On July 28, 2016 Jabhat al-Nusra declared that it was rebranding itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. This maneuver was announced by the group’s commander Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, who in a spirit of apparent transparency revealed his identity after years of anonymity, dressed as and quoting Osama bin Laden. The decision is a significant shake up within the Syrian rebel movement and represents an important step by the group in further embedding itself within the rebel forces.
However, this “split” from al-Qaeda should not be seen as reflecting an ideological divide. In fact, this move is consistent with al-Qaeda’s emerging strategy in the region and the value it places on the jihad in Syria. Since early this year, AQ leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has said that “all means” must be used to defeat Assad and that groups should join together to achieve this goal. This is why AQ’s media has constantly berated Islamic State for fighting and killing other jihadists in Syria. The transition to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham was guided by al-Qaeda’s leadership and is a response to the Assad regime’s success and encirclement of Aleppo and the US-Russian deal to work together against al-Qaeda linked groups. JFS now hopes that the rebranding will provide cover for its operations within the rebel umbrella.
What’s Unique about Jabhat Fateh al-Sham?
It is true that originally Jabhat al-Nusra was part of the Islamic State of Iraq. The divergence and ideological split did not occur between the two groups until 2013. This has caused some analysts to conclude that its split from al-Qaeda is rooted in its divergent origin within what is now Islamic State. It is believed that Nusra was always more different than alike to al-Qaeda to remain part of the organization. It split from Islamic State because of Abu Bakr Baghdadi’s claims and IS’s preoccupation with establishing a state rather than fighting Assad. Nusra is unique in that unlike AQ, the sectarian nature of the Syrian conflict has indeed made it more sectarian in nature, especially in its rhetorical usages within its propaganda (whereas al-Qaeda still aspires towards a pan-Islamist movement). But unlike Islamic State, Nusra does not rely heavily on the usage and perpetuation of sectarian violence and narratives to achieve its strategic goals. It is pragmatic and flexible enough to tolerate differences between itself and other groups, in order to achieve immediate objectives. There seems to be no room for this sort of pragmatism in Islamic State.
Moreover, Nusra has always maintained that its jihad is confined to Syria, is solely concerned with defeating the Assad regime and protecting Sunni muslims, unlike al-Qaeda and Islamic State. One should take this very lightly, as the group could always change its mind once it has established and entrenched itself within the Syrian political body. In fact, this has been a goal all along and is part of the reasoning behind the so called split with al-Qaeda. We cannot say that this points to some divergence from al-Qaeda, as it has been AQ’s leadership that has guided Nusra to make these sorts of pacts in the past. Nusra’s commitment to the Syrian struggle is key in garnering grassroots support among the masses. It’s decision to rebrand into JFS and the successful breaking of the brutal Aleppo Siege has garnered significant political capital for the group among ordinary Syrians and the other rebel factions: instead of imposing the “rule of sharia” by force and conquest, it is attempting to garner wider support and co-opt itself within the Syrian opposition to the point where removing them will essentially be impossible.
When assessing Jolani’s statement, it is critical to note things that were not said: nowhere did he say JFS was “breaking ties” with al-Qaeda. He simply said that operations were ceasing under the Jabhat al-Nusra name and that the new JFS was not beholden to any exterior organizations. He praised al-Qaeda, and quoted bin Laden saying, “The interests of the Ummah take precedence over the interest of any state; the interests of the state take precedence over the interest of any Jama’ah (group); the interests of the Jama’ah (group) take precedence over any individual.” JFS is not simply trying to garner support. It’s attempting to do something that al-Qaeda franchises around the world have been unable to do: create an image that it represents the interests of the wider public and insert itself as a legitimate player within the heart of the Mideast.
From the beginning, AQ has seen Syria as pivotal for its long term survival and more important than its other affiliates in Yemen and the Maghreb (Western N. Africa). This is evidenced by the shift of many of its prominent and top leadership to Syria, from the Afghan-Pakistan region. Its other affiliates have not received this sort of logistical and moral support, because they operate in the “periphery.” As one of al-Qaeda’s religious leaders in Syria has recently stated, “JFS has been a work in progress for years.” As far back as this spring, Zawahiri was calling people to join the fight in Syria and emphasized the importance of this fight in his “Hasten To Sham” video. More telling of AQ’s intentions is this statement, “What kind society do you want? A society that adopts your cause, willing to die for it or a conformist society fearing your wrath?”