Tuesday, August 02, 2016
Syria’s al-Nusra Announces Split from al-Qaeda
In a long awaited declaration, the leader of [what was formerly known as] Jahbat al-Nusra, Abu Muhammad Al-Julani declared the dissolution of Nusra and in an all the more drastic step, the formation of a new group, Jabhat Fath al-Sham, which would no longer be affiliated with al-Qaeda. The declaration comes as no surprise, as debates inside and outside of the group have been brewing over the past months over the need to break with al-Qaeda, a debate which was all the more exacerbated following the formation of the international coalition against ISIS and the tensions that emerged between Nusra and other Jihadist factions such as Ahrar al-Sham. In fact, several key figures in Nusra have long advocated for this split. The most prominent of whom was Abu Maryam al-Qahtani. Early this week, reports indicated that Jabhat al-Nusra’s Shura Council had taken the decision to split from al-Qaeda, and that an announcement was forthcoming.
The statement begins with Julani thanking al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahari, for their contributions to the Jihad in Syria. Julani goes on to quote Osama Bin Laden, in stressing that the interests of the Ummah must be given priority to those of any organization. The statement, meticulously worded, makes the split appear more like an amicable break with al-Qaeda than a severance. Sitting to the right of al-Julani was Abu al-Farj al-Masri and to his right, Abu ‘Abd Allah al-Shami. Abu al-Faraj, whose real name is Ahmad Salamah Mabrouk, is an Egyptian scholar who was released shortly after the January 25th revolution. Soon thereafter, he joined the Syrian rebels in 2011. According to many observers, al-Faraj is a senior jurist in al-Nusra. Abu ‘Abd Allah, also known as ‘Abd ar-Raheem ‘Atoon, is a prominent member of al-Nusra’s Shura Council and a prominent jurist. In appearing before cameras, with these two senior jurist, al-Julani is demonstrating that the decision, far from being pragmatic, was undertaken under the auspices of Islamic precedents.
The declared objectives of the new group is the establishment of the Shari’ah and justice in Syria, the unification of Jihadi factions in Syria, the preservation and continuity of the Syrian revolution and providing Muslims with all necessary forms of aid and assistance in order to alleviate their condition.
There are several motives behind this split. First and foremost, Nusra has long been polarised among other rebel factions for its transnational Jihadist vision and its affiliation with al-Qaeda. As part of al-Qaeda, al-Nusra had little room to articulate a strategy for Syria given the overarching and global nature of al-Qaeda’s political and military objectives.
Secondly, regional powers have grappled with the question of al-Nusra’s status, as to whether or not the organization should be listed as a “terrorist group” or not. This question became all the more critical given that many foreign-backed rebel groups are militarily and logistically allied to al-Nusra.
Shortly after the declaration, military officials belonging to the international coalition were quick to announce that the change in name did not exempt Nusra from its strikes and that it remained a terrorist group. In fact, in Julani’s statement, no indication is made that the international community might reconsider the group’s status in Syria and goes on to mention that the United States and Russia are enemies of the Syrian revolution. This should also, in no way, be viewed as a break from the Jihadi movement. In the days preceding the declaration, reports suggested that the leading Salafi Jihadi scholar, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, was consulted on whether or not the group should split and apparently al-Maqdisi supported the move. Other Jihadi rebel groups were also quick to applaud the split. Abu Hamza al-Hamwi, the leader of Jund al-Sham, stated that the split was a positive step towards the unification of rebel groups in Syria and a decision which conformed to the interests of the Syrian revolution.
What then, is the primary objective behind this declaration? Speculations could be made, such as; allowing greater cooperation with regional actors, opening the door for ideological laxity, adopting more ambivalent and “moderate postures”. But speculations aside, one thing is clear; the split from al-Qaeda and the dissolution of al-Nusra is a major public relations move intended to improve the organization’s image inside Syria. This is all the more substantiated by the fact that the organization went as far as changing its name. That is to say, it wanted to make clear that we have completely broken all ties, and this is our new face. The disassociation with al-Qaeda, in and of itself, seems to be the key change. Following Julani’s declaration, the group released a 15-point manifesto that in no way differs from their previous political and ideological stances. Now that the organization has more room to manage its own image inside and outside Syria and articulate a strategy independent of external organizations, it can play a more powerful political role in Syria. Given that the organization was affiliated with al-Qaeda and its distinct political objectives, such a political posture inside Syria was nearly impossible. Furthermore, these shifts seem to be part of a larger trend among Jihadist who are increasingly domesticating their Jihad. That is not to say, however, that al-Nusra has come to terms with the nation-state without necessarily accepting its ideological baggage.
The formation of Jabhat al-Sham coincides, be it intentionally or otherwise, with several critical developments in Syria’s complex military and political landscape. For starters, rebels have lost most of Eastern Aleppo to the Syrian Arab Army, which has also cut off most roads leading inside and outside of the province. Secondly, the United States and Russia have reaffirmed their joint commitment to strike al-Nusra in Syria and restarting peace-talks. At this point, it is difficult to speculate how the split will affect the Syrian revolution. Given that al-Nusra has now shed its affiliation with al-Qaeda, we can expect stronger coordination with rebel groups which had been previously apprehensive about al-Nusra. In turn, this is likely to complicate the already fragile and complex relationship between these rebel groups and regional power-brokers. On a more international level, it might deepen the schisms between regional powers that welcome the [long awaited] split with international powers like the United States and Russia, who have dismissed it as being meaningless.
Ali S. Harfouch
Posted by youngmuslim at Tuesday, August 02, 2016