Nusra’s name change may prove a boon

Dis­missed as stunt, re­brand­ing may lend ex­trem­ist group le­git­i­macy in Syria war

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - REGION - By Emir Gok­sel

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.

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