BEIRUT – Leaders of Syria’s Nusra Front are considering cutting their links with al-Qaida to form a new entity backed by some Persian Gulf states trying to topple President Bashar Assad, sources said.
Sources within and close to Nusra said that Qatar, which enjoys good relations with the group, is encouraging the group to go ahead with the move, which would give Nusra a boost in funding.
The exercise could transform Nusra from a weakened militia group into a force capable of taking on the Islamic State group at a time when it is under pressure from bombing raids and advances by Kurdish and Iraqi military forces.
It could also boost the influence of Qatar and its allies in the campaign to oust Assad, in line with the Persian Gulf state’s growing diplomatic ambitions in the region.
While it awaits the final word from its decision-making “shura council,” Nusra is not wasting time. It has turned on small nonjihadi groups, seizing their territory and forcing them to disarm so as to consolidate Nusra’s power in northern Syria and pave the way for the new group.
Intelligence officials from Persian Gulf states, including Qatar, have met the leader of Nusra, Abu Mohamad al-Golani, several times in the past few months to encourage him to abandon al-Qaida and to discuss what support they could provide, the sources said. The officials promised funding once it happens.
“A new entity will see the light soon, which will include Nusra and Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar and other small brigades,” said Muzamjer al-Sham, a prominent jihadi figure who is close to Nusra and other Islamist groups in Syria.
“The name of Nusra will be abandoned. It will disengage from al-Qaida. But not all the Nusra emirs agree, and that is why the announcement has been delayed,” said Sham.
A source close to the Foreign Ministry confirmed that Qatar wants Nusra to become a purely Syrian force not linked to al-Qaida. “They are promising Nusra more support, i.e. money, supplies etc., once they let go of the al-Qaida ties,” the official said.
The Qatari-led bid to re-brand Nusra and to provide it with new support could further complicate the war in Syria as the United States prepares to arm and train nonjihadi rebels to fight the Islamic State group.
The Nusra Front is listed as a terrorist group by the U.S. and has been sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council. But for Qatar at least, re-branding Nusra would remove legal obstacles to supporting it.
One of the goals of the new entity would be to fight the Islamic State group, Nusra’s main competitor in Syria. The Islamic State group is led by Iraqi jihadi Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who helped create Nusra before falling out with al-Golani.
Once the most powerful group fighting Assad, Nusra was weakened when most of its commanders and fighters left with al-Baghdadi to form the Islamic State group. The Islamic State group then killed many of Nusra’s remaining leaders, confiscated its weapons, forced its commanders to go underground and seized its territory.
But recently the Islamic State group has come under pressure from airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition. It has also lost ground to Kurdish fighters in Syria and to the Iraqi armed forces. But the group is far from collapse.
Still, if Nusra splits from al-Qaida, some hope that with proper funding, arming and training, fighters from the new group will be able to tackle the Islamic State group.
Jihadi sources said that al-Golani suggested to the group’s shura council that it should merge with Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, a smaller jihadi group composed of local and foreign fighters that is led by a Chechen commander.
The announcement has been delayed due to objections from some of Nusra’s leaders who reject the idea of leaving al-Qaida. But this was seen as unlikely to stop al-Golani.
“He is going to do it, he does not have a choice. Those who are not happy can leave,” said a Nusra source who backs the move.
It seems al-Golani is already establishing the ground.
Nusra wants to use northern Syria as base for the new group. It launched offensives against Western-backed groups that have been vetted by the U.S. to receive military support.
In the northern province of Idlib, it seized territory from the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front, led by Jamal Maarouf, forcing him to flee. Last week it went after another mainstream group, Harakat Hazm in Aleppo province, forcing it to dissolve itself.
The U.S. State Department said the end of Harakat Hazm would have an impact on the moderate opposition’s capabilities in the north.
But if Nusra is dissolved and it abandons al-Qaida, the ideology of the new entity is not expected to change. Al-Golani fought with al-Qaida in Iraq. Some other leaders fought in Afghanistan and are close al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri.
“Nusra had to pledge loyalty to Sheik al-Zawahri to avoid being forced to be loyal to al-Baghdadi, but that was not a good idea. It is time that this is abandoned,” said a Nusra source in Aleppo. “It did not help Nusra, and now it is on the terrorist list.”
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