Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate split from its parent organization and changed its name Thursday in a move widely interpreted as a bid to head off a U.S.-Russian plan to launch joint airstrikes against the group.
Jabhat al-Nusra announced that it would henceforth be known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham — or Front for the Liberation of Syria — and said it no longer owes allegiance to al-Qaida.
The announcement was made in a video statement delivered to the Al Jazeera network by the group’s leader, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, who revealed his face for the first time since he declared the formation of the Syrian branch of al-Qaida in early 2012.
He said the split was intended to remove any “pretext” for the United States and Russia to conduct airstrikes against the wider rebel movement while claiming they are targeting Jabhat al-Nusra. He also outlined a plan aimed at promoting unity among Syria’s fractious rebel groups at a critical time for the rebellion against President Bashar Assad’s rule.
Whether the new name will work to convince moderate rebels — and, more importantly, their Western backers — that the group should no longer be considered a terrorist organization is in doubt, however. It is also highly unlikely to convince Russia, which has consistently referred to all the rebels as “terrorists” and has been escalating its bombardments of all rebel positions in recent weeks, notably around the besieged northern city of Aleppo.
The announcement of the split came hours after a deputy to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri said that al-Qaida had ordered the split in the interests of “the good of Islam and the Muslims.”
“This is a step from us, and a call from us, to all the factions in Sham [Syria] to unify in what All-h approves of, and to work together,” said the deputy, Ahmed Hassan Abu al-Khayr, in a video released by Jabhat al-Nusra.
The fact that al-Qaida appears to have mandated the separation also will not help convince skeptics that the new group has really severed its ties or loyalties to al-Qaida, said Ludovico Carlino of the IHS risk consultancy group. Rather, he said, it “reflects al-Qaida’s gradualist approach of progressively radicalizing local populations, postponing the establishment of an Islamic state until popular support has been secured.”