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What drove Syria's Nusra Front to detach itself from al-Qaeda?

By David Roberts
King's College, London

image copyrightAFP
image captionThe group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra is one of the most powerful rebel outfits in Syria

Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the more powerful jihadist groups in Syria, has rebranded itself. It officially announced its separation from al-Qaeda and "any other external entity" in a video broadcast on 28 July 2016. The group changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Front for the Conquest of Syria/the Levant) and its leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani, was seen with his face uncovered for the first time.

Al-Nusra has, since 2012, been one of the largest and most influential groupings in the Syrian conflict.

Its ranks have long been dominated by Syrians, although the higher echelons are more international, and it has tended to focus more on ousting President Bashar al-Assad in Syria than on wider, international goals.

This was part of the reason that Nusra refused Isis' (the previous incarnation of the so-called Islamic State) attempts to merge the two groups in 2013.

The twin lures of a Syria-focus (as opposed to an internationalist concept threatening Western and other Middle Eastern states) and relative cohesiveness and strength in pursuing its goals have long made it a key player.

As such, it attracted significant support from those who wanted to harness the group's strength against Mr Assad.

Qatar and Turkey are long rumoured to have supported the group.

Neither seek to support its extremism out of choice. Rather, they see Nusra as too important to ignore and thus a "least worst" option.

And both have arguably sought to convince the group to de-link itself from al-Qaeda to make it more palatable.

Broader appeal

Jabhat's leadership has key local and international audiences to win over with this rebranding.

Without the al-Qaeda tag and with a new name, Jabhat hopes to ditch its previous reputation for brutality and start afresh.

image copyrightAFP
image captionThe announcement was made by Jabhat's shadowy leader Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani

There is, however, no reason to expect that it will change the tactics or the strategic goals that earned it renown as a dangerous group.

Nevertheless, this fig-leaf of cover - that the group officially renounced its al-Qaeda affiliation - may be enough for it to obtain more external support.

The group also seeks to eschew its al-Qaeda affiliation as a way to remove itself from the target list for US and Russian air strikes.

There is no chance whatsoever that this rebranding will affect Russia's calculations, and initial comments from the US administration suggest that the US will continue as before too.

In reality, Jabhat probably does not really expect a change in targeting policy.

But now that it has explicitly and exclusively committed to the Syrian jihad, it will use future air strikes to "prove" that the US and the international community are against this goal and in fact seek to defend the Assad government in Damascus.

Pragmatic logic

Indeed, perhaps the core audience for this rebranding exercise are other groups in Syria. Local rebel outfits have long faced a difficult choice in banding with Jabhat.

Many avowedly disagree with their radical al-Qaeda ideological approach, but keenly recognise that it is, nevertheless, a powerful player.

This pragmatic logic has swelled the group's ranks for years. Now without its al-Qaeda link, it is in a stronger place politically to cement its place amid Syrian opposition groups.

But, without any evidence that the group has really renounced any of its more extremist policies, these groups and their supporters have the same difficult choice to make.

Supporting Jabhat in the short-term may lead to greater funding, arming, and even success. But in the longer term, it empowers Jabhat and its vision of establishing a Sunni Islamic Caliphate.

Al-Qaeda's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, officially sanctified al-Nusra's separation. This reinforces the notion that this is not some profound "on the road to Damascus" conversion by Jabhat.

Al-Qaeda is simply evolving to a more locally-focused and decentralised modus operandi. And, ultimately, if Jabhat can use this rebranding to subsume more smaller groups along with their fighters, the basic al-Qaeda tenets will stand a better chance of being propagated still further.

David Roberts is a lecturer in the Defence Studies Department at King's College London. Follow him on Twitter @thegulfblog

Related Topics

  • Syria
  • al-Qaeda
  • Syrian refugees