The Nusra Front, the powerful Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, has announced it is ending its relationship with the global jihadist network founded by Osama bin Laden.
According to the group, also known as Jabhat al-Nusra, this is to remove a pretext used by world powers to attack Syrians.
The announcement came as Russia and President Bashar al-Assad's government declared a “humanitarian operation” in the besieged rebel-held sector of Aleppo, opening “safe corridors” so people can flee Syria's most important opposition stronghold.
Washington said that appeared to be an attempt to depopulate the city and make fighters surrender. The opposition called it a euphemism for forced displacement.
In the first known video statement ever to show his face, the leader of the Nusra Front, Mohamad al-Golani, announced that the group would re-form under a new name, with “no ties with any foreign party”.
The move was being made “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 the Nusra Front which is associated with al Qaeda,” he said. The group would now be called Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.
Golani appeared in the video flanked by two other Nusra Front figures, in front of a new white flag for the group. Nusra Front's old flag was black, the colour used by ultra-hardline jihadist groups such as al Qaeda and Islamic State.
Earlier on Thursday, Bin Laden's successor as Al Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, gave the Nusra Front his blessing to break away. In his message, Golani thanked Zawahri for putting the interests of Syrians ahead of organisational concerns.
The move appeared to be an attempt to appeal to Syrians who have long had deep misgivings about Nusra's links with al Qaeda and the presence of foreign jihadists in its ranks. It could alter the strategic alignment on the ground if the renamed Nusra gains acceptance among other rebel groups.
But Assad and his Russian allies are unlikely to accept the rebranding as a reason to halt military operations that have put the Syrian leader in the strongest position on the battlefield for years.
The Nusra Front, one of the most powerful rebel forces in Syria's five-year, multi-sided civil war, was excluded along with Islamic State from a US and Russian-backed ceasefire this year.
Nusra is listed as a terrorist organisation by the United States and the United Nations. Assad's other opponents have long said its presence gave the government and its Russian allies a pretext to abandon the truce and launch advances under the cover of anti-terrorist operations permitted under the ceasefire.
The U.S. State Department said Nusra Front fighters remained a legitimate target for U.S. warplanes for now.
“We're gonna have to wait and see,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said. “We judge a group by what they do, not by what they call themselves.”
Western countries are worried that the announcement of safe corridors for people to flee Aleppo could herald a Russian-backed government assault on the city.
“This would appear to be a demand for the surrender of opposition groups and the evacuation of Syrian civilians from Aleppo,” Kirby said. “The innocent people of Aleppo should be able to stay in their homes safely, and to receive the humanitarian access, which Russia and the regime ... in principle have agreed.”
Syria's largest city before the war, Aleppo has for years been divided into rebel and government zones. Asserting full control would be the biggest victory for Assad so far, and a potential turning point in a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands, spawned the world's worst refugee crisis and drawn in most regional and world powers.
Any assault on Aleppo would also probably wreck a diplomatic effort by Secretary of State John Kerry to negotiate military cooperation between the United States and Russia.
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