x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Al Nusra receives mixed reception from Syrian rebels after split from Al Qaeda

The debut of Fatah Al Sham, as Al Nusra now refers to itself since breaking off from the terror network, comes with its leading role in an offensive launched by rebel forces on Sunday to break the regime's siege of Aleppo city.

A screengrab of the video in which Jabhat Al Nusra's head, Abu Mohamad Al Jolani, announced that the extremist group was breaking ties with Al Qaeda. Orient News/AFP/Handout
A screengrab of the video in which Jabhat Al Nusra's head, Abu Mohamad Al Jolani, announced that the extremist group was breaking ties with Al Qaeda. Orient News/AFP/Handout

BEIRUT // When Jabhat Al Nusra declared it was breaking off from Al Qaeda last week, the group hoped the move would foster unification with Syrian rebel factions battling the government of president Bashar Al Assad.

With opposition forces besieged in Aleppo growing increasingly desperate, Al Nusra’s play to further integrate and increase the rebels’ dependency on the extremist group could work.

“I think it will generally be more difficult now to disentangle the rebranded Nusra from the wider insurgency, even if we do not see formal mergers with the new Jabhat Fatah Al Sham,” said Aymenn Jawad Al Tamimi, an expert on hardline factions in Syria and a fellow at the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum.

“Some groups that have clashed with Nusra in the past ... have not dropped their grievances, but they do not command sufficient influence to mount a wider challenge against the group. The goal of breaking the siege of rebel-held Aleppo is seen as the biggest priority now.”

The debut of Fatah Al Sham, as Al Nusra now refers to itself, comes with its leading role in an offensive launched by rebel forces on Sunday to break the siege of Aleppo, where opposition forces and hundreds of thousands of civilians are completely surrounded in the city’s east.

The rebranded group has already released videos of its suicide bombers striking Syrian government targets and its tanks charging into battle as part of the offensive. The videos carry the group’s new logo and blare nasheeds over the sounds of war.

Al Nusra’s role in the battle is a huge opportunity for the group to furnish its rebel credentials by potentially saving the trapped opposition forces from defeat. It is a chance to show the group’s detractors that they need Al Nusra’s forces on the battlefield if they want to win.

There are already a number of factions active in Syria’s conflict that have similar ideologies to Al Nusra and have co-operated with the group on the battlefield, but avoided deeper integration with the group because of its affiliation with Al Qaeda. By maintaining cordial, yet arm’s-length alliances with Al Nusra, these factions were able to reap some of the benefits of the group’s military dominance while not risking the loss of foreign funding or their rebel monikers by being considered Al Qaeda. The name change and the claimed break-up with Al Qaeda could pave the way for some like-minded groups to strengthen their relationships with Al Nusra and further integrate forces or even merge.

The hardline Salafi group Ahrar Al Sham, one of the most powerful rebel factions in the country, has already welcomed Jabhat Al Nusra’s rebranding and expressed hope that it would lead to unification among rebel ranks.

“We thank our brothers for this move and appreciate that they responded to the advice given to them. We hope that this will lead to fostering religious and revolutionary engagement between all factions of the revolution, thus resulting in further military victories against Assad’s militias and their collaborators,” it said in a statement on Saturday.

But not all groups agree.

Jaish Al Islam, another powerful Salafi group, was more sceptical of Al Nusra’s break-up with Al Qaeda.

While saying that the move was “in the interest of the Syrian people and their revolution,” Jaish Al Islam spokesman Capt Islam Alloush said the group did not believe the rebranding was enough to bring Al Nusra closer to the Syrian people.

“I do not think that the disengagement of Jabhat Al Nusra from Al Qaeda will have an effect on the military ideology of the Fatah Al Sham fighters,” he said in a statement. “We will be waiting and watching the behaviour of the new formation with its new name in order to pass a fair judgement.”

Speaking to The National just ahead of Al Nusra’s split from Al Qaeda, Capt Alloush said Jaish Al Islam had cut off any cooperation and coordination with Al Nusra because of its affiliation with Al Qaeda and behaviour in Syria.

“We, Syria, cannot accept an organisation that is linked to foreign agendas that do not serve the Syrian cause,” he said. “We, in Jaish Al Islam, are committed to the objectives of our revolution that demands freedom and dignity.”

But despite their criticisms of Al Nusra, Jaish Al Islam is participating in the same Al Nusra-led campaign to break the siege of Aleppo.

Both Ahrar Al Sham and Jaish Al Islam have been accused of carrying out war crimes and following ideologies that are tinged with extremism.

Al Nusra’s rebranding will likely be a harder sell to more moderate rebel factions that denounce the group and have found themselves fighting Al Nusra at times. Among more moderate factions, there has been a feeling that Al Nusra could be left alone while it helps to defeat the Syrian government and dealt with afterwards. But as the group’s influence continues to swell and it gains more allies, this could prove increasingly unachievable. And facing defeat in Aleppo, more moderate factions are being forced to fight in the same battles as Al Nusra – and could warm to co-operating with the group as they fight for their survival.

Al Nusra’s push for unity with other rebel factions seems almost perfectly timed. The US and Russia were set to cooperate in attacking the group in Syria, but by muddying the battlefield by trying to grow closer with other rebel units, Al Nusra could complicate those plans.

Their move also comes when rebels need friends and help in northern Syria. Aleppo is besieged. Turkey, a key backer of the rebels since the early days of the war, has signalled it may look to repair relations with the Syrian government. After failed attempts to arm, train and use vetted rebel units, the US appears to have largely given up on aiding the opposition.

“The rebels have little choice,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “They can’t split from Nusra, because they’re not going to find an American partner if they do. Their only choice is to try to win on the battlefield. And that means Nusra is key, because Nusra is by far the most effective fighting force out there.”

jwood@thenational.ae