Nusra’s move to cut al-Qaeda ties a tactic to avoid ‘terrorist’ label
Analysis: Fundamentalist faction is less under threat than its rival Islamic State
Jabhat al-Nusra fighters march towards the northern Syrian village of al-Aie in Aleppo province. The group is the most powerful fundamentalist faction in the country. Photograph: Al-Nusra Front via AP
The decision to cut ties between al-Qaeda central and its official Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, was a tactical ploy to convince the US to remove the group’s “terrorist” label and enable Nusra to partner other insurgent factions without being bombed by Russian and Syrian forces.
Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri urged Nusra’s leader, Abu Mohamed al-Golani, to put an end to the opprobrium brought by the connection with the movement that carried out the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
Although Nusra’s consultative council voted to break ties, Golani has not renounced his declaration of fealty to al-Zawahiri and it is not clear whether veteran al-Qaeda fighters and ideologues dispatched to Syria have been ordered to return to base on the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Nusra also renamed itself. Its original name was Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahli ash-Sham, the Support Front for the People of Sham (Greater Syria). The new name, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or the Front for the Conquest of Greater Syria, is far more ambitious and threatening.
The renaming followed Washington’s decision to join Russia in the battle against Nusra as well as Islamic State. Although the US had branded Nusra a “terrorist” faction in 2012, the Obama administration had, until recently, demanded Russia and the Syrian government halt attacks on insurgents allied to Nusra.
Scores of fighters dubbed “moderates” have been killed and wounded because of their alliance with Nusra, although Washington had asked them to distance themselves from Nusra early this year.
The US shift in policy took place as Nusra and its allies in Syria’s north and northwest came under increasing military pressure when Moscow and Damascus besieged insurgent-held eastern Aleppo with the objective of returning it to government rule.
Established in late 2011 by al-Qaeda in Iraq, Nusra seeks to oust the Syrian government and create an “Islamic emirate” under Sharia law. Nusra has so far focused on the battle for Syria but, if this objective were achieved, it could shift to global operations.
Nusra differs from Islamic State in recruiting mainly Syrians and co-operating with other jihadi factions, although it has repeatedly kidnapped and killed US-trained and supported groups and cannot be trusted, belying Golani’s claim the new name is meant to appear more “nationalist” with the aim of bringing together nationalist “jihadi” factions. Consequently, its allies are unlikely to unite in response to the call from Golani.
While it has lost fighters and some territory overlooking the coastal plain, its rival Islamic State has shed a quarter of its territory in the past 18 months and is under existential threat in Syria and Iraq.
Nusra/Jabhat has received fresh weaponry from main sponsors Qatar and Turkey and, indrectly, from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. They have transferred to insurgents in Syria $1.3 billion in rocket launchers and machine guns bought from Croatia, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic.
For its regional backers and al-Qaeda, the group is a valuable asset in the struggle for Syria. This is why al-Qaeda was prepared to make a show of severing connections.