Jabhat al-Nusra has changed its name. Why? The answer is another question; Will that name appear on a joint Russian/USA military targeting list? And the answer to that is – it’s complicated.
Jabhat al-Nusra was always a smarter outfit than ISIS. Whereas ISIS broke with Al Qaeda and then opposed it, al-Nusra maintained ties. While ISIS demanded subservience from all other groups, Al-Nusra was prepared to work with a variety of Syrian rebels. The relentless brutality of ISIS has turned many Syrians against it, the limited brutality of al-Nusra has allowed it to maintain a degree of co-operation with civilians.
Jabhat al-Nusra has now changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. The root of the word al-Sham comes from the ancient description of Syria as being the ‘land of the left hand’ – meaning that if you were facing the sun from the holy sites in what is now Saudi Arabia then Syria would be to your left.
Simultaneous with the name change came the announcement that the rebranded group was splitting from Al Qaeda (AQ). However, this is not a decision made in anger and the two groups will maintain cordial relations, indeed while announcing the move the Nusra/Fatah al-Sham commander Al-Golani was flanked by two men associated with AQ.
The decision has been forced by the increasing nervousness of the group about the talks between the Russians and Americans about coordinating air strikes in Syria against certain targets. If that had come to fruition, then al-Nusra would already have been on any joint targeting list. However, if, as expected, the rebranded group embeds itself deeper inside, and/or alongside, more of the other Syrian rebel groups, then disentangling it during air strikes could prove impossible.
To ensure this Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is playing a significant role in the major rebel offensive designed to break the Syrian Army’s siege of Aleppo. The more integrated Fatah al-Sham is with the ‘mainstream’ rebels, the harder it will be to hit them from the air. The Russians and Americans have not yet agreed on a joint strategy, but in anticipation of one Fatah al-Sham are a move ahead. The groups core Islamist ideology has not changed, and future co-operation with AQ is expected. The ISIS ‘caliphate’ is shrinking, AQ and Fatah al-Sham would be happy to create a de-facto one in the extremely unlikely event of a collapse by the Assad regime.
The move is also designed to engender more support from Turkey and Qatar who are currently under American pressure to drop any backing for the group due it its links with AQ.
Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has just made the multi sided Syrian war even more complicated. From its perspective – that’s a smart move.