When Vladimir Putin ordered air strikes on Syria in November last year, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was asked who had been designated as terrorists to be hit among the rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad. He responded: “If it looks like a terrorist, acts like a terrorist, walks like a terrorist, fights like a terrorist, it’s a terrorist”. Changing its name will not save Jabhat al-Nusra from being bombed, it will continue to be regarded as a terrorist organisation.
It is not just Russia that considers al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s franchised arm in Syria, as deserving elimination. When the Americans started air strikes against in Syria, two months before the Russians, the target was Isis. But on one of the first days of the campaign, the Khorasan group, affiliated to al-Nusra and al-Qaeda, was at the receiving end of a sustained missile attack.
Abu Mohamed al-Jolani, the leader of al-Nusra, made his first public appearance in a well-trailed announcement saying that the group was breaking with al-Qaeda as well as changing its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. Much of al-Nusra’s activities had been directed by al-Qaeda’s headquarters in Pakistan: “The new formation has no ties with any foreign parties,” al-Jolani was keen to stress.
Al-Jolani, whose real name is Ahmed Hussein al-Sharaa, made the broadcast wearing a camouflage jacket of the same shade as Osama bin Laden, along with identical white turban and scarf. Many in the social media were swift to point out the similarity in attire amid general scepticism about the split.
Al-Joliani stated that the changes to its allegiance and name were “to remove the excuse used by the international community, spearheaded by America and Russia, to bombard and displace Muslims in the Levant, that they are targeting Jabhat al-Nusra, which is associated with al-Qaeda”.
Al-Nusra had sought “permission” to leave al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda was quick to grant it. Ahmed Hassan al-Khayr, the deputy to Bin Laden’s successor Ayman al-Zawahiri, sent an audio message saying “we direct the leadership of Jabhat al-Nusra to go ahead with what preserves the good of Islam and the Muslims and protects the jihad of the Syrian people”.
Some of the Syrian rebel groups supported by the West had decried the US bombing of al-Nusra pointing out that it had been effective in fighting the forces of both Basher al-Assad and Isis. But this did not change Washington’s policy and the continuing bombing, especially after the Russians joined in, has increasingly damaged al-Nusra. That is the reason it is attempting to get out of the firing line of the international powers which have intervened in Syria.
If al-Nusra, which has benefited in the past from support by Qatar (and continues to do so, say Qatar’s critics) had hoped to be taken off the US list of prescribed terrorist organisations by its moves, initial reactions were not encouraging. “We certainly see no reasons to believe that their actions or their objectives are any different,” said US State Department spokesman John Kirby. “They are still considered a foreign terrorist organisation. We judge a group by what they do, not by what they call themselves.”
There has been no official reaction, as yet, from the Kremlin about al-Nusra’s rebranding. But Russian aircraft bombed what were supposedly the group’s bases in Idlib province on Friday. Aid groups said a maternity hospital had been hit, but it was unclear which country’s warplanes were responsible.