Nusra’s name change may prove a boon
Dismissed as stunt, rebranding may lend extremist group legitimacy in Syria war
BEIRUT: Derided as a stunt and dismissed out of hand, the Nusra Front’s latest reinvention may nevertheless lend the militant group the legitimacy it needs as a partner of the Syrian opposition and give it a platform to increase its influence over the wider insurgency.
On July 28, Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani announced the decision to sever ties with parent organization Al-Qaeda and change the name of the Syrian militia to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Front for the Conquest of Syria).
Al-Qaeda, a global militant network, gave its blessing to the decision.
Unsurprisingly, the United States, Russia, Iran and the United Nations declared Jabhat Fatah al-Sham a terrorist organization – like Nusra before it – shortly after Golani announced the split.
Despite this, the gambit seems set to pay off on the ground with the group’s local partners.
Noah Bonsey, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, believes that by addressing a major criticism within the opposition – Nusra Front’s allegiance to the transnational Al-Qaeda organization – the group has the potential to improve its reputation and influence in local society by emphasizing its “Syrian nature.”
“Nusra has a chance at really improving its image within opposition ranks as a result of those two [factors]: rebranding and the military progress,” Bonsey said.
“There is ... a chance for Nusra to recast itself in the eyes of fellow rebels and opposition supporters as a group that is more Syria-focused, that is not willing to sacrifice the effectiveness and cohesiveness of the opposition on the ground due to national Al-Qaeda aims.”
The move received praise from the Army of Conquest, a multifarious coalition of which Nusra Front is a member, and other Syrian opposition factions such as key coalition partner Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamist alliance Ajnad al-Sham, signifying positive feedback among local groups, despite differences in ideology and past grievances.
“[Nusra Front is] basically fighting in a very diverse coalition that’s fighting [President Bashar Assad’s] regime so this kind of a separation will enhance its ability to be able to form different kinds of alliances with different groups that are also fighting Assad,” said Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center.
“I think that this may help them recruit more people – win more hearts and minds at the local level – and these local alliances ... are going to be really determined by local collaborations more than anything else,” Yahya added.
Such collaborations include a counteroffensive in Aleppo, where rebels broke a strenuous regime siege around rebel-held eastern sections of the city Saturday, with both Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham playing a major role in the operation as the strongest forces on the ground. They were also instrumental in the formation of siege lines around most of the neighboring government-controlled areas that soon followed.
Nusra Front’s military success in Aleppo could enable the militant group to improve its recruiting pitch and appeal.
When it comes to the local reaction to Nusra Front’s contribution to the siege break, which could open supply lines back into suffering neighborhoods, Syrian activist Bakri Azzin told The Daily Star that the immediate positive impact was limited.
“Today, Nusra’s popularity stock is beginning to rise on the ground, and there is a positive view,” Azzin said. “However, people are also wary and there is a state of anticipation among them regarding the next phase.”
Cooperation between the newly rebranded Nusra Front and other groups – like the operation in Aleppo – could develop a stronger sense of military unity in the face of pro-Assad forces and international opponents.
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum think tank, said the military cooperation between Nusra Front and the wider insurgency is sturdier than before and that it is now “going to be harder to break.”
“The U.S . ... who wanted to target Jabhat al-Nusra [Nusra Front] figures and Al-Qaeda figures will [find it] much more difficult now. Politically, it will be much more costly for them,” Tamimi said.
Although the amity between Nusra Front and the Syrian opposition appears to be steadfast, experts agree that this accord is based on battlefield objectives and short-term goals and could waver in the long run, when all parties involved demand that their respective ideologies become recognized in Syria’s political process.
Despite its rebranding effort, Nusra Front’s objective mirrors that of Al-Qaeda in the creation of an Islamic emirate in Syria, as a stepping stone for a larger caliphate.
“There is such a wide ideological spectrum within the opposition ... Jabhat al-Nusra’s agenda is so distinct from that of the Syrian rebellion that in the long run, if and when the Syrian conflict transitions to a phase in which politics become more important, in which other opposition groups are making calculated decisions about their political future and a meaningful political process, that’s when the fact that Nusra has this very rigid ideology ... will become very important,” Bonsey said.
But at the moment, he explains, “These political and ideological differences [between the opposition groups] become less important compared to sheer battlefield objectives, and so this is where Nusra is very adept at using that to its advantage.”
Despite the implications for local society, the split is considered superficial on an international scale, where approaches toward the militant group have not changed. Last month, Russia and the United States discussed the potential for cooperation against Nusra Front, which may be one of the primary reasons for Nusra Front publicly cutting ties with Al-Qaeda.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Nusra is doing this to avoid Russian and American strikes because, from Nusra’s perspective, they’re already being pummeled by Russian and especially American strikes . ... [It’s] not the direct threat of strikes on Nusra that is pushing [it] to make this move necessarily, but the political and potential military ramifications of Russian-U.S. cooperation, because that is an issue of great importance to the opposition as a whole,” Bonsey said.
All in all, Nusra Front’s rebranding is not expected to cause any significant changes to the dynamics within the group itself nor, on the greater scale, the attitude international players have toward the group. The move, experts say, was essentially aimed at mitigating criticism directed toward the group by the Syrian opposition by disassociating from what is widely viewed as a terrorist organization, so as to appear as a more credible ally.
“[The move] doesn’t address the full list of complaints that other rebel groups have about Nusra, but it does address one prominent item on that list,” Bonsey concluded.
Fighters from the former Nusra Front – renamed Jabhat Fatah al-Sham – listen to a speech at an armament school south of Aleppo.