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What’s next for Jabhat al-Nusra if they sever ties with Al-Qaeda?

In the event of a public split with Al-Qaeda, “the group’s aims and principles will remain the same,” a Nusra member tells NOW

Fighters from Al-Qaeda

High-level Islamist figures and sources close to Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria have confirmed over the past few days that the group will soon cut ties with Al-Qaeda. Multiple reports also have confirmed that the group’s consultative council (Majlis as-Shura) has recently voted to break away from the terror organization. The sources justified the delay of the announcement due to unresolved issues within the group and opposition from some leaders over the move, as well as external pressure being applied by Jund al-Aqsa, a jihadist group operating in Syria. Although similar claims about Al-Nusra’s intention to sever ties with Al-Qaeda have been circulating since late 2013, experts familiar with this topic agree that unlike previous claims, there is growing circumstantial evidence that the group might actually follow through with the move. “We’ve heard such claims before, but this one comes after Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi (an influential Jordanian-Palestinian Salafist) effectively gave his permission for such a move,” Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, tweeted yesterday in response to these reports. However, it is still not clear when this split might be announced and what impact the move will have on Al-Nusra in particular and on the dynamics of the conflict in Syria in general.


Jabhat al-Nusra was established in Syria in late 2011 and quickly gained notoriety for its military exploits against the Assad regime. In December 2012, the group was designated a terrorist organization by the US due to its affiliation with Al-Qaeda in Iraq, whose members would later go on to form the core of ISIS. Nonetheless, Al-Nusra continued to increase its influence and root itself within Syrian society while suspected ties between the group and Al-Qaeda remained unconfirmed speculations. However, Syrian opposition factions began pressuring Al-Nusra to distance itself from Al-Qaeda after the group pledged its allegiance to Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in April 2013. Regional countries, namely Turkey and Qatar, were also reportedly involved in attempts to persuade Al-Nusra to sever ties with Al-Qaeda, but the group remained loyal. However, it seems that recent developments in Syria may be finally changing the group’s calculus.  “Al-Nusra may distance itself from Al-Qaeda because it feels that the creation of the proposed US-Russian air coalition to specifically target them is imminent. The group is also trying to regain the community support it has been losing in Syria by transforming itself into a Syrian group,” wrote Syrian journalist Manhal Barish on the activist website Al-Modon. Another source close to the group confirmed to the author  that “although talks on breaking with Al-Qaeda have been ongoing for a long time now, the launching of the proposed US-Russian air coalition to target Nusra has played a significant role in the timing of the decision. The Al-Shura Council and the high and mid-level leaders all agreed on the break, with the blessing of Al-Qaeda leadership, due to the threats the group is facing,” said Mohamed Raed, a local activist in Idlib.


It is not clear how the split will take place or whether it will also be conditioned on certain guarantees and steps taken by rebel groups. According to a member of Jabhat al-Nusra who spoke on condition of anonymity, “Al-Nusra will change its name but the group’s aims and principles will remain the same.” Although the source did not refer to any conditions that will come with such a decision, experts familiar with the group stated that Al-Nusra’s decision to split from Al-Qaeda will likely be in exchange for the formation of a new fighting coalition comprising Al-Nusra members and various rebel groups. “Suggestion seems to be that no decision has been made, but that Jolani (Al-Nusra’s leader) will offer a proposition to opposition groups to accept/reject,” Charles Lister wrote in a tweet. Similarly, Hassan Hassan, a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, stated that Al-Nusra will only change its name, with its agenda in Syria remaining the same. One sticking point in a future Nusra-rebel coalition could be Al-Nusra’s stated goal of forming an Islamic emirate in Syria, per Zawahiri's proposal in May 2016. A senior figure in Ahrar al-Sham, who spoke to the author under condition of anonymity, stated that “I am aware of Al-Nusra’s attempt to break from Al-Qaeda, which is something we have long been asking for. However, there are no ongoing negotiations with Al-Nusra on forming a new coalition as a condition to that.”


The impact of any imminent Al-Nusra split from Al-Qaeda will depend on how the move is carried out and the reaction from local and international actors. Jabhat al-Nusra is trying to change the rules of the conflict in Syria by forcing other rebel groups to increase their strategic cooperation with it. The rebel alternative would be to continue opposing the group, which could lead to their own isolation and increase communal support for Al-Nusra. Al-Nusra is also trying to use the threat of a potential US-Russian air coalition to its advantage. “We hope that this move will stop the cooperation between the US and Russia, or at least delay it. Even if the new coalition goes forward and they begin targeting us, people will know that it is not happening because of our name or affiliation, which will be a victory for us and our religion. It will also bring us closer to other [rebel] groups and show us who we can trust and who we cannot,” stated the same anonymous source in Al-Nusra. Similarly, Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi also indicated that those who do not change their position towards Al-Nusra will be exposed. “Al-Nusra has the right to ask those who asked it to break from its leadership to distance themselves from their backers.” Notably, Maqdisi did not comment on the possible consequences for groups that continue to oppose Nusra. Nusra’s previous attempts to eliminate US-backed groups in northern Syria, such as the Hazem Movement and the Syrian Revolutionary Front, may offer some indication on how the group could respond to future rivals. 


Many experts predict that Al-Nusra will have a tough time benefiting from any public split with Al-Qaeda. “Even if Jabhat al-Nusra breaks from Al-Qaeda today, that won’t stop it from being targeted or labeled as a terrorist group. That was possible two years ago but not anymore. However, we still hope that Al-Nusra will take a genuine decision to become part of the revolution by changing its aggressive project, which is rejected by the community and other [armed] groups,” wrote Ahmed Abazeid, a Syrian journalist. Any decision by Al-Nusra to break away from Zawahiri and Al-Qaeda is also unlikely to occur without internal dissent. “If Al-Nusra goes ahead with the decision to break with Al-Qaeda, the group is likely to be divided and it may even split. The announcement has not yet been made publicly due to strong internal opposition, and as a result, not all of those who strongly oppose it are expected to remain,” said, Hani al-Ahmed, a media activist in rural Aleppo. Moreover, Al-Nusra will find it difficult to win over other rebel groups. “Nusra’s attempts to trick opposition groups into supporting them will not work, especially after the former’s attacks against Free Syrian Army groups. When the US-Russian coalition starts targeting Nusra, other opposition groups, especially those who receive support from the US, will not even dare to condemn those attacks,” wrote Manhal Barish. Although it may be difficult to persuade rebel groups to change their position towards Al-Nusra, the recent increase in the group’s local popularity indicates that communal support for Al-Nusra would likely increase as a result of any joint US-Russian targeting campaign.  


Attempts by Jabhat al-Nusra members and supporters to explain and justify the group’s decision to break with Al-Qaeda, instead of denying it, strongly indicate that such a scenario is likely to happen, although it will take some time before it is announced publicly. If the move happens, Al-Nusra will likely change its name while retaining its long-term goal of establishing an Islamic emirate in Syria. However, if the split does not happen, Al-Nusra might face the risk of massive internal fracture between members of the group who supported breaking away from Al-Qaeda and those who wished to remain under the umbrella of the global terror movement.  

Fighters from Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Al-Nusra Front drive in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo flying Islamist flags as they head to a frontline, on May 26, 2015. (AFP/Fadi al-Halabi)

'We hope that this move will stop the cooperation between the US and Russia, or at least delay it. Even if the new coalition goes forward and they begin targeting us, people will know that it is not happening because of our name or affiliation, which will be a victory for us and our religion.'

  • AproudSafavid

    A terror organisation such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which has the blood of many innocent & defenceless Syrians on its hands, it remains & always shall be seen as a murderous terrorist entity: Changing the name wont alter public's perception [Nor] the nature of these barbaric murderers; whatever conveniently chosen new name they wish to be seen as in Syria!

    July 29, 2016