A senior al-Qaeda figure has urged the group to do what is necessary to protect the “holy struggle of the Syrian people.” Washington voiced skepticism over the split, saying it could be an exercise in rebranding.
Syria’s Nusra Front chief, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, on Thursday announced that the militant group he leads will formally split from its affiliate al-Qaeda and rebrand itself as the “Levant Conquest Front.”
“We must declare the complete cancellation of all operations under the name of al-Nusra Front, and the formation of a new group operating under the name ‘Levant Conquest Front,’ not that this new organization has no affiliation to any external entity,” al-Jolani said in a video aired on Qatar’s al-Jazeera English channel.
Nusra Front entered the Syrian conflict in January 2012. However, it only pledged loyalty to al-Qaeda in 2013 after rejecting calls to join the “Islamic State” militant group, which it views as a key rival.
The announcement comes after a senior al-Qaeda figure blessed Nusra Front’s anticipated move in a recorded message circulated online.
“We direct the leadership of Nusra Front to go ahead with what preserves the good of Islam and the Muslims, and protects the holy struggle of the Syrian people,” said al-Qaeda deputy leader Ahmed Hassan Abu el-Kheir.
“We urge them to take the appropriate steps towards this matter,” Abu el-Kheir added.
The recording also included a brief remark from al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri, saying: “The brotherhood of Islam is stronger than any organizational links that change and go away.” However, it is unclear when al-Zawahri made the statement.
By December 2012, Nusra Front had become one of the preeminent rebel groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
That month, the US State Department labeled the opposition group a “terrorist organization,” saying it is “little more than a front” for al-Qaeda in Syria.
Washington on Wednesday said it sees no reason to change their position on Nusra Front, but will continue to assess the situation, the group’s actions and its ideological positioning.
Last week, the US State Secretary John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said both countries had agreed to continue targeting the “Islamic State” and Nusra Front as they push for another “cessation of hostilities.”
However, Nusra Front’s decision to distance itself from its ideological center and rebrand itself could make it easier for other rebel groups to fight alongside with the group without possible recourse, although it is unclear how this will effect Washington and Russia’s choice of targets.
ls/kms (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)