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

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