Jabhat-Al-Nusra Front, once al-Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, has cut ties with the parent organization with the approval of the al-Qaeda central leadership.

Nusra Front is one of the largest and most effective rebel groups in Syria. It controls territory in the north, west and south of the country and commands about 6,000 to 7,000 battle-hardened fighters. Originally founded by Salafist militants back in January 2012, Nusra Front has emerged as one of the strongest forces in the Syrian civil war.

Now, Nusra will be known by a new name, Jabhat-Fateh-Al-Sham (Sham Liberation Front). This major development didn’t take place suddenly. There’s been pressure from within the Nusra Front ranks to break away from al-Qaeda for almost a year. This is because some Nusra operatives believed that the al-Qaeda “label” is hampering their cause in Syria.

A member of al Qaeda’s Nusra Front carries his weapon as he stands in an olive tree field in the southern countryside of Idlib, December 2, 2014. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

This recently led to a comprehensive debate among the group’s leaders, both locally and abroad. They came to the conclusion that it’s the right time to break affiliation with al-Qaeda. Without the al-Qaeda tag and with a new name, Jabhat hopes to change its previous reputation for brutality and start afresh. This way, it can embed itself more deeply in the Syrian insurgency.

Despite announcing a divorce with al-Qaeda, Abu Mohammad Al Julani, the Nusra Front commander (who recently showed his face for the first time in public) avoided breaking his loyalty pledge to al-Qaeda. Moreover, there are clear signals that he is not abandoning al-Qaeda’s global jihad ideology.

Julani dresses as the late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden once did — in army fatigues and a white turban. He vows to “protect jihad in Syria.”

We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be confused by his maneuvers. Nusra remains as potentially dangerous, and as radical as ever. In severing ties with its parent outfit, the organization more clearly than ever is demonstrating its long-term approach towards Syria, in which it seeks to embed within revolutionary dynamics and encourage Islamist unity to overshadow its enemies.

In this sense, the Nusra Front (and now Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) tries to differentiate itself from its staunch enemy the Islamic State, which always acts alone and in outright competition with other rebel factions. Instead of unification, Islamic State always promotes division.

Nusra’s move to project itself as a pure Syrian group is clear reflection of a new and far more potentially effective method of carrying out al-Qaeda’s jihadist agenda. This method focuses on collective, gradualist, and flexible action.

Simply put, al-Qaeda is coordinating its Syrian affiliate to break ties with its central leadership to preserve the long-term relevance of the Nusra Front and its jihadi strategic objectives. The ideological ties between al-Qaeda and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham will always remain strong.

This move was very cleverly planned. Now, a significant portion of Syria’s mainstream opposition will see this as a positive step and will move to embrace Nusra chief Julani’s call for unity. As a result,  Jabhat Fateh al-Sham will now seek to intensify its long-standing call for large-scale mergers, a united front and military coalitions in key areas of the current battlefield.

The biggest consequence could be a merger of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham with the other prominent jihadi group Ahrar al-Sham. This is part of a pattern. Last year Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and several other factions in northern Syria formed a new alliance called Jaish al-Fatah or The Army of Conquest.

But later on, Nusra broke away from Jaish al-Fatah amid reports of tensions with Ahrar al-Sham over its al-Qaeda connections. This modus-operadi of severing ties with the parent organization and still carrying on with it’s a global jihadist agenda was previously adopted by other al-Qaeda affiliates like al-Shabaab in Somalia and Ansar al-Sharia in Libya. Nusra is just an another example of this.

By carefully examining Julani’s video speech, we can easily ascertain that new organization Jabhat Fateh-Al-Sham’s principles are the same as its predecessor Nusra Front.

The first goal for the renamed organization is to “work toward establishing the religion of Allah, having His Sharia (law) as legislation” and to “establish justice amongst all people,” Julani said. It will “strive toward unity with all groups” and “to unify the ranks of the Mujahideen and liberate the land of Al Sham from the rule of the tyrant that is Bashar al Assad and his allies,” Julani added.

These are the same goals that al-Qaeda’s embraced since the Syrian civil war broke out. Jabhat in the short term may champion a unified front in the Syrian conflict against Assad just to get more funding, arms, and breathing space from the US and to secure Russian airstrikes. But in the longer term, Jabhat surely has as its vision the establishment of a Sunni Islamic Caliphate.

Manish Rai is a columnist for Middle-East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geo-political news agency Views Around can be reached at manishraiva@gmail.com)

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times. 

Copyright Manish Rai 2016

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