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 pretense 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.
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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.
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