Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham (The Front for the Support of the People of Sham) is Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria. Like Al-Qaeda, Jabhat Al-Nusrah is a Sunni Salafi-Jihadist organization.
The word “Salaf” means the past of something, its origin, its roots, its primal source. The origins of Salafi thought are deep in the sands of the Arabian Peninsula. Salafi thinkers and theologians believe that the Islamic civilization will be cured of all ills, and thrive and flourish again once Muslims adopt and apply the Islamic codes, law, norms and values to their everyday lives as they were in the 7th century during the time of the Prophet Muhammad and his first four successors, known as Al-Khulafa-ur-Rashidun, The Rightly-Guided Caliphs.
The Salafis believe that the establishment of the Caliphate (a global Islamic cultural, political, and religious entity) is a marathon process, which has to be achieved mostly through preaching, education, social activities, voluntarism, charity work, and political action. As a side note, some Salafi inspired groups have given up the idea of changing and affecting their environment, and out of despair have chosen to physically segregate themselves into their own communities believing that their efforts to improve society through encouraging Muslims to return to the values, morals and codes of the early days of Islam are fruitless.
The core belief of Salafi-Jihadi ideology is also that Islam will thrive again once it adopts the codes, laws, and values as they were in the time of the Prophet Muhammad and his first four successors. However, unlike the Salafi affiliated organizations, in order to implement the codes, law, and values, Salafi-Jihadists call for proactively and violently (militantly) spreading and implementing their ideology.
The values and goals of Salafi-Jihadi Militant Islam are:
- To immediately and urgently create a global Islamic cultural, political, and religious entity known as Khalafa / Caliphate in which no other independent or sovereign state exists.
- The Caliphate will be ruled by a Khalifa / Caliph. The word Khalifa is part of a term Khalifat Rasul Allah, which translated means “the Replacer of Allah’s Messenger” – Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam.
- The Caliphate will be governed and ruled by Islamic law; the Shari’ah (literally translated “the path”).
They believe that the Shari’ah, the moral and religious law, is the Master Plan given by Allah (literally translated “the God”) to mankind. As such, it is the manifestation of Allah’s ultimate will, and therefore people should live their life only according to the Shari’ah.
Accordingly, the Shari’ah should be the only source of legislation and the supreme governing authority, and should govern all areas of life – public and private. Therefore, every aspect of life in the Caliphate will be conducted according to the strict orthodoxy of the Sharīʿah — to overthrow all current political structures in the Muslim and Arab world.
In the eyes of the followers of Militant Islam, the current governments and rulers in the Muslim and Arab world are illegitimate because they do not rigidly enforce Sharīʿah.
Any other political philosophy or political system (communism, democracy, socialism, etc.) is unacceptable because it is man-made, therefore it is imperfect, unjust, and doomed to fail. Furthermore, adopting these systems is in defiance of Allah’s will.
To wage war on the West and its values, which are perceived to threaten the Islamic religion and the Islamic civilization.
- They completely reject political frameworks, ideologies, and values that are not Islamic.
- They oppose, and are in direct conflict, with Western values such as gender equity, homosexuality, liberalism, pluralism, secularism, etc. They are less tolerant of diversity, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of thought, human rights, individualism, liberty, open-mindedness, etc. because they view western values as an imminent and existential threat to Islam.
- They believe that a global caliphate should be achieved through a short, intensive process – and that all means necessary to achieve it are acceptable, including—and primarily using—violence. Violence is justified for the sake of establishing the caliphate.
- To wage war on the Jews.
- Absolute and uncompromising opposition to the existence of the State of Israel.
- The animosity towards Israel is justified upon Islamist theology.
According to the ideology of Salafi-Jihadist Militant Islam, Jews are not a nation. Judaism, as a religion was once a valid religion, but the Jews betrayed the Divine Mission that they were given by Allah — to spread Allah’s rule and justice upon the land – and therefore, he punished them and dispersed them in the world and sent Islam as the real religion to guide mankind.
Therefore, in the eyes of Salafi-Jihadist Militant Islam, the existence of Israel is not only unjustified because Jews are not a nation; but the existence of Israel is a direct defiance of Allah’s will.
The total devotion and commitment of the individual is needed to achieve these objectives.
Stemming from its rigid ideology and clear goals, Militant Islam praises two core values.
One is talb a-shahada (the quest for martyrdom).In Militant Islam, life is not the most sacred value; there is a higher and nobler objective—and that is the glory of Islam and the establishment of Allah’s rule over the human race. Muslims are expected to not only be willing to sacrifice their lives, but also to want to sacrifice their lives.
The second value is jihad (an effort). Jihad comes from the broad Arabic concept of jihad fi sabil Allah (an effort to implement Allah’s way). In the very early phases of Islam, jihad referred to an intensive spiritual journey of Muslims to reach a higher degree of inner purity in their beliefs, and a purer worship of Allah. Throught the evolution of Islam it has become much more violent.*
The History of Jabhat Al-Nusrah and ISIS in Syria
Reports regarding an entity named Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham’s operating in Syria (the term Al-Sham means literally “the north.” In Islamic and Arab history, the term Al-Sham refers to a geographical area located north of the Arab Peninsula which extends all the way to Turkey) began to emerge in the fall of 2011.
The leader of the group is a man named Abu Mohammad Al-Joulani, reportedly a Syrian. Al-Joulani was a senior Al-Qaeda military official in Iraq and was appointed by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, to lead the new entity, Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham – the Al-Qaeda branch in Syria. Though operating in Syria – Jabhat Al-Nusrah, under the leadership of Abu Mohammad Al-Joulani, was controlled and commanded by Al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq.
In April 2013, Al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, announced that Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham (Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria) and the Al-Qaeda branch in Iraq were now one entity under a new name. He called that entity The Islamic State in Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) and he proclaimed himself the Caliph of what he called “The Islamic State” (IS).
The establishment of ISIS sparked a debate between Al-Baghdadi and the Al-Qaeda leadership which claimed that Al-Baghdadi did not have the right to make such a unilateral move. This debate led to a split between Al-Qaeda and Al-Baghdadi which resulted in Al-Qaeda formally detaching itself from ISIS in January 2014.
Jabhat Al-Nusrah’s leader, Abu Mohammad Al-Joulani, refused to follow Al-Baghdadi and be a part of ISIS and sided with Al-Qaeda, taking an oath of allegiance to Al-Qaeda leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri.
In the summer of 2013, ISIS, under the leadership of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, expanded its activities beyond the borders of Iraq into Syria, establishing areas of control in eastern and northeastern Syria.
Since 2013 ISIS, trying to expand its control, presence, rule and territory in Syria – has engaged in constant battles mostly against the Kurds and Syrian rebel groups – including its offspring, Jabhat Al-Nusrah.
Jabhat Al-Nusrah Disembarking from Al-Qaeda
Jabhat Al-Nusrah is a very significant player in the war in Syria. The organization, which according to estimates includes some 3,000-5,000 militants – making them a significant force – operates in different parts of Syria, particularly in central and northern Syria where they are fighting against Assad’s troops and its allies including The Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRG), the Lebanese Shi’ite Militia Hezbollah, Iraqi Shi’ite Militias, Afghan Shi’ite Militias, etc. all of whom are supported, armed, and controlled by the Iranian Mullah Regime.
Jabhat Al-Nusrah also has a significant presence – estimated in the hundreds of militants – in the southern and southwestern parts of Syria, including in the Syrian part of the Golan Heights, close to the Israeli-Syrian cease-fire line.
At the end of July 2016, Jabhat Al-Nusrah’s leader, Abu Mohammad Al-Joulani, delivered a video message, including – for the first time – English subtitles, in which, also for the first time – he exposed his face publically. (For more on Al-Joulani’s identity, please read my October 2013 Intelligence Bulletin Who is the Leader of Jabhat Al-Nusrah in Syria).
In the video Al-Joulani expresses gratitude to the Al-Qaeda leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri as well as his Deputy, Sheikh Ahmad Hasan Abu Al-Khayr.
He announces that Jabhat Al-Nusrah’s name is now Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (The Front for the Triumph of the Sham). (In Arab and Muslim history, the term Fath has a very significant association. Islam, which emerged in the seventh century in the Arab Peninsula, rapidly expanded via military campaigns. In Islamic historiography, the expansion north of the Arab Peninsula is called Futuh Al-Sham – the conquering of the Sham literally “the north” which in Islamic and Arab history refers to a geographical area located north of the Arab Peninsula which extends all the way to Turkey).
He declares that Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham will operate with “no connection to any external force.” (hinting that he is referring to Al-Qaeda).
He attributes the change in name and affiliation to a few reasons:
He argues that the move – changing the name and disconnecting from any “external force” – aims to deny the United States and Russia – which define Jabhat Al-Nusrah as a terror organization – the excuse to attack Jabhat Al-Nusrah positions in Syria.
He quotes Osama Bin Laden saying that the “interest of the Ummah (that term means the global Muslim community) is more important than the interest of a nation; the interest of a nation is more important than the interest of a group; and the interest of a group is more important than the interest of an individual.”
- To be able to continue the Jihadi efforts in Syria.
- To alleviate the pressure on the Syrian people because the Russian and US aerial raids allegedly target Jabhat Al-Nusrah’s positions which are located in populated areas.
- To increase unity among the different Syrian rebel groups.
In his announcement, Al-Joulani presents the following objectives for Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham:
The application and implementation of Islamic religious law (Shari’ah).
- Alleviate the suffering of the Muslims.
- Provide the Syrian civilians with stability, safety and security and the comforts of everyday life – electricity, running water, sewage, trash removal, education, health care, etc.
Al-Joulani does not appear alone in the video. There are two men next to him. The older man (in white) next to him is identified as Ahmad Salamah Mabruk AKA Abu Faraj Al-Masri. This man is identified as an Egyptian, and he is a well-known figure in the camp of Militant Islam. His history with Militant Islam goes back to the late 1970’s when he was an active member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group whose leader then was Ayman Al-Zawahiri. Their joint path continued in Afghanistan with the establishment of Al-Qaeda. Abu Faraj was imprisoned in Egypt, and was released following the ousting of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Following his release, Abu Faraj Al-Masri moved to Syria.
The other person is identified as Abdul Rahim ‘Utwan AKA Abi ‘Abdallah Al-Shami, Syrian born is reportedly the leader of a coalition of Salafi-Jihadist groups in Syria named Harakat Fajr Al-Islam (Islam’s Dawn Movement).
These two people, Ahmad Salamah Mabruk AKA Abu Faraj Al-Masri and Abdul Rahim ‘Utwan AKA Abi ‘Abdallah Al-Shami are members of Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham’s (formerly Jabhat Al-Nusrah’s) highest leadership authority – an advisory council known as Majlis Al-Shurah – all Salafi-Jihadist groups have such a council, which supervises the ruler to make sure he strictly governs according to Sharia’h law.
In July 2016, five years after Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi sent Abu Mohammad Al-Joulani, a high-ranking senior Al-Qaeda military official in Iraq to Syria to establish the Al-Qaeda branch in Syria – Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham (The Front for the Support of the People of Sham); three years after Al-Joulani broke away from Al-Baghdai when he created ISIS and pronounced himself the Caliph of the Islamic State which led to the Al-Nusrah leader, Al-Joulani swearing allegiance to Al-Qaeda leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri; and two and a half years after Al-Qaeda officially separated from ISIS, Al-Joulani in effect announces Jabhat Al-Nusrah’s abandonment of Al-Qeada and changes the name to Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (The Front for the Triumph of the Sham).
It should be clear that changing the group’s name from Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham (The Front for the Support of the People of Sham) to Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (The Front for the Triumph of the Sham) does not mean the organization’s ideology has changed.
- They are still a Salafi-Jihadi entity, vowed to fight the West, its people, culture, economy, symbols and values.
- They vow to topple down governments in the Muslim world that Salafi-Jihadist ideology views as illegal since these governments to do not apply the strict version of Sharia’h as they should.
- They vow eternal animosity to Shi’ites, Jews, and of course to the State of Israel.
However, the change of the name is not only cosmetic.
The disembarkation from Al-Qaeda stems from the political needs and interests of Jabhat Al-Nusrah.
What are the reasons for the disembarkation of Jabhat Al-Nusrah from Al-Qaeda?
- One reason has to do with an inner power struggle within Jabhat Al-Nusrah.
- The second is related to Jabhat Al-Nusrah’s relationships with other Syrian rebel groups.
- The third has to do with Jabhat Al-Nusrah’s relations with a regional player – Turkey.
Let us look closely at these three factors.
The Inner Power Struggle
From its very inception, Jabhat Al-Nusrah has had a built in tension stemming from the fact that there are, generally speaking, two camps within the organization.
One camp is composed of non-Syrian members, and the other is the camp of Syrian members – who are also the majority.
The two camps are conflicted over the question of how strict the enforcement of Sharia’h should be in the towns and villages controlled by Jabhat Al-Nusrah in Syria.
The non-Syrian camp demands the strict, extreme, and brutal implementation and enforcement of Sharia’h similar to the way ISIS enforces it in the areas it controls in Iraq and Syria. The Syrian camp, however, is less enthusiastic to violently enforce the strict ISIS-style Sharia’h law on people in their own hometowns or villages with whom they actually grew up. Thus, the Syrian camp, tends to apply a more flexible, pragmatic, softer approach.
For example, ISIS, in the areas it controls in Iraq and Syria entitled by ISIS as The Islamic State (IS), have completely abolished the school curriculum and created a new one, based solely on Islamist Law and Militant Islam ideology, while Jabhat Al-Nusrah did not.
Jabhat Al-Nusrah refrains from the strict, brutal enforcement of Sharia’h law and strives to support the local population in managing everyday life – like providing municipal services, health services, operating schools, etc.
Different from ISIS, – Jabhat Al-Nusrah – now known as Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, is clearly trying not to alienate the Syrian population. This approach clearly demonstrates that Jabhat Al-Nusrah seeks to have the political support of the Syrian people
Accumulating information suggests that the debate generates tension between the two camps within Jabhat Al-Nusrah resulting in – according to unverified information – the defection of hundreds of Jabhat Al-Nusrah non-Syrian militants to ISIS.
Therefore, Jabhat Al-Nusrah disembarking from Al-Qaeda, indicates the further strengthening of the Syrian-pragmatic camp within Jabhat Al-Nusrah.
The presence of the two other senior leaders of the group in the video — one of them is originally from Egypt and the other is Syrian — both members of the highest leadership authority of Jabhat Al-Nusrah’s Majlis Al-Shurah, (Consultative Council), now Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham’s Consultative Council, is not by chance. It should be view in the following two contexts: the inner power struggle within Jabhat Al-Nusrah described above and the power struggle between Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
In the context of the inner power struggle, the presence of the two senior leaders from different countries and regions, both Salafi-Jihadists, demonstrates that Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham is still a Salafi-Jihadi organization, committed to one global Islamic entity in which sub-entities do not exist. Their presence in the video signals the fact that the group’s leadership is very aware of the possibility that the inner power struggle could result in a split within the group and that they want to prevent such a scenario. Thus, their appearance, flanking Al-Joulani, is meant to send a message that – in spite of the inner power struggle — the group is united.
The other context is the power struggle between Al-Qaeda-ISIS. Al-Qaeda is in a deep crisis for a variety of reasons – among which a leading factor is the rise of ISIS. Al-Qaeda and ISIS – both Salafi-Jihadi Militant Islamic entities are competing in the same niche and are vying for influence and prestige – and seemingly, Al-Qaeda is losing that battle.
Thus, one can assume that disembarking of Jabhat Al-Nusrah, further exacerbates Al-Qaeda’s crisis. The disembarking of Jabhat Al-Nusrah, a little more than three years after Al-Joulani swore allegiance to Al-Qaeda leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, clearly indicates the weakness of the Al-Qaeda leadership. Even though it was reported that the move was coordinated in advance with the Al-Qaeda leadership, it is more likely it was more of a fact which was imposed on them. Thus, is it likely that the presence in the video of two senior members of the Majlis Al-Shurah (a council that each Salafi-Jihad movement has), as well as the gratitude Al-Joulani expresses to Al-Qaeda leaders, is aimed to minimize the damage to Al-Qaeda, by signaling that Jabhat Al-Nusrah – still closer to Al-Qaeda than ISIS – in its new form of Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, is still committed to the Salafi-Jihadi ideology.
The Relationship with other Syrian Rebel Groups and the Future of Syria
As I explained earlier in this article, ideologically Jabhat Al-Nusrah and therefore, of course, Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, envisions the creation of one global Islamic Caliphate where independent political entities do not exist. In other words, according to the organizations who follow Salafi-Jihadi ideology there should be no independent state named “Syria.” Salafi-Jihadists envision a Khalafa, a Caliphate governed by ruler, a Khalif, who will be appointed and supervised by an advisory or consultative council of clergy – the Majlis Al-Shurah – to ensure that the Sharia’h will be fully and strictly implemented.
However, Syrian rebel groups who are not of the Salafi-Jihadist camp have a different outlook on that matter.
One of them – a major Syrian rebel group named the Free Syrian Army (FSA), stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from Jabhat Al-Nusrah, or as it now known, Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, when it comes to the future of Syria. The FSA envisions Syria as a free, independent state, governed according to a Parliamentary system consisting of multiple political parties and a government elected in free elections by all people. The FSA envisions Syria to be a democratic republic.
Syrian rebel groups inspired by varying Islamist ideologies (the majority of the rebel groups are Islamist) such as Salafi non-Jihadist ideology or Muslim Brotherhood ideology*, also have a different outlook in comparison to Jabhat Al-Nusrah, now Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham.
Similar to Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, rebel groups like Jaysh Al-Islam (Army of Islam) – the biggest Syrian Islamist affiliated group which is a coalition of more than 50 different Syrian rebel groups, some of them non-Jihadi Salafis; or Al-Jabhah Al-Islamiya Al-Suriya (The Syrian Islamist Front – SIF), a coalition of Salafi, Salafi-Jihadist and Muslim Brotherhood associated groups, ideologically reject the concept of an independent state and are committed to the concept of Caliphate as the ultimate objective.
However, as opposed to Jabhat Al- Nusrah (now called Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham), other Syrian rebel groups representing an ideological Islamist spectrum of ideologies, though ideologically rejecting the concept of an independent state – politically accept, temporarily, the concept of independent state (Syria) as a means to an end – a global Caliphate.
Another difference between the Salafi-Jihadist organizations and the other non-Salafi Jihadist Islamist organization stems from the fact, that while Salafi-Jihadist ideology calls for the immediate implementation of the vision of global Caliphate, an ideology named “Taqween” meaning: making it happen now, the Islamist, but non-Salafi-Jihadist affiliated groups argue that the establishment of the Caliphate is a marathon process, which has to be achieved mostly through preaching, education, social activities, voluntarism, charity work, and political action. That ideology is known as “Tamkeen” meaning: making it possible, creating the conditions required to ensure the fulfillment of the vision.
Beyond the tension between the large and more well-known Salafi-Jihadist groups like Jabhat Al- Nusrah, Al-Qaeda and ISIS, there is a complex relationship between Jabhat Al- Nusrah (now called Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham) and another major Syrian Salafi Jihadi group known as Ahrar Al-Sham (the Free People of Al-Sham).
The complexity stems from the fact that the two groups share the same ideological niche, but compete over popularity and influence. Reportedly the two groups are actually expected to unite. That possibility may be supported by an interesting announcement made by Dr. Abdullah Al-Muheissni, a charismatic, influential Sunni Cleric associated with various Islamist rebel groups in Syria, who rushed to congratulate Al-Nusrah’s separation from Al-Qaeda. In a video he published (including English subtitles) following Al-Joulani’s video, he urged the Syrian rebels to give their blessing to the move and called for unity of the rebel groups under the leadership of an Emir – an Islamic leader – that all rebel groups would agree upon. Al-Muheissni’s statement is interesting since he is very popular among the Syrians, and in the Muslim Sunni world in general, because he is actually a Saudi citizen who chose – since the outbreak of the war – to be in Syria to fight the Assad regime and Iran alongside the Syrian rebels.
Reportedly, Al-Nusrah’s disembarking from Al-Qaeda was also welcome by two major leaders of the Salafi-Jihadi movement in Jordan, Sheikh Muhammad Taher ‘Isam al-Barqawi, known as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, and by Omar Mahmoud Othman aka Abu Qatada, a senior Al-Qaeda activist of Jordanian-Palestinian origin.
At the time this report is being written, and to the best of my knowledge, the only Syrian rebel group to congratulate the move so far has been the Salafi-Jihadist group Ahrar Al-Sham who welcomed the move expressing satisfaction with the fact that Jabhat Al-Nusrah “finally took the advice it was given – though somewhat late.” (a quote from the announcement). This response supports the expected unification of Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham and Ahrar Al-Sham
No other Syrian rebel groups have made to the best of my knowledge a formal announcement or stated an official position regarding the disembarkation of Jabhat Al-Nusrah from Al-Qaeda. Their silence is an indication in the differences in the outlook I gave an overview of above, between Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham and other Syrian rebel groups regarding the future of Syria.
Indeed, the tension between the groups stemming from the gap in their outlook and vision regarding the future of Syria, was the primary characteristic of the relationship between Jabhat Al-Nusrah and most — and especially the major — Syrian rebel groups.
What does that have to do with Al-Nusrah’s disembarking from Al-Qaeda?
The answer again has to do with Jabhat Al-Nusrah’s political pragmatism.
The group is fully aware of the fact that it cannot — and will not — no matter what the outcome and the political configuration of a future “post war Syria,” be the sole player in the shaping of Syria’s future. It will have to dialogue with other Syrian rebel groups. Attempting to impose its ideology and violently dictate its path and vision will probably backfire on the group. It must cooperate with the major Syrian rebel bodies, or at least minimize frictions and tensions. as much as possible.
A crucial development in the war in Syria gave Jabhat Al-Nusrah an opportunity to signal the Syrian rebels that it was willing to cooperate with them. And that is the battle over Aleppo – Syria’s second largest city and a major stronghold of the Syrian rebels.
Towards the end of July 2016, after weeks of constant fighting, the Assad-Iran axis – backed by massive Russian aerial raids on the city and its outskirts – sieged the city.
Al-Joulani’s video message coincided with this critical development in the war in Syria – the battle over Aleppo.
If the Iran-Assad axis defeats the Syrian rebels in Aleppo, it would provide them with momentum and a back-wind and will cause a massive blow to the Syrian rebels. Such a scenario would provide the Assad-Iran axis with the ability negotiate political arrangements from a powerful position.
The major Syrian rebels and their patrons – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Gulf states are alarmed with such a scenario. Therefore, they boosted their support of the rebels. In the beginning of August, Syrian rebels launched a counter-attack in Aleppo. At the time this report is being written, the counter-attack has reportedly succeeded, and the siege has been lifted.
All major Syrian rebel groups are involved in the counter-attack – including Jabhat Al-Nusrah operating under its new name – Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham. In fact, it was Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham that started the first phase of the counter-attack, when two Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham suicide bombers detonated two trucks loaded with tons of explosives on Assad’s forces stronghold in Aleppo.
The disembarkation of Jabhat Al-Nusrah from Al-Qaeda, took place shortly before the launching of the counter-attack in Aleppo. This is not a mere chance; it is related. The move is a signal from Jabhat Al-Nusrah’s leadership that the group views its role within the Syrian fabric as a partner – not as a dictating factor.
Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham’s leadership is fully aware that it must be involved in the battle over Aleppo for three major reasons:
- First, the defeat of Syrian rebels in Aleppo would negatively impact Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham.
- Second, their involvement in the battle over Aleppo will increase their credibility and popularity among the Syrian people, which will translate into political support for Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham.
- Third, and perhaps the most important reason, is the fact that many of the group’s members are from Aleppo and its outskirts. They are literally fighting to defend their home.
Jabhat Al-Nusrah’s announcement, as well the first public appearance Mohammed Al-Joulani, Jabhat Al-Nusrah’s leader, and now the leader of Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, is also connected to Turkey’s regional policy.
Turkey provides Jabhat Al-Nusrah and now, Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, as well other Syrian rebel groups, with logistical and operational support. Given Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham’s very active role in the war – and mostly in northern Syria, close to the border with Turkey – Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham is a very valuable card for Turkey, primarily due to the following reasons:
One is in the context of the Turkish policy regarding the war in Syria.
Prior the war in Syria, Turkey and Syria had a close alliance and Assad and President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan were close personal friends. Yet, following the outbreak of the war, the close relationship two turned into mutual hostility. Turkey, a major Sunni state whose president aspires to be the leading figure of the Sunnis in the Middle East, cannot stand still while hundreds of thousands of Sunni Syrians are being killed by the Assad-Iran axis. Turkey demanded that any solution in Syria must include Assad stepping down. Such a scenario will not emerge without the ability to put significant military pressure on Assad – and mostly by presenting a military threat to the predominantly Alawite communities and cities located in northern and northwestern Syria. To that end, Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham is a very useful tool for Turkey. Indeed, over the past weeks, Syrian rebels – and particularly Jabhat Al-Nusrah (now- Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham), have gained significant military achievements through taking over strategic positions located in the Kurdish Mountains in northwestern Syria, an area dominating the Syrian coast line and the predominantly Alawite populated cities along the coast. Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham would not have been able to achieve such a military move without Turkey’s logistical assistance.
The second valuable function which Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham provides Turkey is in the context of Turkey’s tense relations with the US and Russia.
A major reason for the tense Turkey-US relations is the issue of the Kurds.
Turkey is deeply concerned with the establishment de-facto as well as de-jure independent Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria. For decades Turkey has conducted efforts to militarily suffocate and crush the separatist national aspirations of its own Kurdish population, estimated at 15 million people. Turkey’s concerns deepened following the support – or at least the silent consent- of the current US administration to the creation of a Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria, because the Kurds have significant role in the US plan to block and diminish ISIS. The tension between the US and Turkey increased following the failed coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016. Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused his political opponent, Fethullah Gülen, who lives in the US for plotting the coup, and has demanded that the United States return him to face trial in Turkey.
Turkey also has tense relations with Russia.
In response to the downing of a Russian jet by Turkey (November 2015), Russia cut the flow of gas and stopped Russian tourism to Turkey. The Russian retaliation has been very painful to Turkey. The damage caused to Turkey by the Russian sanctions forced the Turkish president Erdoğan to swallow his pride and to apologize to Putin. Following his apology, Erdoğan was invited to meet with the Russian president in Moscow on August 9th. The Russian forgiveness has a price tag. Russia-who supports Assad- expects Turkey to give up the demand that Assad step down. Erdoğan does not conceal his desire to reconcile with Russia. Thus, Turkey signals it is willing to comply with Russia’s interest to keep (at least for now) Assad in power.
Turkey is fully aware of the fact that it must consider the interests and needs of both the United States as well as Russia in Syria – which are clearly opposing Turkey’s on two major issues: the political fate of Assad and the issue of the Kurds.
Therefore, Turkey needs a card to ensure its ability to affect the reality in Syria in a way that best serves Turkey’s interests, but will not put Turkey on a collision track with the United States or Russia.
Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (previously Al-Nusrah) is a valuable card.
However, as long as Jabhat Al-Nusrah is designated by the US and Western powers, as well as by Russia as Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, Turkey’s ability to maximize that card is limited because Turkey, who is a member of NATO and has lots of commercial, economic and political interests in Europe, cannot allow itself to be associated with Jabhat Al-Nusrah i.e., Al-Qaeda.
Thus, the disassociation of Jabhat Al-Nusrah from Al-Qaeda, provides Turkey the justification to openly boost its support of the group, by presenting “Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham as a ‘Syrian rebel body’ fighting to end the Iranian-Russian invasion of its land (Syria) and to end the brutal dictatorship (Assad’s rule)” and not as a “terror organization.” Thus, one can identify Turkey’s fingerprints beyond the disembarking of Jabhat Al-Nusrah from Al-Qaeda.
Another episode, seemingly unrelated, supports the argument that Turkey has a hand in Al-Nusrah’s move.
In a discussion within the UN Security Council assembled to discuss the situation in Aleppo held recently, the Egyptian representative focused his statement on Jabhat Al-Nusrah, defining it as a “terror organization”, demanding to boost international activity against Al-Nusrah. Egypt’s position in this discussion seems strange. While clearly the catastrophic situation of Syrian civilians in Aleppo should have been the focus of the discussion, Egypt chose to focus on Jabhat Al-Nusrah. That position was not a coincidence. It stems from the tense relations between Turkey and Egypt. Turkey pointed some accusing fingers towards Egypt following the failed coup in Turkey. These accusations sparked Egypt’s fury. The Egyptians took their revenge in the UN Security Council discussion, sending a message to Turkey that Egypt, as the major Arab state, has the power and ability to damage Turkey’s interests.
The disembarkation of Jabhat Al-Nusrah from Al-Qaeda and creating a seemingly new organization indicates the group’s ability to apply real-politic calculations including ones which are the expense of its ideology if needed, as well as its ability to subdue its extreme ideology to political calculations of profits and losses.
That characteristic of Jabhat Al-Nusrah – or as it called now Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham – has significant potential ramifications in the context of future negotiations regarding the end of the war in Syria.
Traditionally, Jabhat Al-Nusrah firmly opposed all negotiations held between the Syrian rebels and the Assad regime. In Al-Nusrah’s view, there is no place for any negotiations and the war must end with the ousting of Assad and the deportation of his allies – Russia, Iran and its Shi’ite proxies fighting in Syria.
In my evaluation, following the disembarkation from Al-Qaeda, the group now entitled Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham will be more flexible and receptive to arrangements that include compromise – such as the endurance of Assad for an interim period and the presence of Russia in Syria.
*Islamist ideology as a whole is committed to creating a global Islamic cultural, political, and religious entity known Caliphate in which no other independent or sovereign state exists. The Caliphate will be ruled by a Caliph. The Caliphate will be governed and ruled by Islamic law; the Shari’ah. The Shari’ah will be the only source of legislation, the supreme governing authority, and will govern all areas of life – public and private – and every aspect of life in the Caliphate will be conducted according to the strict orthodoxy of the Sharīʿah. To learn about the differences in various Islamist ideology, including the Muslim Brotherhood ideology – known as Political Islam, Fundamental and Radical Islam, more about Militant Islam Ideology and Modus Operandi and the evolution and role of Jihad, please read my recent book Inside the Middle East: Making Sense if the Most Dangerous and Complicated Region on Earth (Published in March 2016)