Al Qaeda is no longer in existence in Syria. At least that is one possible takeaway from the audio statement by Al Qaeda's Ayman Al Zawahiri on Tuesday. In the statement, Zawahiri unloads about Jabhat Al Nusra's decision to rebrand away from Al Qaeda in July last year, which he said it was made without his approval.
The statement usefully puts in perspective much of the discussion around this issue since it took place last year. Aside from the debate about the rebranding last year, the escalation of rhetoric comes amid new developments related to the jihadi scene in northern Syria.
In the 35-minute audio message, Zawahiri categorically rejected the rebranding and said that Jabaht Al Nusra had betrayed the oath of allegiance (bayat) it owed as the branch of his organisation in Syria. Jabhat Al Nusra, according to him, did not consult the organisation’s leadership when it made the decision to formally disengage from Al Qaeda.
His statement omits, though, that his deputy in Syria had given the green light for Jabhat Al Nusra to disengage from Al Qaeda having had accepted the argument that a formal disengagement would spare the group international designation and an imminent military campaign. Zawahiri cites such arguments in the statement but rejects them as desperate ways to prevent the inevitable, namely that the move would not prevent a war against the group anyway.
Also, a key part of his statement is the revelation that Jabhat Al Nusra had insisted on a “secret bayat” between the two organisations. He rejected such a proposal as “dangerous”. This confirmation reinforces previous assertions that Jabhat Al Nusra, despite formal renouncement of Al Qaeda, continued to suggest internally that it still had loyalty to its parent organisation.
For example, according to Jabhat Al Nusra's former number two, Sami Al Aridi, the chief mufti of Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, as the group is currently known, wrote a letter to Al Qaeda affirming that the disengagement was only a public relations stunt. "The disengagement was for media, as [Abdulrahim] Atoun himself said in his response, which was why a number of the brothers had initially agreed with the move," Al Aridi wrote, in posts he circulated on social media.
Additionally, a senior Jordanian jihadi loyal to Al Qaeda revealed, in a defection statement he made this week, that he had maintained his oath to Zawahiri despite the fact that he decided to stay with Jabhat Al Nusra after rebranding. Critically, he said that the group knew and approved of his allegiance to Zawahiri despite his membership to it, which contradicts a point made by Zawahiri that Jabhat Al Nusra expelled members who maintained bayat to Al Qaeda.
Zawahiri also confirmed this correspondence with the Syrian jihadi group, which he said continued for more than a year to persuade them to reverse their decision. Zawahiri’s remarks about the correspondence, as well as those by Al Qaeda loyalists inside Syria, affirm that, at least in the early stages, Jabhat Al Nusra insisted that nothing had changed between the two, and that a secret affiliation would better serve the group’s interests in Syria.
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In the statement, Zawahiri rejects the logic that a jihadi group has to appease the West. When Jabhat Al Nusra announced its rebranding, the announcement was preceded by an extract from a previous statement by Zawahiri saying he would not oppose disengagement if that involved a merger with other Syrian factions. In the new statement, he said he had two conditions that were not met — a true merger among all jihadis in Syria and the establishment of an Islamic government headed by an imam.
One takeaway of Zawahiri’s remarks is that he clearly feels the rug was pulled from under his feet. He defiantly says that Syrians have no right to ask foreign jihadis to leave the country, since the jihad in Syria is a matter pertaining to the global Muslim community. He also claims that the Syrian group’s affiliation to Al Qaeda had saved it from being overrun by the more aggressive and up-and-coming ISIL in 2013 and 2014, and that the situation could again deteriorate for Hayat Tahrir Al Sham if it opportunistically leaves his organisation.
But his public statement signals that the situation reached a point of no return. The rhetoric will further increase friction, especially given two recent developments. A day before the recording circulated online, Hayat Tahrir Al Sham had arrested several Al Qaeda loyalists in northern Syria, a move that was predicted by a jihadi source close to the group last time, around the time Turkish forces entered Idlib, the group’s stronghold.
The second development is also related to those individuals. As a Turkish intervention seemed imminent last month, jihadis in northern Syria announced the formation of a group they called “Ansar Al Furkan Fi Bilad Al Sham”, a name that echoed the original name of Jabhat Al Nusra.
The founders of Ansar Al Furkan were not publicly known, but many recognised Al Qaeda loyalists in Syria, mostly from Jordan, were behind it. A person approached by one of those jihadis to join them confirmed that to the author too. Zawahiri mentions the “imminent Turkish intervention” in his remarks, an indication that the recording and the formation of Ansar Al Furkan happened at the same time.
For Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, the disgruntled remarks by Zawahiri might cause some of its members and leaders to abandon it, considering that many thought there was a degree of consensus about the rebranding. The remarks leaves no doubt among those that the two groups are currently split. At the same time, the remarks might be a welcome development for Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, which has sought to convince the world that it has indeed left the Al Qaeda orbit, something that will undoubtedly also bring the group closer to jihadi-minded Syrians.
Such a development comes at a critical time for Syria, as Russia, Turkey and Iran seek to reach a settlement of sorts for Syria and as Hayat Tahrir Al Sham seeks to establish ties with countries like Turkey in an attempt to become part of the solution. This will further push away hardline jihadis and Al Qaeda loyalists, who now have to make a decision about their fate in a country that is increasingly divided into spheres of influence of foreign countries.