Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1306, (4 - 10 August 2016)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1306, (4 - 10 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Terror laundering

The renaming of Al-Nusra Front in Syria may portend bigger changes on the field of battle, and perhaps even the balance of the conflict, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

On 28 July, the world was taken by surprise by the announcement of Abu Mohamed Al-Julani, the leader of Al-Nusra Front, considered by the UN Security Council as a terrorist organisation, that his organisation is cutting off links with Al-Qaeda and renaming itself the Front for Conquering Al-Sham, using the Islamic term for conquest, namely, Al-Fath. It should not be confounded with another sister group, Ahrar Al-Sham.

In his statement, Al-Julani — a disciple of the notorious Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi who established a base for Al-Qaeda in Iraq to fight American forces after the American army invaded Iraq in 2003 — said that according to popular demand in Syria, and in order to prevent his fighters being targeted by both the Americans and the Russians, it was decided to change the name of the group after its recomposition.

Interestingly, the day before the announcement, the deputy leader of Al-Qaeda, who goes by the name Ahmed Hassan Abul-Kheir, made a statement in which the mother organisation granted permission to Al-Julani to break loose from Al-Qaeda if this move would protect the interests of Islam and Muslims around the world. The leaders of Al-Nusra were encouraged to take all appropriate measures towards that end.

It goes without saying that this decision was taken under strong pressure from the Arab and regional backers of Al-Nusra Front, that had come under heavy attacks by Russian bombers in and around Aleppo. The United States was probably aware of these pressures. The American position has always been hesitant towards this organisation. It is true, that it is designated a ‘foreign terrorist organisation’ by the US State Department; however, its Arab and regional partners have always distinguished between Daesh (the Islamic State group) and Al-Nusra. While publicly treating Al-Nusra as a terrorist organisation, Washington did not mind the logistical and financial links that have existed between its allies and partners and Al-Julani.

The strategic logic that explains this tactical move on the part of Al-Qaeda and company in Syria is twofold. First to incorporate Al-Julani among the so-called ‘moderate’ Islamic armed groups operating within Syria to overthrow the Bashar Al-Assad regime. And secondly to involve it in fighting Daesh without being bombarded by the Russians, once it starts conducting military strikes in the framework of the Western and Russian military strategy against Daesh. Needless to say, if the Americans and local forces fighting Daesh in Syria would advance to liberate Raqqa — the capital city of the so-called caliphate — in the near future as expected, then the support of the newly renamed Al-Nusra would be a plus.

Regardless of the change of names, Al-Nusra remains committed to the ultimate goal of all similar organisations affiliated with Al-Qaeda or paying allegiance to it; that is, the establishment of an Islamic Sunni state that would become the refuge of all Muslims. In this case, there is no tangible ideological difference between Daesh and the new descendant of Al-Nusra. If there are differences, then they relate to the tactics and the way they frame their messages.

Some experts believe this move on the part of Al-Julani will ultimately benefit Daesh. They expect defections among the fighters under his command, including foreign fighters, particularly those coming from the Islamic republics of the former Soviet Union. Other experts believe that the cutting off of links between Al-Nusra and its mother organisation, Al-Qaeda, will contribute in unifying some powerful Islamist armed groups in one grand alliance against both the Syrian regime and Daesh. Moreover, some hold the view that such a stronger and a unified force on the ground in Syria could redress the military balance to the slight advantage of the Syrian opposition, thus preparing the ground for the resumption of negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition in Geneva. As a matter of fact, Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy to Syria, said that he hoped to reconvene the Geneva talks sometime in August. It would be the fourth round of negotiations from the start of this year.

In the first American reaction to Al-Julani’s announcement, the White House press secretary said 28 July that the UN still has concerns about the capacity of Al-Nusra to carry out terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe.

On the same day, the State Department spokesperson pointed out in his daily press briefing that “Washington judges any organisation much more by its actions, its ideology, its goals. Affiliations may be a factor, but ultimately it is their actions, ideology and goals that matter the most.

And that’s how we are going to judge going forward… We certainly see no reason to believe that their actions or their objectives are any different.” He stressed that the United States still considers Al-Nusra a foreign terrorist organisation.

The Russian reaction was more firm and unconditional. Its Foreign Ministry left no doubt that regardless of the change in names, Al-Nusra will remain a terrorist organisation from a Russian point of view.

In the weeks to come, it is expected that the Americans and the Russians will increase the level of their military cooperation in Syria. Will that cooperation entail sparing the newly-named organisation from Russian air strikes or not? It remains to be seen. The answer could lie in who would be commanding the fighting in the ranks of the Islamist armed groups. If they will be fighting under Al-Julani’s command, there would be small chance for Russian bombers not to target them. And if they persist in fighting the Syrian army, the Russians will keep bombarding them.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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