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Hussain Abdul-Hussain

Rebranded Nusra might reverse Assad's gains

The military fate of the Syrian rebels may depend on whether pro-opposition governments believe Nusra’s public split with global jihad is genuine

An image released on July 28, 2016 by Al-Manara al-Bayda, the official news arm of the Al-Nusra Front, allegedly shows the group

Syria saw a rapid succession of events over the past few weeks that might foretell changes on the battlefield. The mysterious chief of the terrorist group Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, has unveiled his identity as Ahmed al-Sharaa, of Daraa, and has announced the parting of ways with his mother organization, Al-Qaeda. He has also rebranded his group and renamed it Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.

 

Jolani’s transformation has been long in the making, under the auspices of Ankara, Doha and a few Western capitals. As early as Geneva II, in January 2014, former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford held meetings with various Syrian opposition factions. Ford coached these rebel groups on how to play the game and be recognized as legitimate players. To recognize them, America set two conditions for these groups: Denounce international jihad and let go of the platform that calls for the creation of an Islamic state in Syria.

 

The rebel groups eventually issued a statement endorsing Ford's recommendations and the Geneva Talks, which in turn crumbled, and with it went the chance of peeling Syria’s moderate Islamists from the radical ones, a US policy in place since at least 2009.

 

Ford’s effort was matched by some regional players, like Riyadh, who deployed its diplomats to tame Ahrar al-Sham and win international recognition for them, especially in Washington. The group’s spokesperson, Labib al-Nahhas, published an op-ed in the Washington Post arguing that his group was not Islamist, but that its members were proud Muslims. He later visited Washington. In July 2015, Ford called on the US government, in an article, to hold talks with the group.

 

Meanwhile, starting 2015, world capitals intensified their efforts to tame the strongest of the Islamist groups, Nusra. In May of that year, Jolani went on Al-Jazeera, in a rare interview, in which many expected him to abandon Al-Qaeda. Instead, he doubled down on Al-Qaeda by reaffirming his allegiance to its Egyptian leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

 

The race between the US and Russia over which groups are to be classified as terrorists, and hence destroyed, and which are to be saved, has recently heated up, especially with Washington’s growing confidence that ISIS might fall before President Obama leaves office. If ISIS crumbles, the only party currently able to fill the vacuum — given the weakness of Syria’s rebels — will be either Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Nusra.

 

Moscow, therefore, increased its military pressure on Aleppo to place Assad and his pro-Iranian Shiite militias closer to ISIS land. This necessitates a large scale operation to take Aleppo, an operation currently underway.

 

Jolani’s cooperation with world capitals, his repentance and distancing himself from Al-Qaeda, all came under Russian military pressure. Like Assad, Jolani only capitulates when he reads “the writing (of his defeat) on the wall,” to put it in Secretary of State John Kerry’s words in 2012. Hence, Jolani unveiled and presumably transformed his group from global jihadism to local Syrian Islamism. His choice of attire, however, a military fatigue and a white turban, was reminiscent of that of Al-Qaeda’s founder the late Osama Bin Laden.

 

Now the question is how Washington will react to Nusra’s transformation. If America decides to downgrade the group from its current ISIS status to a Hezbollah-like one, the Neo Nusra might benefit from a whirlwind of financial and military support that can abort the Russo-Assad plans of recapturing Syrian territory outside the control of Damascus.

 

If America, however, considers Fatah al-Sham as a mere continuation of Nusra, then Assad will have a better chance of prevailing in Aleppo, and later in Idlib and the south.

 

Telling by Russia’s reaction to the news, and Moscow’s accusations that the US is “cheating” the terrorism labeling system, it seems that Washington — together with London, Ankara and Doha — are willing to accept Sharaa and Fatah al-Sham as a moderate faction, and hence support them, in defiance of Assad and Russia. Such defiance might level the battlefield and allow the Syrian opposition, of all stripes, to prevail over both Assad and ISIS. Later, talks might be resumed between the two remaining power brokers of Syria, Assad and his opponents.

An image released on July 28, 2016 by Al-Manara al-Bayda, the official news arm of the Al-Nusra Front, allegedly shows the group's chief Abu Mohammed al-Jolani (AFP/Al-Manara Al-Baydaa)

If America, however, considers Fatah al-Sham as a mere continuation of Nusra, then Assad will have a better chance of prevailing in Aleppo, and later in Idlib and the south.