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Nusra confirms split with al-Qaeda 'to protect Syrian revolution'

Abu Mohamed al-Golani says creation of Levantine Conquest Front aims to 'close gap' between Syria's fighting factions
First image ever showing Nusra chief Abu Mohamed al-Golani (AFP/Al-Manara Al-Bayda)

Nusra Front leader Abu Mohamed al-Golani confirmed late on Thursday that his group has formally split from al-Qaeda 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," Golani 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-Qaeda for understanding the need to break links."

Golani's comments came several hours after al-Qaeda'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-Qaeda, 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-Qaeda if the decision improved the unity of groups fighting a common enemy in Syria.

The Nusra Front has long been among the myriad of 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 organisations," Zawahiri is heard to say. "These organisational links must be sacrificed without hesitation if they threaten your unity."

Also speakingAbu al-Khayr al-Masri, a deputy to Zawahiri, said al-Qaeda 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 a 5 April meeting in Idlib city between Nusra members and Taha Rifai, a leading Egyptian Islamist who was trying to convince the group to set aside its global ambitions and focus on fighting the Assad government.

Soon after the meeting, Rifai was killed by a US drone strike.

A screengrab of al-Qaeda's audio message, reading ‘A sound recording by Sheikh Ahmed Hassan Abu Kheir’ (YouTube)
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 US and Russia have designated the group as a terrorist organisation because of its affiliation to al-Qaeda, 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 US and Russia have reportedly agreed to target Nusra and the Islamic State (IS) militant group.

Earlier this week, a writer purporting to be a Dutch associate of Nusra called Al-Maqalaat and said that the timing of the decision was "no coincidence".

"The overall message of the break with al-Qaeda will be that the US is not enemies with al-Qaeda or any other so-called terrorist organisation, 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-Qaeda will form a major backlash for the West."

At the daily State Department news conference on Thursday, spokesman John Kirby said the US has "certainly seen no indication that would give us reason to change the designation of this group". 

'Playing chess'

Analysts say the official split has the potential to drastically alter 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 break its allegiance to al-Qaeda in order for the groups to unify. When joint Russian-US 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 a 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 rumours 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 which 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 said it is 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 US, and has been successful. If Ahrar joined the new incarnation of Nusra, it would risk being blacklisted, especially as the US will likely continue to designate Nusra a terrorist organisation regardless of the split.

"My gut feeling is that an integration between Ahrar and a non-al-Qaeda Nusra wouldn't mainstream and legitimise Nusra; to 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 ceasefires, with little pay-off 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 organisation. So I wouldn’t be surprised if the hardliners were on the rise again," Pierret said. If this faction were to join the new Nusra, he added, it would be such a strong force that it would be difficult for the rest of the organisation 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 ceasefires and participating in negotiations - is Aleppo besieged and the rebels "got exterminated," he said.

"So what is the point of being a moderate rebel today in Syria?" he said, referring to the US-backed New Syrian Army push last month in eastern Syria, which resulted in the group being routed by IS.

"The only credible option is to be cannon fodder for silly [US-led] anti-IS operations in the desert."

Additional reporting by Mary Atkinson

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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