Abu Mohammad al-Julani, leader of Jabhat al-Nusra (“JAN” or “Nusra Front”), an al-Qaeda affiliate, announced on July 29th that they parted ways from al-Qaeda. Julani stated that the organization was renaming itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.
Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri publicly supported the split in an audio statement praising Jabhat al-Nusra saying “You can sacrifice without hesitation these organizational and party ties if they conflict with your unity and working as one body. Your unity and unification is more important to us than any organizational link.”
Al-Julani stated, “Under the newly formed Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, it will have no international affiliation, and aims to unite with other rebel groups in order to protect the Syrian revolution.”
What Is The US Response?
Just two weeks prior to al-Nusra’s re-alignment, the US and Russia announced an alliance to target Jabhat al-Nusra. After the announcement by al-Julani to split from al-Qaeda, the United States immediately remarked that the organization will remain on their terror list. Hopefully the US will take an “observe and evaluate” attitude.
At the same time, the US State Department Spokesperson John Kirby also said “the Russian and Syrian humanitarian exercise around Aleppo on Thursday appeared to actually be an attempt to force the evacuation of civilians and the surrender of militant groups.”
It is in effect another attempt by the Assad regime to change Syria’s demographics in key cities.
What Is Mainstream Western Media Reporting About Jabhat al-Nusra
Every major news outlet including CNN has picked up on a January 2016 report by the Institute for The Study of War and American Enterprise that condemns the United States’ single-minded focus on Daesh, saying the policy is misguided. The report said, “Any strategy that leaves Jabhat al-Nusra in place will fail to secure the American homeland.” Fred Kagan, one of the authors of the report believes “al-Nusra has made a tactical decision not to attack the West for the time being.” However, he went on to say he believes, “Al-Nusra is quietly intertwining itself with the Syrian population and Syrian opposition … They are waiting in the wings to pick up the mantle of global jihad once ISIS falls.”
Editor’s Note: The acronyms ISIS, ISIL, IS and Daesh all refer to the same group. Arabs like to call ISIS “Daesh,” which is the arabic acronyms for ISIS. This is explained by Alice Guthrie in her excellent blog post “Decoding Daesh: Why is the new name for ISIS so hard to understand?“
What Took So Long for Julani to Make the Break From Al-Qaeda
As early as March 4, 2015, Reuters reported that Nusra was considering leaving al-Qaeda to form a new entity backed by some Gulf states trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad. Qatar helped facilitate the exit plan in 2015, promising funding if the group made a clear break and concentrated their efforts on toppling the Assad regime.
In late May 2015, al-Julani was interviewed by Ahmed Mansour saying “al-Nusra has no plans for attacking Western targets, and that their priority is focused on fighting the Syrian regime, Hezbollah, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Nusra Front doesn’t have any plans or directives to target the West. We received clear orders from Ayman al-Zawahiri not to use Syria as a launching pad to attack the U.S. or Europe in order to not sabotage the true mission against the regime. Maybe Al-Qaeda does that, but not here in Syria. Assad forces are fighting us on one end, Hezbollah on another and ISIL on a third front. It is all about their mutual interests.”
It isn’t clear why al-Julani did not formally break ties with his al-Qaeda friends earlier than this week, as the association has certainly hurt the Syrian people. According to a well-known activist from Aleppo, “This is a decision that [al-Nusra] should have taken long ago. They have played a major role in providing the regime with the excuses it needs to continue stomping over any legitimate opposition.” When asked if it is too late for Jabhat Fatah al-Sham to legitimize, he said, “It might not be too late, but it has been immensely damaging. And, most of the harm caused by the reluctance to adapt earlier is irreversible.”
What Do the Syrian People Have To Say?
The culture that Jabhat al-Nusra has historically used in Syria, including areas of Idlib and more recently Maarat al Norman, is not consistent with the “life and safety of the people of Syria.” Since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution, the people have taken to the streets in protest of the Assad government. One of the strongest centers of civilian demonstrations has been Maarat al-Norman.
Since the US – Russia brokered ceasefire in February 2016, civilians throughout Syria took to the streets to protesting against the Assad Regime. In Maarat, the crackdown was not by the Syrian government. It was by the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and its allied factions.
In response, residents launched a “civil resistance campaign” against the group’s militant rule that has now lasted more than 100 days, making it one of the longest protests of its kind since 2011.
It has been unfortunate that in their effort to consolidate power, Jabhat al-Nusra demonstrated a culture that is contrary to the “life and safety of the Syrian people.”
Personal Interviews With the People
Khaled Abo azez / خالد ابو العز , a media activist in Maarat al-Norman, told me citizens have been demanding that al-Nusra leave al-Qaeda for a very long time. He said, “They left the base [al-Qaeda] at the request of the people. The reason is innocent people are being killed. The coalition [even] kills civilians under the pretext of rule now, so they [al-Nusra] have left to be free to join the [Revolutionary] army. Nusra is very serious about this. They have begun work on forming a unified army. It is a good step for the Revolution … and for the future of Syria … Insha ‘Allah!”
Nehad Ismail, writer and commentator on Middle East affairs, supports Khaled’s analysis by stating, “They [al-Nusra] will pay a heavy price for their agenda and alliance with al-Qaeda. The only way they can survive is to dissolve Nusra and merge with other groups. They must forget about an Islamic State. No matter what, they are now to be targeted by the US, Russia and Assad. Unlike ISIS which is colluding with Assad, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is an avowed enemy of the Assad regime, Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and any other Assad Proxies.”
Thae’r aldimashqi, Sham News Network Reporter from Eastern Ghouta said, “The Syrian people have been suffering a lot and the international coalition has been bombing innocent people ‘by the trick’ that they are bombing al-Qaeda. Nusra [has responded] to the need of the people by leaving al-Qaeda. The Syrian people have been murdered, deported and placed under siege due to international silence. This has paved the way for the deterioration of the country [Syria] and the emergence of extremism. What is happening in Aleppo now is the biggest proof of the cowardice [of the world] and Russia is in the foreground.”
According to Muhannad Al Boshi, Syrian Consultant, the main issue with al-Nusra is their culture. It cannot change overnight. Muhannad said, “They [Nusra] are very brave fighters, and they have done very strong harm against the regime. The problem is, I can’t trust their culture. The split isn’t as important as the change they have to make themselves. I don’t think they will change that much, but let’s wait and see.”
A similar written statement was emailed to me by the spokesman of Jaish al-Islam, saying .” .. this step [separating from al-Qaeda] is not enough to get close to the Syrian people. I do not think that the disengagement will affect Sham fighters’ military school, but we will wait and watch the group with a new name to see their behavior, so that we can make righteous judgment on them.”
Nazeer Al-Khatib, a Citizen Journalist with al-Shaba Press Agency, stated “The Syrian street demanded from the beginning of the revolution that al-Nusra separate from international conflict and concentrate on the Syrian Revolution. This is a demand of the Syrian People. Nazeer stated in his opinion “the Syrian people hope that Nusra is serious about their recent separation from al-Qaeda and hopes the Nusra fighter’s behavior will improve gradually over time.”
The People’s Final World
The message is clear from the people of Syria. They want Jabhat Fatah al-Sham to join the Syrian Revolution, do what they do best, fight with a unified Syrian Revolutionary Army. It is the hope of the Syrian people, that the International Coalition will stop killing innocent civilians through their blinding mission to chase down Jabhat al-Nusra.
The focus of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham must be on working with the unified Revolutionary Army to fight Assad and his proxies and save the Syrian Homeland. They must leave the idea of ruling and the concept of an Islamic State to others. The future of Syria will be chosen by the people. Julani must socialize and demand allegiance to these core values by his fighters.