Finally, after eighteen months of indecision, Abu Mohammed Joulani, the leader of Syria’s al-Nusra Front, appeared on Al-Jazeera television to announce that his organisation is breaking all ties with al-Qaeda and all mutual relationships. He went even further, declaring that he is to change the name of his group to Fatah al-Sham thus completely dropping all reference to al-Nusra [Victory].
Joulani was looking young and handsome, sporting the white turban and military camouflage we once associated with Sheikh Osama bin Laden, leader of Al-Qaeda before his assassination by an American commando unit in May 2011 in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad.
This is in contrast to his desire to conceal his face when a colleague visited him in order to film an interview with him about a year ago.
Al-Nusra started to prepare its disengagement from al-Qaeda months ago, sending delegates to every al-Nusra stronghold including Aleppo and Idleb who explained that a formal declaration would come soon and that the group was under pressure, especially from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to renounce its allegiance to Al-Qaeda.
The timing of this step is relevant for the following reasons:
First: it coincides with the fall of Eastern Aleppo and the Bani Zeid neighborhood – which were the stronghold of the armed factions – and the severing of the Castello road by the Syrian army, knowing that this road represents the only supply line to the armed factions.
Second: The two main powers, i.e. Russia and America, reached an agreement to liquidate both the Islamic State and Al-Nusra during the last Syrian peace conference in Geneva. Al-Nusra has been offered an escape route from the coming bombardments if it renounces al-Qaeda.
Third: the allies of the Syrian armed opposition, mainly in the Gulf, have lately been less interested in their activities, while Turkey is busy dealing with the repercussions of the failed military coup and is also seeking to improve its relations with Russia, a key ally of the Syrian regime.
Fourth: Civilians in Idleb and Aleppo have been putting pressure on Al-Nusra to break its connection with al-Qaeda since this would put a stop to Russian and American air raids.
Fifth: Turkey has completely closed its border with Syria and shoots those who try to escape from the civil war; dozens have now died this way.
In the light of this surprising development, the obvious question concerns the future of al-Nusra and how the other opposition factions and major powers involved in the Syrian conflict will react. How will it affect the map of the opposition overall?
It is difficult for us to try and figure out the unknown. However, we can speculate on some of the developments:
First: A schism is likely to happen within An-Nusra front both at the level of the leaders and the fighters with large numbers of the more radical elements switching allegiance to Islamic State.
Second: Pressure will be exerted on the re-named group to join forces either with the ‘moderate’ Islamic opposition forces or the Free Syrian Army and declare war on the Islamic State (IS). IS is considered a terrorist organisation by the US, Russia, France, UK etc and the re-branded al-Nusra group may even find itself, paradoxically, fighting alongside the Syrian regime in battle against IS.
Third: the flow of financial aid from the Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, will resume. The revised al-Nusra group – now Fatah al-Sham – will be invited to join the Saudi initiative, the Supreme Council for Negotiations, based in Riyadh, and go to the next round of Geneva negotiations under its umbrella.
Golani has embarked on a major and dangerous adventure. There are no reassurances or guarantees that the raids will stop or that the Americans and Russians will let go… And even if such guarantees are offered, will they be honoured…?