As I briefly mentioned earlier, Jabhat al-Nusra is no more. In its place is a brand new* organization known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, or “the Front for the Conquest of Syria.” The name change is, of course, secondary to the step accompanying it; the former Nusra has now renounced* its links to al-Qaeda.
Nusra Fatah al-Sham leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani explains:
“We have stopped operating under the name of Nusra Front and formed a new body … This new formation has no ties with any foreign party,” he said, giving the group’s new name as “Jabhat Fatah al Sham”.
He said the step was being taken “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”.
Golani said the action would narrow differences with other rebel groups that are also fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
So what can we make of this move? Well the first thing you should be clear about is that unless and until there’s some actual tangible evidence that
Nusra Fatah al-Sham has genuinely cut ties with al-Qaeda, we can assume that it hasn’t actually cut ties with al-Qaeda. For one thing, Julani said a number of things in his announcement earlier today, but one thing he didn’t say was that he was renouncing his own pledge of loyalty (bayʿah) to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. These al-Qaeda branches aren’t legal franchisees–their ties to al-Qaeda are based on personal pledges from one leader to another. If Julani hasn’t renounced his, then he’s still on the team. For another thing, al-Qaeda’s leadership gave Julani’s move their blessing:
Al-Qaeda said earlier that it supported the move. Its second in command, Ahmed Hassan Abu al-Khayr, said the organisation had instructed “the leadership of the Nusra Front to go ahead with what protects the interests of Islam and Muslims and what protects jihad” in Syria.
The message included a brief comment from al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri saying: “The brotherhood of Islam is stronger than any organisational links that change and go away.”
In the recording aired by al-Jazeera’s Arabic news channel, Mr al-Julani thanked the “commanders of al-Qaeda for having understood the need to break ties”.
For another another thing, what else about Nusra has actually changed apart from the name and the pretense of breaking their affiliation with al-Qaeda? It’s still the same fighters fighting under the same leaders operating under the same ideology that has produced an impressive list of alleged crimes against humanity considering they’ve only been in existence for a little over four and a half years. Plutarch asked whether you could still call Theseus’s ship the “Ship of Theseus” if literally every piece of it had been replaced at some point in order to preserve it. It’s a very good question. Here’s my question: what if you just changed the name (“Ship of Gary”) but kept everything else about the ship exactly as it was? Wouldn’t it still be the same ship then for sure?
The second issue is how this change, superficial though it may be, is going to impact the Syrian rebellion and US policy around Syria. Nusra (I’m just going to keep calling them “Nusra” because it’s easy to type and because, not to beat a dead horse, but they haven’t actually changed anything) has always contrasted itself from ISIS in part because it could plausibly claim to be a “home-grown” movement. Yes, Julani and most of Nusra’s leadership, at least early on, came out of the Islamic State of Iraq (before it was ISIS) and were sent to Syria by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi when civil war broke out there. But Julani is himself Syrian, and where ISIS has relied to a large degree on foreign recruits, Nusra has recruited most of its fighters from among the Syrian people. This is part of the reason why Nusra has become a full-fledged part of the Syrian rebellion while ISIS doesn’t get Eid cards from anybody anymore. Yes, the big reason everybody hates ISIS is because ISIS fights everybody, while some rebels like Nusra because Nusra tries to work together at least with other like-minded rebel factions, but that’s partly a function of the fact that Nusra is a Syrian-dominated group while ISIS isn’t.
The one thing on Nusra’s permanent record that made it stick out among the other rebel factions was its direct affiliation with the decidedly not Syrian al-Qaeda. This worked against Nusra with potential recruits, with potential collaborators, with potential international backers, and with the United States, which singled it out as the main target, other than ISIS of course, of its Syrian air campaign, and which has increasingly been warning that Nusra poses a real threat to Western interests. Russia made Nusra a target too, but for Russia “Nusra” has come to mean pretty much “all the rebels,” a conclusion that Moscow justifies because Nusra is so well-embedded within the wider rebel movement. Actors from the Nusra-aligned Ahrar al-Sham to other rebel factions to the Persian Gulf have all been urging Nusra to cut ties to al-Qaeda and re-brand in order to strengthen the rebellion. So that’s now what they’ve done.
Nusra’s move comes, of course, just as Aleppo is on the brink of falling back into Bashar al-Assad’s hands, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence–this announcement was really well-timed on their part. With Aleppo effectively out of the fight, the last major rebel stronghold in northern Syria is Idlib, which is controlled by Nusra (and Ahrar al-Sham, working together in Jaysh al-Fatah). Nusra has never been better positioned to become the dominant force in the overall rebellion than it is right now. Its open affiliation with al-Qaeda was the biggest obstacle to achieving that dominance, so the open affiliation had to be severed. Now Nusra can plausibly claim to other rebel groups that it has shed the thing that was keeping them all from unifying against Assad, putting the onus on those groups to join Nusra as the best way to resist further aggression from Assad and the Russians. That’s part one of the plan.
Part two involves changing the way international players deal with Nusra and the overall rebellion. The United States is not going to suddenly begin supporting Jabhat al-Nusra just because they changed their name–although I guess if Trump were to be elected…well, let’s not go there. Russia never really gave a rat’s ass where Nusra ended and the other rebel groups began, so this isn’t going to change their policy in toward Nusra either. It’s possible that some interested third parties, say in the Persian Gulf, might have a freer hand to directly support Nusra now (some are already supporting Nusra but are jumping through hoops to pretend they’re not), but even that is questionable, since the US is still going to look askance at anybody directly aiding these guys despite the cosmetic changes.
What this will really do is to force all those other Syrian rebel groups, including the ones getting US aid, to choose: join Nusra in the final battle against Assad or continue to rely on whatever little aid you’ve been getting from Washington and find yourselves increasingly isolated, beset by ISIS, Assad, and even by Washington’s other (Kurdish) proxies as the case may be. Those rebel factions that opt to join the Jihadis Formerly Known as Nusra will ultimately find themselves the targets of American airstrikes, which will in turn push them further into Nusra’s arms. The Obama administration’s push for a joint anti-ISIS/anti-Nusra mission with Russia already risked alienating it from some of the rebel groups with which it has been collaborating; this step by Nusra is just going to accelerate that alienation.
The winners here are Nusra, obviously, which gets to have its cake and eat it too, maybe as the new de facto center of gravity for the entire rebellion, and Assad, who always wanted this civil war to come down to him against the extremists and who now may be getting exactly that.
* some exceptions may apply, check local listings for details