulating but was only confirmed on Thursday. Speaking before the confirmation, analysts said such a move could damage the opposition to President Assad.
A potential new rebel coalition will “aggressively and swiftly target all US-backed, or potentially US-backed, Syrian armed opposition groups that resist it in northern Syria”, Mr. Heras argued. This would have a serious impact on US policy, as “it could significantly reduce, or eliminate entirely, US lines of action in northern Syria, especially to support local Syrian partners to... marginalise ideological extremist actors that want to target the West”.
Beyond the battlefield, such a scenario could also hand a propaganda victory to Mr. Assad and Russia, reinforcing a narrative pushed by the regime and its backers that there was no moderate armed opposition in Syria and that the government was “the only viable counterterrorism partner in Syria,” Mr. Heras said.
A key question going forward will be whether other rebel groups will cooperate with or join the newly established front. Speaking to The World Weekly as the Nusra Front’s announcement was broadcast, Mr. Okda said Ahrar al-Sham, the second strongest fighting force in the north, would, according to his sources in Syria, adopt a “wait-and-see” approach. A leader of Ahrar al-Sham, which has not been listed as a terrorist organisation by the US, said in reaction to the announcement that the breaking of ties with al-Qaeda was an “important step”. Other experts speaking to the media saw it as unlikely that Ahrar al-Sham would join the new venture.
Much of Syria’s future will now depend on the newly established front’s next steps.