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A Jihadist Group by Any Other Name

3 MINS READAug 1, 2016 | 16:15 GMT
 A Jihadist Group by Any Other Name
Jabhat al-Nusra fighters in Aleppo head to the front lines in May 2015. The group recently renamed itself Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, but that does not mean its composition or connections have changed.
(FADI AL-HALABI/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the most effective groups fighting alongside the Syrian rebels, has changed its name in an effort to make itself more difficult for the United States to target. Abu Mohammed al-Golani, Jabhat al-Nusra's leader, announced on July 28 that the group had severed all ties with al Qaeda and rebranded itself as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. Though the group's new moniker will change neither its membership nor its ideology, the move may be enough to help protect it from Washington and its rebel allies. 

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham will be the same organization as its predecessor, with the same connections. A few hours before al-Golani's statement, al Qaeda itself sanctioned the split, essentially implying that the two groups would continue to coordinate. Al-Golani even gave his speech flanked by key al Qaeda-linked figures.

Al Qaeda's affiliates have a history of hiding their connections to the core group when necessary, and Jabhat al-Nusra was no exception. For many years after it first appeared on the Syrian battlefield, the group kept its direct ties to al Qaeda a secret. Though Jabhat Fatah al-Sham will continue to focus the bulk of its efforts on the conflict in Syria, it has not abandoned the transnational aspirations it shares with al Qaeda. For all intents and purposes, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham remains an al Qaeda-linked group.

That said, it would be a mistake to assume that the organization's recent announcement does not matter. The group is well aware of the shifts underway in the Syrian civil war. The United States and Russia have ramped up talks on combating Jabhat Fatah al-Sham together, and Washington has increased pressure on the Syrian rebels to disassociate themselves from the group.

Yet the mounting threat of concerted foreign action against it has also presented Jabhat Fatah al-Sham with an opportunity. The Syrian rebels, faced with weakening external support and a strengthening loyalist opponent, are in dire straits. Desperate to reverse their fortunes, the rebels have little desire to see infighting rise. So although the United States has openly questioned Jabhat Fatah al-Sham's declared departure from al Qaeda and its plea for rebel unity, the rebels (though they have their own suspicions as well) have welcomed the statements as avowals of change.

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, which is keen to maintain its momentum with the rebellion, has already played a significant role in coordinating one of the largest rebel offensives of the Syrian civil war. Nearly 20 major rebel groups, including several factions backed by the United States, launched an operation July 31 intended to break the loyalist siege on Aleppo. Though it has yet to accomplish its goal, the offensive has made considerable progress and will cement the rebels' view that unity is paramount, especially at such a difficult time.

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham's announcement may also win over several of the United States' allies in the region, particularly Qatar and Turkey, which have long tried to dissuade the group from working with al Qaeda. Though Turkey is currently distracted by political strife at home, Qatar will undoubtedly jump at the chance to urge Washington to ease up on its increasingly aggressive approach toward the group. This alone may not be enough to halt U.S. airstrikes against Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, but calls from Washington's allies and the rebellion at large could complicate the United States' recent proposal to coordinate those strikes with Russia.

By choosing a new name and renouncing ties to al Qaeda at such a crucial moment, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has astutely insulated itself from the direct threat it faces from its fellow rebels while undermining the United States' attempts to coordinate action against it. The move showcases one of the group's greatest strengths, and one of the most important differences between it and the Islamic State: flexibility. The latter's exclusionary policies have left it with few allies and many enemies. By comparison, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham's patience and willingness to work with other groups have given it the room it needs to outmaneuver its enemies.

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