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Al-Qaeda just got dumped by its partner in Syria — and it's not good for the US

Jabhat al-Nusra, one of Syria's strongest rebel forces, is officially breaking ties with the international terrorist organization and forming a new group to better fend off the Assad regime.

by Davide Mastracci
Jul 28 2016, 5:05pm

Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's Syrian offshoot, is breaking its ties with the mother organization, according to an announcement from the group on Thursday.

Al Nusra leader Abu Mohamed al-Jolani, along with two of the group's senior figures, made the announcement in a broadcast on Orient News and Al Jazeera Arabic.

Al-Jolani appeared in the broadcast with his face uncovered, in contrast to an appearance on Al Jazeera Arabic in 2015. Earlier today, al-Nusra media accounts shared the first photo of al-Jolani ever released.

In an audio statement also released earlier today, al-Qaeda's second in command, Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, gave permission to al-Nusra to break off, portraying it as a pragmatic step toward uniting all rebel factions fighting against the Syrian regime.

Al-Jolani said his group will merge into a new movement with other rebel groups called Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or "front for the conquest of the Levant."

The move heralds the formation of a new alliance to fight the Syrian regime, which is close to dealing rebels a crushing blow in the key city of Aleppo. It's also a setback for the US strategy of trying to separate the more moderate Syrian rebels from the jihadists affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Today's announcements come after a series of secret meetings in Syria about forming a new organization to fight president Bashar al Assad's regime and his Russian allies, whose forces are encroaching Aleppo, Syria's biggest city, in a murderous siege.

According to Charles Lister, a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute, the new group will include most al-Nusra forces, which are among the best trained and armed in the country. It also may be seen as a truly Syrian actor, not the offshoot of an organization based elsewhere that cares little about the fate of Syrians.

Al-Nusra's "Shura Council," which provides advice to al-Jolani, had voted in favor of the split, with one message from an al-Qaeda operative claiming 90 percent of al-Nusra's top leadership supported a break.

"These discussions have been going on for some time ... with a lot of different rebel groups wanting Nusra to cut ties" with al-Qaeda, said Amarnath Amarasingam, a fellow at the George Washington University Program on Extremism.

Intelligence officials from Gulf states, including Qatar, have also met with al-Nusra. According to sources in al-Nusra cited by Reuters, they offered more funds and supplies in exchange for a break with al-Qaeda. Gulf monarchies, which oppose the Assad regime, have long supported some of its most hardline, pro-jihad enemies.

Al-Nusra leadership sees several strategic advantages to splitting with al-Qaeda, according to Amarasingam.

Al-Qaeda does not have popular support within the Syrian opposition, as it is often viewed as a meddling group of foreigners, according to Lister, the author of The Syrian Jihad. But al-Nusra is mostly made up of Syrians, and the opposition has expressed support for the group in the past, including when the US government designated it as a terrorist organization in December 2012.

The break with al-Qaeda, according to Amarasingam, is a way to try and increase that support. Al-Nusra leaders "hope to push the rebels to unite with them, which would entrench al-Nusra further into the Syrian opposition movement," Amarasingam said. "By leaving [al-Qaeda], they take away any anti-unity argument put forth by other groups."

Al-Nusra operatives have also expressed hope that the official break will prevent foreign states, who have bombed al-Nusra in the past with the justification that they are a branch of al-Qaeda, from targeting them in the future. The group has been hit by airstrikes by the US-led coalition nd targeted heavily by Russia.

Amarasingam, who has recently been in contact with several al-Nusra fighters, said that many "have stated that if foreign powers continue to bomb them after such a split, then it just goes to show that 'Nusra is AQ' was just a convenient excuse these powers used to simply 'bomb Muslims.'"

"Our situation in Aleppo has been desperate for so long, but Americans seem happy to watch us suffer and die"

Al-Nusra leadership has become increasingly concerned about these airstrikes in recent days, as the US and Russia held talks that might result in some form of cooperation on Syria.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met in Moscow on July 15 to talk Syria, and according to diplomatic sources cited by London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat they may have agreed to coordinate bombing al-Nusra, as well as the Islamic State.

"If some critic is criticizing the United States or Russia for going after al-Nusra, which is a terrorist organization, because they're good fighters against Assad, they have their priorities completely screwed up," Kerry told the press after the Moscow meeting.

"The fact is that Nusra is plotting against countries in the world," Kerry said. The group hasn't claimed any attacks in the West, but "what happened in Nice last night could just as well come from Nusra or wherever it came from as any other entity," according to Kerry.

Al-Nusra has stated on several occasions that it has no interest in launching terrorist attacks against the West, and is instead focused on toppling the Assad regime.

"We in Jabhat al-Nusrah stress that, in the interest of keeping the Syrian jihad ongoing and strong, all other desirable interests, including targeting the West and America, fall away and disappear," wrote the head of the group's media office, Abu Ammar al-Shami, earlier this month.

The US has unsuccessfully attempted to push rebel groups to disassociate from al-Nusra over the last several months, according to Lister. But the situation in Aleppo is so grim for the rebels that they're not going to peel off from the people most likely to help them resist.

"Our situation in Aleppo has been desperate for so long, but Americans seem happy to watch us suffer and die. We are desperate and we'll accept support from whoever will give it, so long as it contributes to defending against the [Assad] regime," a rebel leader who was vetted by the US told Lister.

But al-Nusra's split from al-Qaeda may be more in name than anything else anyway, according to Lister.

A statement by al-Maqalat, a Dutch al-Nusra associate, explained it well. "If Jabhat Nusra changed their ties and name, but still shared the same strategy and methodology as Al-Qaedah, then this will actually be the initial plan of Al-Qaedah for Jabhat Nusra in Shaam, as Shaykh Ayman Zawahiri ordered his soldiers not declare any presence of Al-Qaedah in Shaam," it said. (Shaam or Sham is the Arabic term for the Levant, a region that includes Syria.)

Related: US-backed rebel commander captured by al-Qaeda's Nusra Front in Syria

In May, Zawahiri released an audio recording saying al-Nusra leaving al-Qaeda would not be an obstacle to "the great hopes of the Islamic nation." The permission to leave also allows al-Nusra to back out of the bayah — a Quranic pledge of allegiance — given to al-Qaeda without committing a sin.

Al-Nusra was formed in late 2011 when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, then the emir of the Islamic State of Iraq, otherwise known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, sent Jolani into Syria to establish militant cells. The group quickly established itself as a trustworthy and efficient force in the fight against Assad, and attracted support for managing to avoid many of the atrocities committed by some other rebels.

Al-Nusra has since, however, committed war crimes, according to a recent briefing from Amnesty International. The report alleges that al-Nusra, along with some other rebel groups, has tortured detainees, abducted activists and members of minority groups, committed summary executions, and implemented harsh interpretations of sharia in captured areas.

In April 2013, Baghdadi unilaterally announced that he had merged the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Nusra to form the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Jolani, however, rebuffed the announcement, and pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda Central, led by Zawahiri.

Thousands of al-Nusra fighters defected to ISIS regardless, and since then the two groups have repeatedly clashed on the battlefield.

The initial reaction by IS fighters to the split between their enemies and al Qaeda has been mockery, according to the journalist Hala Jaber. But they might not laugh for long, according to Amarasingam: If the well-organized al-Nusra and the other Syrian rebels join forces against them, then things could turn grim for the Islamic State.