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Analysis Middle East Syria

What’s Next for the Former Jabhat al-Nusra?

At the end of July, Jabhat al-Nusra announced they would be officially cutting ties with al-Qaeda– a decision that had been debated within al-Nusra for about a year– now calling themselves Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. A more “moderate” rebranding  certainly appears advantageous for the group from many angles.

Desire to Avoid US and Russian Airstrikes

As an al-Qaeda affiliate and terror organization, al-Nusra was the only opposition group (besides ISIS) specifically targeted by both US and Russian airstrikes. We aren’t likely to see a change from Russia’s side– as the former al-Nusra is still in opposition to the Assad government. And John Kerry has said that a simple name change won’t be enough to stop airstrikes from the US– but this opinion might not hold up over time. Washington’s desire to oust Assad might trump the group’s negative qualities in the long run; especially after the international community starts to forget about the groups previous link to al-Qaeda. The United States had no problem supporting the Wahhabi group Ahrar al-Sham for instance– even after the group were shown to be collaborating with al-Nusra. Radical opinions are typically not a deal-breaker for Washington as long as the group can share Assad as a common enemy. If Washington does begin to turn a blind-eye to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham’s al-Qaeda-linked past, this could certainly throw a wrench in the anti-ISIS Russia-US alliance; as al-Nusra and ISIS were the only common enemies shared between the two world powers.

Ground Support and Possible Peace Talks

It’s been reported that al-Nusra does hold popular support on the ground from portions of the Syrian population. But keep in mind, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton also hold popular support from portions of the US population. This is not to compare the US presidential candidates to terror organizations, but rather to show that “popular support” is a term very open to interpretation when the general population doesn’t really have much of a choice or say in the matter. A break from al-Qaeda could accelerate popular support for the group in rebel-held areas– especially if world powers ever decide to halt airstrikes against the group. The former al-Nusra could also gain ground support from other western-supported “moderate” rebel groups. Which could eventually lead to a stronger opposition coalition and possibly even incorporating the former al-Nusra into peace talks.

Potential for Outside Support

As mentioned above, US does not have a problem arming, training, and supporting radical rebels as long as they share opposition to the Assad government. By this logic, the only thing standing in Washington’s way from supporting al-Nusra was their link to al-Qaeda. The US might not start shipping the former al-Nusra weapons directly, but if the group starts to gain ground support from other US “moderate rebel” groups, Washington will likely look the other way if weapons and intelligence are shared. Even if the US doesn’t want to help arm the group directly just yet, a number of other countries would likely be more than willing to help. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or Qatar would all be ideal candidates to support the group. Turkey for instance might see the former al-Nusra as a valuable force for fighting the Kurds as well as for their opposition to Assad. Remember, each country is moving the chess pieces in Syria to advance their own personal agenda. (Although Turkey’s recent rekindling of ties with Russia might change things; but that’s another topic for another time.)

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Once again, as of now, John Kerry maintains that al-Nusra’s rebranding is only cosmetic and will not exclude them from airstrikes. But the geopolitical effects of this rebranding will likely take months to manifest. Once the attention of the international community is lost and the world has forgotten the group’s previous link to al-Qaeda, the former al-Nusra will likely be a key ally for many countries with their hands in the Syrian war.

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