The sham rebrand of Jabhat al-Nusra
Gareth Porter, Middle East Eye, Aug 5 2016
Photo: Nusra leader Golani announces break from AQ (AFP)
Jabhat al-Nusra’s adoption of the new name Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and claim that it has separated itself from AQ was designed to influence Pindosi policy, not to make the group any more independent of AQ. The objective of the manoeuvre was to head off Pindo-Russian military cooperation against the Jihadi group, renamed last week, based at least in part on the hope that the Pindosi bureaucratic and political elite, who are lining up against a new Pindo-Russian agreement, may block or reverse the Obama administration’s intention to target the AQ franchise in Syria. The leader of the Syrian Jihadi organisation Mohammad al-Golani and AQ leader Ayman al-Zawahiri both made a great deal of the public encouragement that Zawahiri gave to separation from the parent organisation. The idea was that the newly rebranded and supposedly independent Jihadi organisation in Syria would be better able to fulfil its role in the Syrian revolution. But to anyone who has followed the politics of Nusra’s role in the Syrian war, the idea that Zawahiri would actually allow its Syrian franchise to cut loose from the central leadership and function with full independence is obviously part of a political sham. Charles Lister, the British expert on Syrian Jihad now at the Middle East Institute in Washington, observed in May that AQ’s senior leadership has acquired a huge political stake in Nusra’s success in dominating the war against the Assad regime, which it views as the jewel in the crown of its global operation, along with AQAP. This was not the first time that the issue of possible independence from AQ had come up in the context of the international politics of the Syrian conflict. A year ago last spring, Turkey, Qatar and the Toads, the external sponsors of the Nusra-dominated military command that had taken over Idlib in April, were concerned about the possibility that the Obama administration would come down hard against their Nusra-based strategy.
Qatari intelligence reportedly met several times with Golani and offered substantial direct funding in return for a formal move to renounce his loyalty to AQ. Influential figures in Washington were being told by Nusra’s external supporters in May 2015 that an important faction of Nusra was likely to split from AQ. That never happened, of course, and Golani himself repeated his allegiance to AQ in his first on-camera interview with al-Jazeera in Jun 2015. Golani’s loyalty is now a core interest of AQ. Nusra’s success in north-west Syria, and in Idlib governorate in particular, has given AQ its first opportunity to have its own sovereign state. The so-called “Islamic State” made a clean break from AQ in 2014. AQ’s hopes for its Syrian franchise were so high last spring that Nusra began to make the first preparations for its transformation into an “emirate”. It began holding consultations with other Jihadi groups in Syria as well as clerics that the leadership believed would be sympathetic to the idea of the first Islamic state based on AQ’s ideological outlook. AQ ambition for its Syrian affiliate also explains why a number of senior AQ figures have moved to Syria over the past three years—and especially after taking control of Idlib, according to Lister. The stakes for Zawahiri and his colleagues at AQ central transcend Syria, moreover. The project for an AQ emirate is vital to counter the attraction that ISIS has exerted at the expense of AQ since the 2014 break. So despite Zawahiri’s ostensible magnanimity in giving his blessing to the independence of his group’s Syrian affiliate, and the soothing reassurance of such independence from the new spokesman for the organisation, there is no way AQ could actually allow such independence.
In the newly renamed “Jabhat Fateh al-Sham,” the term “Sham” refers to the entire area that includes Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan. But the entire rebranding involved is also a “sham”, in the sense of something that is bogus being presented as real. The real reason for the rebranding and creation of a supposedly independent organisation was the threat of a Pindo-Russian joint air campaign against Nusra. Golani himself provided a very strong hint that it was the primary consideration, declaring that it was intended to take away the excuse used by the Pindostan and Russia to “bombard and displace Muslims under the pretence of targeting Jabhat al-Nusra.” Before word of negotiations over such military cooperation between the two powers surfaced in June, Nusra had resumed preparations for the eventual announcement of an emirate in Idlib, as Lister had reported based on his own Jihadi and Salafi contacts. But a shift in Pindo policy to all-out air war against Jabhat al-Nusra would be nothing short of a calamity for the Jihadi organisation. The Obama administration, which has regarded Nusra as a terrorist organisation from the beginning, had nevertheless effectively provided a partial shield for Nusra fighters under the partial ceasefire agreement. Although Nusra was formally exempted from the scope of the agreement, Jackass Kerry had reached an understanding with Lavrov in February that Russian planes would avoid hitting Nusra targets until the Pindo-supported “legitimate” armed opposition had been given a chance to separate themselves from Nusra physically and in terms of joint command structures. That separation never happened, and several armed opposition groups that had been given status as part of the Syrian political negotiations joined with Nusra in a major offensive that essentially brought the ceasefire to an end. Even then, however, the Obama administration continued to press the Russians to avoid bombing that could hit civilians and armed opposition groups, which it said were “commingled” with Nusra.
So it was obviously a blow to Nusra hopes when the Pindo-Russian negotiations on a joint military effort against the group were revealed. But the deal still has not been completed, and Nusra leaders knew from the WaPo that Pentagon and CIA boxtops were strongly opposed to US cooperation with Russia in Syria against their group. They knew the argument against such an agreement was that it would play into the hands of the Russians and their Syrian client by weakening the main source of military pressure on Assad. In fact, most of the news media, think tank specialists on the Middle East, and the Democrat Party political elite aligned with Hillary Clinton, now lean toward treating AQ’s Syrian affiliate as a strategic asset rather than a security threat. Even Lister has called Jabhat al-Nusra a greater long-term threat than ISIS. But he was quoted as saying that the rebranding “puts Pindostan and Russia in a tricky situation,” meaning that it would now be harder to justify air strikes against the newly renamed organisation. Golani and his colleagues understandably hoped that their foreign tactical allies against Pindo-Russian cooperation in Syria would try to exploit the rebranding operation to shoot down the agreement for joint air operations against them. The Obama administration has said clearly that the rebranding ploy will not change its policy toward the Jihadi organisation, but now Golani and his foreign supporters are undoubtedly hoping for a new approach in a Hillary Clinton administration.