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Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Nusra may be preparing to cut ties

'The West misses the reality that the vast majority of Nusra members are loyal to the Syrian revolution rather than to al-Qaeda'
Nusra Front is one of the strongest rebel factions fighting against Syria's Assad government (AFP/file photo)

Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate is reported to be facing a split in its ranks as Russia and the US prepared to launch co-ordinated air strikes against it.

Analyst Charles Lister tweeted on Saturday that Nusra’s Shura Council has voted to sever its ties with al-Qaeda, perhaps on Sunday.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said earlier that the US and Russia were in the planning stages of launching joint attacks against the Nusra Front and the Islamic State group.

Analysts and people close to Nusra reportedly indicated that about a third of the group was prepared to renounce global anti-western militancy and that the split had the backing of a leading cleric.

Influential Jordanian-based Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi supported cutting ties with al-Qaeda, according to The Times. “If the name of Nusra is a justification to target its affiliates, then changing or abdicating it is not abdicating the Koran,” he wrote in a statement. “And disengaging [from al-Qaeda] is not apostasy when there’s a need.”

The Nusra Front is one of the strongest of the many rebel factions fighting against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Some moderate rebel groups have collaborated with it at times.

Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute think-tank, said that at least two leaders of the group were prepared leave it.

Two senior figures within the Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham, which is backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, confirmed to The Times that negotiations were taking place. They said that Maqdisi’s intervention had helped to open the way for a split from al-Qaeda.

A senior figure was quoted by The Times as saying: “The West misses the reality that the vast majority of Nusra members are loyal to the Syrian revolution rather than to al-Qaeda. Most of Nusra members’ engagement with al-Qaeda is nominal and not ideological.”