Members of Al-Nusra Front gesture as they drive in a convoy touring villages in the southern countryside of Idlib, December 2, 2014. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi Members of Al-Nusra Front gesture as they drive in a convoy touring villages in the southern countryside of Idlib, December 2, 2014. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

How influential is Al-Nusra Front in Syria?

Wed, Mar. 14, 2018
CAIRO – 14 March 2018: Over the past six years, Syria has witnessed massive destruction amid complicated conflicts between several internal and external parties; the hope to solve the crisis seems to be fading away.

Al-Nusra Front or Jabhat Al-Nusra, known as Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham after July 2016, is also described as Al-Qaeda in Syria or Al-Qaeda in the Levant. Al-Nusra surfaced on global media outlets and reports on the Syrian conflict after a controversial statement was given by the Russian minister of foreign affairs accusing the U.S. of supporting the terror group.

"Russia has mounting evidence that western partners, especially the United States, would like to take the heat off Al-Nusra Front, which has now changed its name — but this does not mean it has changed its nature — and save it, in case they decide to return to plan 'B,' which is to change the regime in Damascus," Russian FM Sergi Lavrov said.

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov - Reuters

He stressed that Al-Nusra is a terrorist group, adding that Russian and Syrian efforts to battle it are in line with the requirements of the ceasefire regime settled by the UNSC resolution.

Resolution 2401, adopted on February 24, urges all parties in the conflict to immediately stop all clashes and adhere to a long-term humanitarian ceasefire for at least 30 days across the entirety of Syrian territory in order to ensure the safe and unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid supplies as well as the medical evacuation of injured people.

The resolution stipulates, though, that the cessation of hostilities does not apply to military operations against the Islamic State (IS), Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra Front "and all other individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with terrorist groups, as designated by the Council."

So, what is Al-Nusra Front? Who supports it? And how influential is it in Syria? To understand these mysteries, one should return to the first emergence of the group and its relation with the Syrian crisis.

Formation

Al-Nusra Front is a Salafist jihadist organization fighting against Syrian government forces in the Syrian Civil War, with the aim of establishing an Islamic state in the country. The group's founder and current leader is Abu Mohamad al Golani.

Al-Nusra first announced its existence in a video posted online in early 2012, some months after the Syrian civil war began. It was claimed that Qatar has relatively close ties with the group, probably through intermediaries.

In April 2013, Al-Nusra refused to join forces with IS and pledged allegiance instead to Al-Qaeda. Clashes broke out between IS and Al-Nusra where Al-Qaeda's ally was pushed out of its base in Deir Ezzor, Eastern Syria.

Observers say the group members range between 5,000 and 10,000 fighters, most of them are Syrians. Currently, Al-Nusra has a small presence in Eastern Ghouta and declining influence in Idlib, Northern Hama, and Western Aleppo provinces.

Jabhat Fateh Al Sham

In January 2017, Leader Golani, in his first recorded message, said the group’s new name would be Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (Front for the Conquest of the Levant). The Syrian jihadist group also announced its split from Al-Qaeda.

Golani said the move was intended to remove the pretext used by powers, including the U.S. and Russia, to bomb Syrians.

Al-Qaeda said earlier that it supported the split. Its second in command, Ahmed Hassan Abu al Khayr, said the organization had instructed "the leadership of Al Nusra Front to go ahead with what protects the interests of Islam and Muslims and what protects jihad" in Syria.

The message included a brief comment from Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri saying: "The brotherhood of Islam is stronger than any organizational links that change and go away."

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Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri urged rival militants in Syria to unite or risk death. (File photo: Reuters)

Al-Nusra militants, who have entrenched themselves in East Ghouta, east of the Syrian capital, along with other terrorists, have been violating the ceasefire by shelling Damascus neighborhoods and preventing civilians from leaving the area.

Why did the group change its name?

Al Nusra's decision to change its name to Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham was considered by international observers as an attempt to re-market itself for the world, especially as it was one of the most dangerous groups that have a bloody and brutal history on the Syrian territories, not to mention its linkage with Al-Qaeda.

Al Nusra Front aimed to change its appearance to gain new supporters at the local level and avoid more clashes with rival groups of other ideological affiliations located in Syria. The move also sought to protect the group from the Russian and U.S. bombing, although the latter did not take it seriously, especially considering that the two countries know their goals in Syria very well.

The U.S. responded by saying it saw no reason to change its view of the group as a terrorist organization. White House Spokesman Josh Earnest said the U.S. also had increasing concerns that the group intends to attack the West.

"The United States continues to assess that Al-Nusra Front leaders maintain the intent to conduct eventual attacks in and against the West and there continues to be increasing concern about Al Nusra Front's growing capacity for external operations that could threaten both the United States and Europe," he said.

Moreover, there are several reports claiming that Turkey and Qatar support Al-Nusra in Syria and they had previously asked the group to break away from Al-Qaeda to be more acceptable in the region.

According to Sky News, Qatar allegedly provided unlimited financial support to Al-Nusra Front for years to be its arm in the Syrian territories. Qatar's alleged funding to terrorist groups, including Al-Nusra, was estimated at $64.2 billion between 2010 and 2015, as well as $46 million that the Gulf emirate had paid in ransom for the group to release an American reporter and Maaloula nuns who were seized by Al-Nusra in Syria.

Doha's support was not limited to funding, but also extended to media support, especially that Golani appeared frequently on the Qatari media, especially Al-Jazeera.

Battles of Ghouta

In late February 2018, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) began their final offensive in the East Ghouta region of Damascus, targeting several towns and villages under the control of Jaysh Al-Islam and Faylaq Al-Rahman (FSA faction).

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People inspect damages to a building in the besieged town of Douma, eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria, last week. (Reuters/Bassam Khabieh)

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) – a UK-based war monitoring group – the fighting has killed at least 1,099 civilians over the past 21 days.
Witnesses said fighting erupted on several fronts in what was seen as a possible last-ditch bid by Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, to eliminate rebel groups in Ghouta before the UN-supported 30-day ceasefire was enforced.

Among the entrenched rebels in Eastern Ghouta, a few hundred belong to Al-Nusra, giving the government a pretext to continue with its assault. Rebel factions want the previously-Qaeda-linked fighters to leave and blame the government for preventing it.
 
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