Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, leader of Jabhat al-Nusra (Nusra Front), confirmed late on Thursday that his group has formally split from al-Qaida and has renamed itself the Levantine Conquest Front.
“The creation of this new front aims to close the gap between the jihadi factions in the Levant,” Joulani said in his first televised appearance, soon after Nusra released the first photo of the leader ever seen publicly. “By breaking our link, we aim to protect the Syrian revolution.”
“We thank the leaders of al-Qaida for understanding the need to break links.”
Joulani’s comments came several hours after al-Qaida’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, appeared to give his blessing to the anticipated split with its Syrian affiliate in an audio recording released on YouTube.
Speculation had been growing in the past week that Nusra Front leaders had decided to cut their formal links with al-Qaida, with sources close to the group telling Middle East Eye that an announcement was imminent.
In a clip within the six-and-a-half-minute audio message attributed to Zawahiri, he said that Nusra should split from al-Qaida if the decision improved the unity of groups fighting a common enemy in Syria.
The Nusra Front has been one of many rebel groups battling pro-government forces since the beginning of the country’s civil war in 2011, often working closely with and fighting alongside other groups.
“The brotherhood of Islam that bonds us is stronger than any obsolete links between organizations,” Zawahiri is heard to say. “These organizational links must be sacrificed without hesitation if they threaten your unity.”
Also speaking, Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, a deputy to Zawahiri, said al-Qaida approved “any possible action” that would improve the unity among the rebel factions fighting in Syria and form a “new generation” of fighters.
“After studying the situation in Syria … we approve any possible action that will preserve jihad in the Levant,” Masri said. “We say now to the leaders of the Nusra Front: Do what preserves the unity of Islam and Muslims, and jihad in the Levant.
“We urge you to take the necessary steps in this direction. This is also a call to all the other jihadi factions in the Levant … You must form one rank to protect our people and our land.”
Middle East Eye understands that Masri was present at an April 5 meeting in Idlib city between Nusra members and Taha Rifai, a leading Egyptian Islamist who was trying to persuade the group to set aside its global ambitions and focus on fighting the Assad government.
Soon after the meeting, Rifai was killed by a U.S. drone strike.
Nusra has been one of the most effective anti-government factions in Syria’s civil war, particularly in the country’s north.
However, both the U.S. and Russia have designated the group as a terrorist organization because of its affiliation to al-Qaida, allowing them to bomb Nusra fighters.
The split appears to be an attempt by Nusra to attract other opposition groups to unify with it, just as the U.S. and Russia have reportedly agreed to target Nusra and the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIS) militant group.
Earlier this week, a writer claiming to be a Dutch associate of Nusra known as al-Maqalaat said the timing of the decision was “no coincidence.”
“The overall message of the break with al-Qaida will be that the U.S. is not enemies with al-Qaida or any other so-called terrorist organization, but their animosity is against the Muslim Ummah as a whole, especially the Muslims who are seeking to establish the rule of Islam,” al-Maqalaat wrote.
“If the other parties agree to any of these preconditions, then this would be the best deal in the history of Islam, or rather mankind. If the other parties agree to these preconditions, then the breaking of ties between Jabhat Nusra and al-Qaida will form a major backlash for the West.”
At the daily State Department news conference on Thursday, spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. has “certainly seen no indication that would give us reason to change the designation of this group.”
Analysts say the official split has the potential to alter drastically the dynamics among Syrian rebels, depending on whether other groups decide to join the new Nusra.
“My interpretation is that Nusra was not doing it to avoid being bombed, because it will be bombed either way,” said Thomas Pierret, a lecturer in contemporary Islam at the University of Edinburgh.
Instead, the group is “playing chess” with other rebel groups, like Ahrar al-Sham, who have long demanded that Nusra breaks its allegiance to al-Qaida in order for the groups to unify. When joint Russian-U.S. operations start, Pierret said, Nusra will be able to say it has fulfilled its end of the bargain.
But the question now is whether other rebel groups will join with the newly recast Nusra in practice.
Any group that does join now, said Mohamed Okda, an expert on Syrian issues who has been involved in negotiating with Syrian groups, will have made the decision weeks or even months ago as rumors swirled about the coming changes and will have coordinated with their donors to make sure they will continue to be protected or receive funding – or both.
Sam Heller, a Beirut-based analyst who tweets as Abu Jamajem, and Pierret agree that smaller factions that are already seen as being connected to Nusra, including Jabhat Ansar al-Din, may join up. They have little to lose anyway, Pierret said.
“I think there will be limited appetite among more mainline or nationalist rebel brigades to join up with the Nusra that has been picking them off one by one and progressively seizing political control in the north,” Heller said.
Both analysts deemed it unlikely that Ahrar al-Sham, the other main fighting force in northern Syria, would join the new Nusra venture.
Since its inception, they said, Ahrar has tried to avoid being designated as a terrorist group by the U.S, and has been successful. If Ahrar joined the new incarnation of Nusra, it would risk being blacklisted, especially as the U.S. will likely continue to designate Nusra a terrorist organization regardless of the split.
“My gut feeling is that an integration between Ahrar and a non-al-Qaida Nusra wouldn’t mainstream and legitimize Nusra; on the contrary, it would just render Ahrar politically toxic,” Heller said.
Still, Pierret said, Ahrar’s leadership is divided. One faction within the leadership has pushed for a “moderate line” that has included involvement in peace negotiations and abiding by cease-fires, with little payoff for the group.
“So inevitably, if the line you are pushing appears to be a complete failure in the end, the countervailing line gets more weight and credit within the organization. I wouldn’t be surprised if the hardliners were on the rise again,” Pierret added. If this faction were to join the new Nusra, it would be such a strong force that it would be difficult for the rest of the organization not to join.
Equally, he said, other rebel groups may be eyeing the Nusra split and wondering whether this is a last-ditch opportunity, especially since the result of “playing nice” over the winter – abiding by cease-fires and participating in negotiations – is Aleppo besieged and the rebels “exterminated,” he said.
“So what is the point of being a moderate rebel today in Syria?” he asked, referring to the U.S.-backed New Syrian Army push last month in eastern Syria, which resulted in the group being routed by ISIS.
“The only credible option is to be cannon fodder for silly [U.S.-led] anti-ISIS operations in the desert.”
Additional reporting by Mary Atkinson
This article was originally published by Middle East Eye and is reprinted here with permission.