CATF Reports Aug. 3, 2016, 2:48pm

In a swift rebranding maneuver plausibly dictated by strategic considerations, the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate born from the 2013 split of the jihadist group established by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced its new identity as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or the “Front for the Conquest of the Levant” on July 28, 2016. Al-Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Joulani, who announced the rebranding in a video broadcast by Qatar-based al Jazeera, did not officially revoke its allegiance to al-Qaeda, yet few hours before the announcement al-Nusra media channel al-Manara al-Bayda transmitted an audio statement by al-Qaeda leadership approving the severance of “organizational ties” with al-Qaeda.

According to Joulani’s statement, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham will have no foreign affiliations, although the group is widely expected to remain committed to the same goals and ideological tenets shared with al-Qaeda. More than a substantial change, this operation is most likely intended to serve al-Nusra’s evolved strategy in Syria with the blessing of al-Qaeda’s core. As ISIS loses ground, al-Nusra’s formal disengagement from al-Qaeda may in fact express the group’s new efforts to expand its legitimacy and gain wider consensus in the country towards a longer term victory, the “establishment of an Islamic emirate with sufficient popular acceptance.”

The rebranding operation does not remove the legal obstacles towards a more overt financial and material support recently advocated by Qatar in particular, but also by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other countries involved in the anti-ISIS coalition in Syria and Iraq. However, experts agree that the severance of ties from al-Qaeda certainly allows Qatar an unprecedented opportunity to reinforce its support of the group, already conspicuous and continuous over the past three years.

From Foreign Policy:

“As Jabhat al-Nusra’s long game plays out in Syria, it poses a significant challenge to the international community. […] There seems little space for turning back, and policymakers will rightly not see the Nusra Front’s disaffiliation from al Qaeda as making it a more moderate organization.

Perhaps more significantly, this latest development has also made it entirely feasible that regional states, notably Qatar and Turkey, could now attempt to provide direct material support to the group. Turkey in particular is likely to use the argument that, having announced a severing of its ties to al Qaeda, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is as legitimate a partner as Washington’s preferred anti-Islamic State ally, the Kurdish YPG.”

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