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Nusra Front split from al-Qaeda 'imminent', sources claim

Sources tell MEE Nusra will change its name and could lose funding in order to 'embed more deeply in Syrian insurgency'
Nusra fighters drive through the northern Syrian city of Aleppo in May 2015 (AFP)

The Nusra Front will imminently announce an official split from al-Qaeda, several sources confirmed on Monday. 

Opposition activists in southern Syria have told Middle East Eye that they expect the news to be announced very soon, with Arabic media reports suggesting that the group's leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani will now make a very rare appearance to signal his independence from the militant group.

Sources within Nusra, one of the most effective anti-government factions in Syria’s civil war, said that the new group would change its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. They also stressed the group would lose access to al-Qaeda funds, although analysts have disputed the claims. 

Mohamed Okda, an expert on Syrian issues who has been involved in negotiating with Syrian groups, told MEE that the money would keep flowing because the bulk of the group's funding came from private Gulf donors who would not abandon the Syrian cause as Nusra was unlikely to renounce its ideological heritage. 

“Nusra is doing this to force the other rebel groups like Ahrar [al-Sham] and others into a corner, and push them into joining the new Shami front that Nusra will announce," Okda told MEE. 

"They might be severing relations with al-Qaeda as an organisation," he said, adding that he knows both foreign and Arab al-Nusra Front fighters.

"[But] they are not breaking up with the ideology of al-Qaeda. [They are] firm believer[s] of al-Qaeda ideology, and a firm believer of attacking the West. They have huge respect for [former leader Osama] Bin Laden. So the separation is not ideological, it's organisational.”

Rumours of a split have been circulating since Saturday when Charles Lister, a Syrian analyst, tweeted that Nusra’s Shura Council had voted to sever its ties with al-Qaeda, although Nusra’s official media channels have yet to comment.

They come amid reports of a supposed pact between the US, which supports elements of the Syrian opposition, and Russia, which supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to target Nusra alongside the Islamic State (IS) group. Nusra split from IS in 2014.

The UN's peace envoy to Syria Staffan De Mistura has previously called for Washington and Moscow to work to reduce the "non-constructive ambiguity" surrounding al-Nusra, saying this "has been one of the main problems for the sustainability of the cessation of hostilities".

Nusra, along with IS, was excluded from the United Nations-brokered partial ceasefire deal earlier this year because of its internationally recognised status as a terrorist group.

It has also clashed with other opposition rebel groups, especially those they view as having received American support. 

A noted researcher of Islamic militancy told MEE that he believed the reports of a split were credible and that the move had been approved by al-Qaeda leaders.

“Nothing definitively confirms it but the impression I am getting is that this is something being done with al-Qaeda's approval,” said Aymenn al-Tamimi, research fellow at the Middle East Forum, a US think-tank.

Tamimi said the split was likely driven by the threat of the new US-Russia agreement to target the group inside Syria and had been orchestrated with a local audience in mind.

“This is something that reflects an al-Qaeda strategy to embed Nusra more deeply in the Syrian insurgency,” he said.

Nusra’s fighters have long fought alongside other Syrian opposition groups against pro-government forces, with the group at its strongest in its northern powerbase in Aleppo and Idlib provinces where it is estimated to command between 10,000 and 15,000 fighters.

The group also has about 700 fighters around Daraa in southern Syria, although leaders of the main opposition Southern Front have sought to distance themselves from it.

Last year, Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and several other factions in northern Syria formed an alliance called Jaish al-Fatah – or Army of Conquest.

But Nusra later broke away from Jaish al-Fatah amid reports of tensions with Ahrar al-Sham over its al-Qaeda connections, which have seen it formally designated as a terrorist organisation by both the US and the United Nations.

In May, MEE reported how a leading Egyptian Islamist who had been sent to Syria to persuade Nusra to set aside its global ambitions and focus on fighting the Assad government had been killed by a US drone strike.

Okda said the key question for the new grouping is whether the US and Russia will reclassify it: "Once he [Jolani] makes this announcement, the key question is whether Jolani will be considered a terrorist or not.”

He stressed that if the move succeeds, it was really important that a new model should be formed which can be used to peel off militant groups from the Syrian rebel front in the future. 

Pro-Nusra activists on social media have speculated that the split has been planned by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri for some time, raising the possibility that it is one component of a broader "Salafi-jihadist" goal endorsed by al-Qaeda.

Hassan Hassan, a fellow at the Chatham House security think-tank, said on Twitter that many Nusra field commanders had said that the group would remain the same even if it changed its name.

While Nusra has promoted a conservative version of Islam in territory under its control, it is generally considered to have also been careful not to alienate local populations by distributing food and aid, and running Islamic education and welfare programmes.

However, an Amnesty International report earlier this month said Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and other rebel groups had set up unofficial prosecution offices, police forces and detention centres in areas that they controlled and that they were using these to apply a strict interpretation of Islamic law that imposed punishments amounting to torture.

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

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