Al Qaeda’s Name Game in Syria

Washington’s neocon-dominated foreign policy establishment has long seen Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front as a strategic ally in Syria – and now hopes a name change will protect it through President Obama’s last months, reports Gareth Porter.

By Gareth Porter

The Nusra Front’s adoption of the new name Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and claim that it has separated itself from Al Qaeda was designed to influence U.S. policy, not to make the group any more independent of Al Qaeda.

The objective of the maneuver was to head off U.S.-Russian military cooperation against the jihadist group, renamed last week, based at least in part on the hope that the U.S. bureaucratic and political elite, who are lining up against a new U.S.-Russian agreement, may block or reverse the Obama administration’s intention to target Al Qaeda’s franchise in Syria.

Syrian refugees await the arrival of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during his visit to the Zaatari Refugee Camp, located near Mafraq, Jordan. The settlement has grown to house nearly 80,000 Syrian refugees since it opened in 2012. March 27, 2016. (Photo from the United Nations)

Syrian refugees await the arrival of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during his visit to the Zaatari Refugee Camp, located near Mafraq, Jordan. The settlement has grown to house nearly 80,000 Syrian refugees since it opened in 2012. March 27, 2016. (Photo from the United Nations)

The leader of the Syrian jihadist organization Mohammad al-Golani and Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri both made a great deal of the public encouragement that Zawahiri gave to separation from the parent organization. The idea was that the newly rebranded and supposedly independent jihadist organization in Syria would be better able to fulfill its role in the Syrian revolution.

But to anyone who has followed the politics of Nusra Front’s role in the Syrian war, the idea that Zawahiri would actually allow its Syrian franchise to cut loose from the central leadership and function with full independence is obviously part of a political sham.

Charles Lister, the British expert on Syrian jihadism who is now a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, observed in May that Al Qaeda’s senior leadership has acquired a huge political stake in Nusra Front’s success in dominating the war against the Assad regime, which it views as the jewel in the crown of its global operation, along with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group’s Yemeni franchise.

This was not the first time that the issue of possible independence from Al Qaeda had come up in the context of the international politics of the Syrian conflict. A year ago last spring, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the external sponsors of the Nusra Front-dominated military command that had taken over Idlib in April 2015, were concerned about the possibility that the Obama administration would come down hard against their Nusra-based strategy.

Qatari intelligence reportedly met several times with Golani and offered substantial direct funding in return for a formal move to renounce his loyalty to Al Qaeda. Influential figures in Washington were being told by Nusra’s external supporters in May 2015 that an important faction of Nusra Front was likely to split from Al Qaeda. That never happened, of course, and Golani himself repeated his allegiance to Al Qaeda in his first on-camera interview with Al Jazeera in June 2015.

Al Qaeda’s Islamic State 

Golani’s loyalty is now a core interest of Al Qaeda. The Nusra Front’s success in northwest Syria, and in Idlib governorate in particular, has given Al Qaeda its first opportunity to have its own sovereign state. (The so-called “Islamic State” made a clean break from Al Qaeda in 2014.)

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri.

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri.

Al Qaeda’s hopes for its Syrian franchise were so high last spring that Nusra Front began to make the first preparations for its transformation into an “emirate.” It began holding consultations with other jihadist groups in Syria as well as clerics that the leadership believed would be sympathetic to the idea of the first Islamic state based on Al Qaeda’s ideological outlook.

Al Qaeda’s ambition for its Syrian affiliate also explains why a number of senior Al Qaeda figures have moved to Syria over the past three years — and especially after taking control of Idlib – according to Lister.  The stakes for Zawahiri and his colleagues at Al Qaeda central transcend Syria, moreover. The project for an Al Qaeda emirate is vital to counter the attraction that Islamic State has exerted at the expense of Al Qaeda since the 2014 break.

So despite Zawahiri’s ostensible magnanimity in giving his blessing to the independence of his group’s Syrian affiliate, and the soothing reassurance of such independence from the new spokesman for the organization, there is no way Al Qaeda could actually allow such independence.

In the newly renamed “Jabhat Fateh al Sham,” the term “Sham” refers to the entire area that includes Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan. But the entire rebranding involved is also a “sham,” in the sense of something that is bogus being presented as real.

The real reason for the rebranding and creation of a supposedly independent organization was the threat of a U.S.-Russian joint air campaign against Nusra Front. Golani himself provided a very strong hint that it was the primary consideration, declaring that it was intended to take away the excuse used by the U.S. and Russia to “bombard and displace Muslims … under the pretence of targeting Jabhat al-Nusra”.

Before word of negotiations over such military cooperation between the two powers surfaced in June, Nusra Front had resumed preparations for the eventual announcement of an emirate in Idlib, as Lister had reported based on his own jihadist and Salafist contacts.

But a shift in U.S. policy to all-out air war against Nusra Front would be nothing short of a calamity for the jihadist organization. The Obama administration, which has regarded Nusra Front as a terrorist organization from the beginning, had nevertheless effectively provided a partial shield for Nusra Front fighters under the partial ceasefire agreement.

Although Nusra was formally exempted from the scope of the agreement, Secretary of State John Kerry had reached an understanding with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in February that Russian planes would avoid hitting Nusra targets until the U.S.-supported “legitimate” armed opposition had been given a chance to separate themselves from Nusra physically and in terms of joint command structures.

That separation never happened, and several armed opposition groups that had been given status as part of the Syrian political negotiations joined with Nusra in a major offensive that essentially brought the ceasefire to an end. Even then, however, the Obama administration continued to press the Russians to avoid bombing that could hit civilians and armed opposition groups, which it said were “commingled” with Nusra.

From Target to Asset

So it was obviously a blow to Nusra hopes when the U.S.-Russian negotiations on a joint military effort against the group were revealed. But the deal still has not been completed, and Nusra Front leaders knew from the Washington Post that Pentagon and CIA officials were strongly opposed to U.S. cooperation with Russia in Syria against their group. They knew the argument against such an agreement was that it would play into the hands of the Russians and their Syrian client by weakening the main source of military pressure on Assad.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivers remarks at a United Nations Security Council Session on the situation in Syria at the United Nations in New York City, New York on January 31, 2012. [State Department Photo]

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivers remarks at a United Nations Security Council Session on the situation in Syria at the United Nations in New York City, New York on January 31, 2012. [State Department Photo]

In fact, most of the news media, think tank specialists on the Middle East, and the Democratic Party political elite aligned with Hillary Clinton now lean toward treating Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate as a strategic asset rather than a security threat.

Even Lister has called the Nusra Front a greater long-term threat than Islamic State. But he was quoted as saying that the rebranding “puts the U.S. and Russia in a tricky situation,” meaning that it would now be harder to justify air strikes against the newly renamed organization.

Golani and his colleagues understandably hoped that their foreign tactical allies against Russian-U.S. cooperation in Syria would try to exploit the rebranding operation to shoot down the agreement for joint air operations against them.

The Obama administration has said clearly that the rebranding ploy will not change its policy toward the jihadist organization, but now Golani and his foreign supporters are undoubtedly hoping for a new approach in a Hillary Clinton administration.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare. [This article first appeared at Middle East Eye.]

8 comments for “Al Qaeda’s Name Game in Syria

  1. Peter Loeb
    August 8, 2016 at 11:14


    Glancing at this morning’s newspaper (the Boston Globe, August 8,2016,
    inner page), I failed to finish a story which Mr. Porter has eloquently
    described and predicted in his article.

    The issue is now what the Russians will decide to do in light of the
    retaking of Alepo by the “sham” newly renamed organization. I am sure
    plans are being considered in the Kremlin as well as in Damascus.

    Lest it be forgotten, Russia has military bases in Syria and has
    long been a supporter of the Government of Syria. A UN
    resolution was unanimously passed (with the support of the
    US!) urging all members to support Syria in expelling all
    foreign terrorists (Council language).

    Within less than a week, US Secretary of State John Kerry was
    stating that “Assad must go!” and no one in the Western world has
    ever heard of the Security Council Resolution since ,
    S Res/2139 (2014), passed 22 February 2014.

    Words only. What is the UN Security Council anyway? etc.

    A closer and more reliable analysis from Gareth
    Porter is awaited when there is anything of substance left
    to analyze beyond his contribution above.

    —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  2. Tesseract
    August 7, 2016 at 11:51

    Hello. I discovered this site two or three weeks ago and have been reading as much as I can. Needless to say there is a lot of material to absorb! Until I found this site, and have now found others like it, I only really followed domestic issues, whenever I tried to understand international issues I would invariably end up more confused than when I started. What I am wondering now is why we went into Syria initially? Why do we want to overthrow Assad? What were we told and what were the real reasons?

    • Audrius
      August 8, 2016 at 07:12

      Mainly, because Assad is “not our guy”. I mean your guy. For various reasons: bad relationships with US allies, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia (and other Sunni powers in the region), and his good relationships with Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

      The public accusation is “Tyrant” though (see Qaddafi and Hussein before him).

  3. b.grand
    August 6, 2016 at 22:35

    Math in the Levant and the US —

    Al Qaeda is to Nusra Front
    as al-Zawahiri is to al-Golani
    as Killery is to the Bern

  4. Abe
    August 6, 2016 at 17:23

    “The possibility of terrorist organizations like the Islamic State (IS) ending up with US missiles should be no surprise. It is a ‘coincidence’ it appears many US policymakers wanted to unfold in Syria, if a no-fly zone implemented over Syria by the US directly was not a possibility.

    “One of those US policymakers is US Senator John McCain (R-AZ) who would say in a 2015 interview on Fox News that:

    “‘I might do what we did in Afghanistan many years ago, to give those guys the ability to shoot down those planes. That equipment is available.’

    “He would elaborate further by stating:

    “‘The Free Syrian Army, just like the Afghans shot down the Russian…’

    “It should be noted that the ‘guys’ Senator McCain is referring to in Afghanistan were Al Qaeda. With the downing of 2 Russian helicopters at the hands of IS and Al Qaeda respectively, it appears very much like Senator McCain has (one way or another) gotten his wish, with Al Qaeda once again serving as the armed intermediary between the US and Russia.

    “The end result is US foreign policy coming full circle, having created Al Qaeda to fight Russia in the 1980s, then using the terrorist organization as a pretext to extend military interventionism globally, to now once again cheering them on in Syria as they down Russian aircraft amid a struggle to restore peace and stability to both Syria and the wider region.

    “One wonders if this irony is lost on the American people, who have been asked to sacrifice so much in the name of fighting ‘terrorism,’ only to have those who have done the asking to ally themselves with the very terrorists in a destructive proxy war in the distant lands of the Levant.”

    US Foreign Policy Comes Full Circle As Qaeda Downs Russian Helicopters
    By Ulson Gunnar

  5. tony
    August 6, 2016 at 14:40

    By supplying these terror groups, the US is the largest state-sponsor of terrorism.

  6. Joe Tedesky
    August 6, 2016 at 10:30

    Al Qaeda: ‘I’m with Her 2016’!

    • exiled off mainstreet
      August 6, 2016 at 15:16

      That says it all. This article should be read by all who favor the neocon position. War crimes and treason are the order of the day.

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