Nusra Front Eyes Legitimacy in Syria After Amicable Split With Al-Qaida

The Syrian group's rebranding could allow it to take part in the negotiations over the country's future, while opening a stream of Qatari and Saudi funds. Now, even the U.S. may see it as a partner.

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Militants from Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Al-Nusra Front drive in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo flying Islamist flags as they head to a frontline, on May 26, 2015.
Militants from Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Al-Nusra Front drive in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo flying Islamist flags as they head to a frontline, on May 26, 2015.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“The brotherhood of Islam that exists among us is stronger than any passing or changing organizational ties. Your unity, your unification, your adaptation to circumstances is more important and dear than any organizational affiliation.” This was the statement released by Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in an audio tape released Thursday.

It was what Abu Mohammad al-Julani, commander of the Nusra Front – one of the biggest and best-organized of the militias fighting the Assad regime in Syria – was waiting for. Julani released a statement that his organization was severing ties with Al-Qaida and from now on would operate independently under the name Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (“the Levant Conquest Front”).

The commanders of the Nusra Front have been discussing the possibility of severing ties with Al-Qaida for months now, so that they could join the political negotiations seeking a resolution of the crisis in Syria after more than five years. It was reported Thursday that the organization had inexplicably abandoned all of its positions in the Dara’a area, southern Syria. It is believed the Nusra Front received information from an Arab country – apparently Saudi Arabia or Jordan – that Western coalition forces and Russia were about to attack in the area and warning them to leave.

The dilemma over whether to split from Al-Qaida began shortly after the start of Syria talks initiated by the United States, together with Russia, and grew after the two powers included the Nusra Front and Islamic State in the list of terror organizations to which the cease-fire signed in Geneva last February did not apply. As a result, the Nusra Front became a legitimate target for U.S. and Russian bombing.

More importantly, assaults on the Nusra Front served Russia as a pretext to strike other rebel militia bases, claiming they were attacking a terror group that was not part of the agreement. The link between the Nusra Front and Al-Qaida caused those militias another problem: Nusra Front operatives on some fronts, such as Idlib and Dara’a, were working together with other militias and had become the target of criticism by the countries funding the rebels – especially the United States, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. According to senior members of the rebel militias, the Nusra Front “stained the name of the rebels,” and put some of them in the same trench as an organization whose extremist religious ideology those militias opposed.

A few months ago, Qatar proposed to the Nusra Front leadership that the group split from Al-Qaida, in exchange for being included in the list of legitimate organizations. In doing so, the group would be able to send representatives to the political negotiations in Geneva. No less importantly, Qatar and Saudi Arabia could then back the Nusra Front financially.

Now “released” by Zawahiri, the Nusra Front can “present its candidacy” to join the list of legitimate organizations and enjoy immunity from U.S. and Russian aerial assaults, operating without fear with the other militias.

It’s an amicable divorce, but without it Zawahiri might have found himself facing a fait accompli anyway. His statement saved Al-Qaida from internal struggles, which previously led to serious clashes in which Julani ordered the arrest and punishment of anyone who opposed the split.

The Nusra Front has internal policing powers to find and arrest potential deserters, which it has actually been doing for the past few weeks. And in addition to its new name, it has adopted a flag that resembles the one used by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

For Al-Qaida, the split is the second harsh blow it has suffered in the past three years. The first was when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi decided to found a new branch in Syria (the Nusra Front). He sent Julani from Iraq to establish the militia, organize volunteers from abroad and enlist the Syrian supporters of Al-Qaida’s ideology. Julani’s success was so immediate and sweeping that Baghdadi feared that he could lose the leadership of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – the branch of Al-Qaida in Iraq that was to become the Islamic State. Baghdadi came to Syria and demanded that Julani swear allegiance to him but the latter, who already headed a well-organized and well-armed group, refused and declared his allegiance instead to Zawahiri.

Julani also refused to carry out Baghdadi’s orders. These included blowing up a hotel in Turkey where members of the opposition were meeting, and fighting against other rebel militias in Syria.

Zawahiri, who believed he was still in control of Baghdadi, demanded that the latter leave Syria, focus on Iraq and let Julani manage the Al-Qaida branch in Syria without interference. But Baghdadi not only rejected Zawahiri’s demand, he mocked him and presented him as unworthy of leading Al-Qaida.

ISIS’s success brought many Al-Qaida branches in North Africa, Sinai, Afghanistan and other countries into its fold. Now Zawahiri has to give up on the important branch of the organization in Syria and make do with the one operating in Yemen and a few smaller branches in Africa and East Asia.

Moreover, Zawahiri – who two years ago spread a the rumor that he intended to quit Al-Qaida – might see the Syrian branch sitting at the negotiating table with the United States, France, Russia and Britain to discuss Syria’s future.

For Zawahiri, that might trigger a sense of déjà vu. Such a meeting would certainly remind him of the meetings between representatives of Al-Qaida and the CIA during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, when Al-Qaida became the drafting wing of volunteers and funded the Afghan Mujahidin. A convergence of interests between Al-Qaida and the United States also exists in Syria, because the severing of the Nusra Front’s ties with its mother organization could assist the main campaign against ISIS and lead to a breakthrough in the blocked diplomatic channel.

There is nothing new in the fact that the United States might sit at the same table with an entity that until recently had been considered an extremist terror group. Washington has already found allies in the Taliban, assisted armed militias in Iraq and is helping the Kurds in Syria. Those are the same Kurds that Turkey defines as terrorists because of their support for the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party).

The United States can also quote Julani’s statements in an interview with Al Jazeera: That the goal of his militia is to bring down Syrian President Bashar Assad and not to harm the West. Indeed, as opposed to ISIS, so far no known Nusra Front operatives have been involved in attacks in the West.

“Terror organization” is a temporary title – and not only in Syria – depending on interests and circumstances, and the cost-benefit equation and the question of who is supporting the organization. This is known not only by the world powers but also by Al-Qaida, which is now showing political pragmatism. Zawahiri has suddenly stopped sanctifying organizational unity and personal loyalty, and is letting the Nusra Front go.

The road to the Nusra Front joining the political talks is not free of pitfalls. Not all the senior members of its militia support the split; some could even join Islamic State. Although the goal of getting rid of Assad is shared by all the rebel militias, the Nusra Front is controversial because of its desire to establish a state based on Islamic law in Syria. Its advantage is that most of its members are Syrians and not foreigners. Its weakness is that support for its ideas among the Syrian population is limited, hence the fear that if it gains a position of influence at the negotiating table, its very presence could cause other opposition leaders to boycott proceedings.

If the Nusra Front, in its new guise, joins the “legitimate” forces fighting ISIS, this really will be something new. From the beginning, it has faced off against ISIS and is fighting it on a number of fronts, including northern Syria and the Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus. But if it is does join the forces fighting ISIS, it could focus the international struggle on ISIS and deny Russia the pretext for attacks on other rebel groups.

The key question is whether the Nusra Front’s cutting of ties with Al-Qaida in Syria will generate similar processes in other countries where Al-Qaida still has a hold and, thus, lead to the disintegration of Al-Qaida.

Ostensibly, this is a theoretical question, mainly because Al-Qaida has not functioned for years as a hierarchical organization that draws its strength from an agreed-on and revered leader like Osama bin Laden. At the same time, ISIS – which until about 18 months ago refrained from acting according to the strategy devised by bin Laden and moved to take over territories, instead of perpetrating major terror attacks in Western cities – is turning increasingly to single actions and attacks of the Al-Qaida type.

It’s too early to celebrate the weakness of Al-Qaida, because ultimately it doesn’t matter who is behind a terror attack. The difficulty in dealing with individual acts of terror that accompanied the fight against Al-Qaida remains in the ISIS era as well.

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