As Syria’s Nusra Front says it terminates link to al-Qaeda is this basically a PR campaign or do you see something more strategic behind it, how the West and maybe other actors should treat al-Nusra? Read few comments.
First of all, Abu Muhammad al-Julani didn’t actually dissociate from al-Qaeda in his statement. Though the statement was clearly designed to leave the viewer with the impression that Nusra had left al-Qaeda, he never claimed that the group was leaving al-Qaeda’s orbit. Thomas Joscelyn has the best parsing of Julani’s words. Two points are highly significant. First, Julani’s statement that Jabhat Fath al-Sham (the rechristened Nusra) would have “no affiliation to any external entity” is of less consequence when there has been such a heavy movement of senior al-Qaeda operatives into Syria. Second, Julani made no reference to his own bayat to Ayman al-Zawahiri.
So is it just a PR move? No, it’s deeper than that. For one thing, this suggestion of dissociation from al-Qaeda may open Jabhat Fath al-Sham up to deeper cooperation with other rebel groups and greater support from external sponsors, particularly if Jabhat Fath al-Sham isn’t designated a foreign terrorist organization by the United States, United Nations, European Union, and others. Essentially, we’re now seeing a return of al-Qaeda’s 2011-2013 strategy for Syria. Al-Qaeda has long favored its branches pursuing localization and operating under banners that aren’t explicitly tied to it. The conflict with the Islamic State knocked this strategy off course in Syria. Recall that originally Nusra did not make its association with al-Qaeda explicit, and Julani was only forced to acknowledge it when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi rolled into Syria claiming that Nusra was subservient to him. Now we’re seeing a return to Nusra — under the name Jabhat Fath al-Sham — again becoming a front group. Al-Qaeda no longer believes that the Islamic State can capitalize on a move like this.