How Syrians View Nusra’s Split from al-Qaeda

On July 28, the Nusra Front, one of the most powerful jihadist groups in Syria, announced its split from al-Qaeda and the formation of a new group named Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Front for the Conquest of the Levant). In a short video, the group stated that it aims to establish God’s religion and Sharia law and will work towards unity with all groups in Syria. Abu Mohammad al-Julani, the group’s leader, also stated that this new formation is a national movement with no ties to any foreign party, so as “to remove the excuse used by the international community—spearheaded by America and Russia—to bombard and displace Muslims in the Levant.” However, it is still not clear what impact the split will have on the relationship between Nusra and the Syrian opposition bodies and armed groups.

The Nusra Front was established in Syria in late 2011 and quickly gained notoriety for its military exploits against the Assad regime. In December 2012, the group was designated as a terrorist organization by the US due to its affiliation with al-Qaeda in Iraq, whose members would later go on to form the core of ISIS. Nonetheless, Nusra continued to increase its influence and root itself within Syrian society while Nusra’s ties to al-Qaeda initially were unconfirmed. However, Syrian opposition factions began pressuring Nusra to distance itself from al-Qaeda after the group pledged its allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s leader, in April 2013. Regional countries, namely Turkey and Qatar, were also reportedly involved in attempts to persuade Nusra to sever its ties to the international terrorist group, but it chose to remain loyal.

However, it seems that recent developments in Syria may be changing the group’s calculus. “Nusra may have distanced itself from al-Qaeda because it feels that the creation of the proposed US-Russian air coalition to specifically target them is imminent. The group is also trying to regain the community support it has been losing in Syria by transforming itself into a Syrian group,” wrote Syrian journalist Manhal Barish on the activist website al-Modon.

It is unlikely that Nusra’s split from al-Qaeda will lead to a significant merger with other Syrian armed groups anytime soon. The powerful Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham released a statement congratulating the group on the split and urging it to take measures to bring together all revolutionary groups into one structure.  Additionally, Abu al-Baraa Ma’ershmarien, a Shura member and a founder of Ahrar al-Sham, stated in an interview with al-Sham News Network that Ahrar al-Sham has long been pressuring Nusra to split with al-Qaeda, but Nusra’s constant refusal stopped a merger between the two groups. However, he denied any ongoing negotiations for a merger, saying that such a move needs a lot of effort and preparation, both of which are absent now. As for Jaish al-Islam, another powerful Islamist group, splitting from al-Qaeda is a good first step but not enough. Islam Aloush, the group’s spokesperson, stated to Smart News that unity between armed groups is a military necessity to achieve victory; however, there are many domestic and external obstacles which prevent such a step. Nonetheless, Ajnad al-Sham, a rebel group fighting along Nusra as part of Jaish al-Fateh coalition, stated to Smart News that the split is in favor of the Syrian revolution and the group is willing to merge with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

Syrian opposition figures and political bodies have been generally cautious toward the group’s split with al-Qaeda. The Syrian National Coalition, the official representative of the Syrian opposition, did not issue any public statements to explain its position toward the split, although it repeatedly called on Nusra to break its ties with al-Qaeda. However, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), the Syrian opposition’s main negotiating bloc in Geneva talks, issued a statement welcoming the split and stating that more reforming steps should take place to correct the past mistakes and create a future for all Syrians, away from extremism and dictatorship. Additionally, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood party welcomed the split and considered it a genuine move that deserves respect and encouragement. However, this statement does not indicate any specific course of action, suggesting that the Muslim Brotherhood party will continue to deal cautiously with Nusra. In contrast to these statements, Jihad Maqdisi, a member of Cairo’s conference for opposition groups, objected to the HNC’s statement and said the group remains a terrorist group and its goals contradict with the majority of Syrians’ demands.

Syrian activists are generally skeptical about Nusra’s split but have hope for a genuine change in the group’s goals and strategies. However, some activists and public figures think that Nusra’s move is just a rebranding tactic to avoid being attacked. “It is clear that the split has only happened to avoid the strikes of the potential US-Russian coalition against the group. Therefore, what happened is just a superficial split under external pressure and will not affect al-Nusra’s goals or strategies,” wrote Burhan Ghalioun, a Syrian academic and public opposition figure. Similarly, other activists do not believe that al-Nusra is different because it is still acting the same way. “My suspicions about the superficiality of al-Nusra’s split with al-Qaeda were confirmed when the group attacked and closed Radio Fresh, an alternative local radio based in Kafr Nabl in Idlib province. The radio has been attacked on more than one occasion by Jabhat al-Nusra in the past and it continued to be a target after the group’s split. This shows how the group’s strategy to attack activists is still the same,” said Ahmed al-Sari, a media activist in Aleppo.

However, Nusra might still gain more support after the split with al-Qaeda. “The resumption of fighting in Syria and the besieging of Aleppo have pushed many people to either join al-Nusra or to at least consider it. The split will likely push more people, who were hesitant to be affiliated with al-Qaeda, to join the new group,” said Mustafa al-Abdulla, a local activist who is well-informed on al-Nusra and other Islamist groups inside Syria.

The cautious response by rebel groups and political opposition bodies to Nusra’s split with al-Qaeda does not mean that the group will have a tough time benefiting from this action. The intense fighting is pushing all rebel groups to increase their military coordination with Nusra, which is increasing Nusra’s community support and isolating those who continue to oppose it. This speaks to a proposed US-Russian air coalition to target Nusra: such an alliance could actually be detrimental to the goal of reducing Nusra’s influence, as many Syrians would perceive it as another direct military intervention that empowers the Assad regime. The danger posed by Nusra can only be counteracted by finding a political solution to the conflict in Syria. Meanwhile, the international community should instead focus on protecting civilians and providing sufficient support to opposition groups, both civil and armed, to challenge Nusra’s influence in the near term. 

Haid Haid is a Syrian researcher who focuses on foreign and security policy, conflict resolution, and Kurds and Islamist movements. Follow him on Twitter at @HaidHaid22.

Image: Photo: Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front fighters carry their weapons on the back of a pick-up truck during the release of Lebanese soldiers and policemen in Arsal, eastern Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer