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Al Qaeda's Name Game in Syria

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Reprinted from Consortium News

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.
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.
(Image by [State Department Photo])
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The Nusra Front's adoption of the new name Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and claim that it has separated itself from Al Qaeda was designed to influence U.S. policy, not to make the group any more independent of Al Qaeda.

The objective of the maneuver was to head off U.S.-Russian military cooperation against the jihadist group, renamed last week, based at least in part on the hope that the U.S. bureaucratic and political elite, who are lining up against a new U.S.-Russian agreement, may block or reverse the Obama administration's intention to target Al Qaeda's franchise in Syria.

The leader of the Syrian jihadist organization Mohammad al-Golani and Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri both made a great deal of the public encouragement that Zawahiri gave to separation from the parent organization. The idea was that the newly rebranded and supposedly independent jihadist organization in Syria would be better able to fulfill its role in the Syrian revolution.

But to anyone who has followed the politics of Nusra Front's role in the Syrian war, the idea that Zawahiri would actually allow its Syrian franchise to cut loose from the central leadership and function with full independence is obviously part of a political sham.

Charles Lister, the British expert on Syrian jihadism who is now a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, observed in May that Al Qaeda's senior leadership has acquired a huge political stake in Nusra Front's success in dominating the war against the Assad regime, which it views as the jewel in the crown of its global operation, along with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group's Yemeni franchise.

This was not the first time that the issue of possible independence from Al Qaeda had come up in the context of the international politics of the Syrian conflict. A year ago last spring, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the external sponsors of the Nusra Front-dominated military command that had taken over Idlib in April 2015, were concerned about the possibility that the Obama administration would come down hard against their Nusra-based strategy.

Qatari intelligence reportedly met several times with Golani and offered substantial direct funding in return for a formal move to renounce his loyalty to Al Qaeda. Influential figures in Washington were being told by Nusra's external supporters in May 2015 that an important faction of Nusra Front was likely to split from Al Qaeda. That never happened, of course, and Golani himself repeated his allegiance to Al Qaeda in his first on-camera interview with Al Jazeera in June 2015.

Al Qaeda's Islamic State

Golani's loyalty is now a core interest of Al Qaeda. The Nusra Front's success in northwest Syria, and in Idlib governorate in particular, has given Al Qaeda its first opportunity to have its own sovereign state. (The so-called "Islamic State" made a clean break from Al Qaeda in 2014.)

Ayman al-Zawahiri
Ayman al-Zawahiri
(Image by (From Wikimedia) Hamid Mir, Author: Hamid Mir)
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Al Qaeda's hopes for its Syrian franchise were so high last spring that Nusra Front began to make the first preparations for its transformation into an "emirate." It began holding consultations with other jihadist groups in Syria as well as clerics that the leadership believed would be sympathetic to the idea of the first Islamic state based on Al Qaeda's ideological outlook.

Al Qaeda's ambition for its Syrian affiliate also explains why a number of senior Al Qaeda figures have moved to Syria over the past three years -- and especially after taking control of Idlib -- according to Lister. The stakes for Zawahiri and his colleagues at Al Qaeda central transcend Syria, moreover. The project for an Al Qaeda emirate is vital to counter the attraction that Islamic State has exerted at the expense of Al Qaeda since the 2014 break.

So despite Zawahiri's ostensible magnanimity in giving his blessing to the independence of his group's Syrian affiliate, and the soothing reassurance of such independence from the new spokesman for the organization, there is no way Al Qaeda could actually allow such independence.

In the newly renamed "Jabhat Fateh al Sham," the term "Sham" refers to the entire area that includes Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan. But the entire rebranding involved is also a "sham," in the sense of something that is bogus being presented as real.

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Gareth Porter (born 18 June 1942, Independence, Kansas) is an American historian, investigative journalist and policy analyst on U.S. foreign and military policy. A strong opponent of U.S. wars in Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, he has also (more...)

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