Jabhat al-Nusra, or the al-Nusra Front, emerged in 2012 as a jihadist force in opposition to the Assad regime in Syria. The group, designated a terrorist organization by the United States in 2012 for its ties to al-Qaeda, announced on July 28, 2016 that it was severing those ties, and rebranding itself as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (“the Front for the Conquest of the Levant”). Along with a changed name comes a supposedly more moderate goal: unifying the fractured Islamist forces in Syria and defending Islam from attack. This move, coming as the United States has attempted to marshal opposition to the group from first Turkey and then Russia, may further weaken U.S.-Turkey counterterrorism cooperation.
Al-Nusra’s rebranding is only an attempt to change the group’s external image, rather than its ideology. The operational links between al-Nusra and al-Qaeda will remain unchanged. The leader of al-Nusra, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, rose through the ranks of al-Qaeda during the Iraq war. Julani had the opportunity in 2013 to merge al-Nusra with ISIS—he chose to resist the merger and instead drew closer to al-Qaeda, turning al-Nusra into al-Qaeda’s official branch in Syria. By publicly severing ties with al-Qaeda now, al-Nusra is preserving its ability to operate in Syria, presenting itself as distinct from, and less threatening than, ISIS. That move is also causing problems between the United States and its partners in Syria, including Moscow, which had previously agreed to cooperate against al-Nusra, and Ankara.
By publicly severing ties with al-Qaeda now, al-Nusra is preserving its ability to operate in Syria, presenting itself as distinct from, and less threatening than, ISIS.
Turkish support for Sunni extremist groups in Syria is well documented. For Turkey, jihadist groups such as al-Nusra were the most effective forces on the ground against Assad—and preferable to the Syrian Kurds which the United States chose as partners to fight ISIS. In January 2014, several Syria-bound trucks sent by Turkey’s National Intelligence Service were stopped, allegedly containing weapons destined for al-Nusra. Under pressure for its support for extremists in Syria, Turkey finally designated al-Nusra a terrorist organization in 2014, but connections between Turkey and al-Nusra were believed to have persisted, with Russia alleging that Turkey provides daily shipments of arms to the group.
Al-Nusra has been one of many sticking points between the United States and Turkey in the complicated Syrian conflict. The prominence of extremists such as al-Nusra within the Syrian opposition has complicated U.S. support for the anti-Assad rebellion since the beginning of the civil war in 2011. The United States has pressured Turkey to cease its support for al-Nusra, and for moderate Syrian rebel groups to decouple themselves from al-Nusra, which controls extensive territory in Syria, primarily in its Idlib province.
U.S. officials have been clear, too, that al-Nusra’s rebranding has not changed the perception of the group in Washington. “We judge any organization, including this one, much more by its actions, its ideology, its goals….we certainly see no reason to believe that their actions or their objectives are any different, and they are still considered a foreign terrorist organization,” said State Department Spokesman John Kirby.
U.S. officials have been clear: al-Nusra’s rebranding has not changed the perception of the group in Washington.
Yet if al-Nusra’s rebranding succeeds in enabling the group to better embed itself within the Syrian opposition, which seems to be the group’s goal, it will make it easier for Turkey to justify support for the group. What’s more, it will make it increasingly difficult for the United States, with or without partners, to target al-Nusra forces without inadvertently striking and weakening the moderate rebel elements supported by both the United States and Turkey, allowing al-Nusra to expand its influence in Syria unchecked.
It remains far from clear how Turkey will recalibrate its Syria policy following the July 15 attempted coup in light of its weakened military and inklings of renewed interest in improved relations with Russia. But as long as Turkey seeks to maintain its longstanding support for Syria’s anti-Assad rebels, al-Nusra’s rebranding threatens to add one more note of discord to the swelling crescendo threatening U.S.-Turkey relations.
Turkey has vowed to fight both the Islamic State (or ISIS) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (or PKK) “without distinction,” yet a BPC analysis of how Turkey has conducted these two conflicts shows stark differences. Explore our new interactive maps.