Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1306, (4 - 10 August 2016)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1306, (4 - 10 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Trick or structural shift?

The Al-Nusra Front’s severing of ties to Al-Qaeda has not convinced Syrian or other observers, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Al-Nusra Front in Syria has announced that it is parting ways with Al-Qaeda, the global organisation founded by Osama Bin Laden. Changing its name to the Fateh Al-Sham Front and abandoning the black flag favoured by extremist groups for a white one, the Front has announced it will maintain no foreign affiliations, making it a purely Syrian Islamist organisation.

Front leader Mohammed Al-Golani, who appeared with his face uncovered for the first time, said in a video that the split was justified on both foreign and domestic grounds. It seeks “to remove the excuses of the international community, especially Russia and the US, and avoid their strikes,” he said. It would also “reduce the distance between the factions” fighting the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

The move received the blessings of Ayman Al-Zawahri, the leader of Al-Qaeda, who lauded “prioritising the interests of the Syrian people” over the interests of his organisation, even though the move means that Al-Qaeda will give up its strongest military arm in Syria.

Al-Golani defined the new organisation’s goals as “taking action to establish God’s religion, realising justice, and uniting with other factions to liberate the Levant and eliminate the regime and its supporters.”

In other words, the organisation’s goals remain primarily religious, and it sees the Syrian Revolution as an opportunity to establish a new caliphate in the Middle East.

Observers speculate that the Al-Nusra Front’s decision to cut ties with Al-Qaeda will shift strategic alliances on the ground in Syria. They also expect the new Front to be accepted by other factions of the armed opposition fighting the regime.

More than one US official has declared that the Front is still a target for strikes, expressing concern at the danger the organisation poses despite its rebranding. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that “there continues to be concern about the Al-Nusra Front’s growing capacity for external operations that could threaten both the United States and Europe.”

US State Department Spokesman John Kirby said the declaration “could be simply a matter of changing names,” adding that the US would judge the group by its actions and ideology. Lloyd Austin, head of the US Central Command, said the Al-Nusra Front “is still part of Al-Qaeda even if it changes its name.”

Russia has announced that it will continue shelling the Front’s positions, with or without the break from Al-Qaeda. It has shelled positions held by the group around the northern Syrian city of Aleppo as part of its attempt to retake the city with regime forces.

Some factions of the armed Syrian resistance welcomed the move, among them the Islamist Ahrar Al-Sham group, which called for a project to unite the opposition factions into one body. The Army of Mujahideen group described Al-Golani’s speech as “excellent” and expressed a willingness to unite with the new Front.

It also cautioned the International Coalition against striking the new Front because “there is no longer any justification to shell it.” Jaysh Al-Islam, one of the biggest opposition military forces in Syria, cautiously welcomed the announcement, saying the break “serves the interests of the Syrian people and the Revolution and will stem the bloodshed.” It said it would monitor the actions of the new Front.

The opposition’s High Negotiations Body also welcomed the Front’s decision, but it asked the group to join in a genuine national project that would bring all Syrians together and take the country to a period without oppression or tyranny.

A spokesman for the body said he did not expect the step to have a positive effect because Al-Golani’s speech had indicated no change in the group’s structure or objectives and the break had not been welcomed internationally.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria welcomed the decision, calling it “a first step towards making the revolution and its objectives local.”

Other opposition forces cautioned against welcoming any “deceptive” step by the Al-Qaeda-linked organisation, however. The Revolutionary Coordinating Body, which describes itself as representing the domestic opposition, called the position of the Negotiations Body “rash”.

It said the Al-Nusra Front’s decision was “an obvious circumvention of international resolutions designating terrorist forces” and stressed the need to respect international resolutions that classify the Al-Nusra Front as a terrorist organisation.

The State Building current of the opposition said the Front’s changing its name without changing its conduct and ideology was “utterly worthless.” It said that “what unites us is that we’re all Syrians, not Muslims. The Al-Nusra Front is no better than the regime. These are despotic forces that want to impose their ideology by force of arms.”

Fayez Sara, a member of the opposition Coalition of Revolutionary Forces, said the move “does not constitute a break between the Al-Nusra Front and Al-Qaeda except in formal terms. It affirms the relationship of dependency between the two organisations and their continued cooperation.”

“It is an attempt to overcome the political and military challenges facing the Al-Nusra Front on three levels. The first is the recent Russian-US agreement, which seeks joint action against Daesh [Islamic State] and Al-Nusra. The second is the disagreement between the Front and the Syrian political and military opposition groups on objectives, tactics, and the future of the conflict. The third is the clash between it and the popular movement in many Syrian cities as a result of the Front’s practices,” he said.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said on 19 July that he and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov had agreed to fight the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State (IS) groups simultaneously. This has been reflected on the ground in an escalation in the air strikes by the International Coalition and Russia on Al-Nusra positions around Syria.

A Salafi jihadi group, the Al-Nusra Front first emerged in December 2011 in the wake of an internal dispute in Al-Qaeda that caused the organisation to split into IS and the Al-Nusra Front. The Front’s influence grew rapidly in Syria, where it became one of the most prominent armed opposition forces.

 Most of the group’s fighters are Syrians, in contrast to IS which relies on other Arabs and foreigners. Since the Al-Nusra Front has had access to ample resources, it has paid its fighters generously and supplied them with arms, bolstering its popularity.

In December 2012, the US government designated the Al-Nusra Front a terrorist organisation, a decision which at the time was rejected by the Syrian opposition. Defending the Front, the Syrian political opposition said that Al-Nusra engaged in no actions outside Syria’s borders, worked towards the objective of overthrowing the regime, and sought to establish a pluralistic and democratic regime.

It did not attempt to explain how such a pluralistic democracy could be established with the assistance of an Islamist military faction.

On 30 May, 2013, the UN Security Council added the Al-Nusra Front to the list of entities and individuals affiliated with Al-Qaeda. No one then knew the true identity of Al-Golani, and the Front was suspected of having links with the Syrian regime, especially since most of its leaders had been detained in Syrian prisons.

They were released six months after the outset of the Revolution, with the goal of turning a popular uprising into a war.

Many Syrians opposed to the regime have now welcomed the Al-Nusra Front’s decision to break with Al-Qaeda, expressing the hope that the group’s fighters will adopt the Revolution’s goals which do not include involving Syrians in a global jihad or establishing an Islamic caliphate.

However, opposition analyst Sayed Muqbil said “there are doubts this will happen or that the Al-Nusra Front will shift its positions. This is an attempt by Al-Qaeda to test the principle of decentralised action, and it has permitted the Front to break ties to test the model of local jihadi action.”

“The experiment recalls the relationship between the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Lebanese Hizbullah group. The Revolutionary Guards sought to make Hizbullah the principal power in Lebanon by making a strong political showing, and it became a power to be reckoned with thanks to Iranian missiles and heavy arms. Al-Nusra is capable of attracting Sunni communities in Syria to confront the regime and IS and to turn into a new type of Al-Qaeda franchise,” he said.

The break with Al-Qaeda may lead some members of other Syrian factions to join with Al-Nusra, after the distinction between it and other Islamist military groups has been erased. It could also lead entire factions to join the Front on the grounds that it represents a local Islamist project and not a terrorist one. This may justify the US administration leaving the door ajar by linking its stance to the Front’s actions in the future.

At the same time, the separation is less about politically renouncing Al-Qaeda’s ideology than about making a media splash with tactical objectives — namely, domesticating Al-Qaeda in Syrian society and cementing its presence in the kind of decentralised jihadi context aspired to by the organisation.

The move could also spur the militant wing of the Al-Nusra Front to splinter off and join IS, which could threaten its cohesion and internal durability. It could also help resolve a crisis that has plagued the group and plunged it into a chasm of confused identity, torn between its local Syrian identity and its foreign affiliation. This has posed a major problem in defining the group and its members’ conception of themselves.

“It seems Al-Nusra’s shift from part of a global terrorist organisation to a moderate, local organisation is not genuine or realistic,” Sara said. “It’s an attempt to resolve a political predicament that is threatening it. This will only persist and grow with the organisation’s new name, however.”

 “A true split requires fundamental shifts in the nature of Al-Nusra and its ideology. Perhaps the most important would be going beyond the goal of establishing an Islamic state, which is not a goal of the Syrian Revolution against the [Bashar] Al-Assad regime,” he said.

Syrian researcher Sasha Al-Elo commented that “we can’t ignore the Al-Nusra Front’s role as an effective actor in the Syrian military and political landscape. But it has derived its power from the absence of a national project to fill a vacuum, filled by Al-Nusra with its religious discourse and military operations.”

“Creating a national political project that can be joined by all the revolutionary groups is a necessity that can no longer be put off. This project must have the deterrent effect of protecting the national forces from a military confrontation with Al-Nusra, and it must be able to confront Al-Nusra or others,” Al-Elo said. (see p.15)

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