BEIRUT // Al Qaeda’s powerful Syrian branch announced on Thursday it was ending its relationship with the global terror network founded by Osama bin Laden and changing its name, to remove what it called a pretext used by world powers to attack Syrians.
In the first known video statement ever to show his face, the leader of the Nusra Front, Mohamad Al Jolani, announced that the group would re-form under a new name, with “no ties with any foreign party”.
The move was being made “to remove the excuse used by the international community – spearheaded by America and Russia – to bombard and displace Muslims in the Levant: that they are targeting the Nusra Front which is associated with Al Qaeda,” he said. The group would now be called Jabhat Fatah Al Sham.
Jolani appeared in the video flanked by two other Nusra Front figures, in front of Jabhat Fatah Al Sham’s new white flag. Nusra Front’s old flag was black, the colour used by groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIL.
Earlier on Thursday, Bin Laden’s successor as Al Qaeda leader, Ayman Al Zawahri, announced that he was giving the Nusra Front his blessing to break away.
The move appeared to be an attempt to appeal to Syrians who have long had deep misgivings about Nusra’s links with Al Qaeda and the significant presence of foreign fighters among its ranks, which set it apart from western-backed rebel groups.
It could alter the strategic alignment on the ground in Syria if the renamed Nusra gains acceptance among other rebel groups fighting against president Bashar Al Assad.
But Mr Al Assad and his Russian allies are unlikely to accept the rebranding as requiring them to halt military operations that have put the Syrian leader in the strongest position on the battlefield for years.
The Nusra Front, long one of the most powerful rebel forces in Syria’s five-year, multi-sided civil war, was excluded along with ISIL from a US and Russian-backed ceasefire this year, a loophole other rebels blamed for the truce’s collapse.
It is listed as a terrorist organisation by the United States and United Nations. Mr Al Assad’s other opponents have long said its presence gave the government and its Russian allies a pretext to abandon the truce and launch advances under the cover of anti-terrorist operations permitted under the ceasefire.
The Nusra announcement came as Syria’s government and its Russian allies launched what they called a “humanitarian operation” in the rebel-held sector of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city before the war, which government forces have held under effective siege since early July.
Although Moscow and Damascus described their new plans for rebel-held Aleppo as an operation to aid people trapped there, western countries are worried that the real aim is to depopulate the area ahead of an offensive to storm it.
Aleppo has been divided into rebel and government zones for years. Asserting full control would be the biggest victory for the Assad government so far, and a potential turning point in a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands, spawned the world’s worst refugee crisis and drawn in most regional and world powers.
Rebel-held parts of Aleppo have been bombarded since Wednesday with air-dropped leaflets telling civilians they would be given safe passage out and providing maps to exit routes designated as safe corridors. On Thursday, Mr Al Assad ordered rebel fighters in the city to surrender within three months.
About 250,000 civilians are believed to be trapped in the rebel zone of Aleppo. The United Nations says food supplies will run out within weeks.
Mr Al Assad said rebels who surrender within three months would be given an amnesty. State television quoted the governor of Aleppo as saying three humanitarian corridors would be established so residents could safely leave.
Russia said a fourth corridor would be set up in the north of the city for surrendering rebels, near the Castello Road, the main land route into the rebel sector, most of which the army seized to complete its encirclement.
Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu said: “On behalf of the President of the Russian Federation, today, [we will] start a large-scale humanitarian operation together with the Syrian government to help civilians in Aleppo.”
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said helicopters over rebel-held areas dropped baby diapers and meal packs that had Russian-language labels.
“If it is a genuine humanitarian proposal then clearly it will be accompanied by an end to the bombing campaign and by Russian support for other aspects of this comprehensive approach to the humanitarian situation in Aleppo,” British ambassador to the United Nations Matthew Rycroft told reporters in New York.
“Clearly the UN and the rest of us cannot be complicit in anything else, for instance any form of emptying of Aleppo or preparing for an onslaught of Aleppo or indeed any continuation of this medieval siege of Aleppo which is going on.”
The proposed safe corridors did not appear to be open so far. Two rebels and aid workers contacted in besieged Aleppo said the army fired at civilians in one of the safe corridors, in the Salah Al Din district. A doctor for a medical charity that operates in Aleppo also said the army had fired artillery at families gathering near another humanitarian corridor, in the opposition-held Bustan Al Qasr neighbourhood.
Hael Asi Hilal, head of the Syrian Red Crescent in rebel-held areas, said no family so far had been able to leave via any corridor due to snipers firing at them.
The army, backed by allied militia forces and air support from Syrian and Russian jets, has meanwhile taken more ground on the northern edge of the city. State television said the army had advanced in the Bani Zeid district, on the southern side of the Castello road. The Syrian Observatory said pro-government forces had taken full control of the district.
A rebel source confirmed that the army had made advances. He said Kurdish forces from the nearby Sheikh Maqsoud district had also taken advantage of the fighting to advance into a housing complex in Bani Zeid.
“There has been a [rebel] withdrawal, but no one has surrendered,” said Zakaria Malahifji of the Aleppo-based rebel group Fastaqim group.
The United States and Russia are both leading separate military campaigns against ISIL in Syria but are otherwise supporting opposite sides in the wider civil war, with Moscow backing Mr Al Assad and Washington saying he must leave power.
The Cold War-era superpowers jointly sponsored the ceasefire earlier this year that led to UN-brokered peace talks. But that collapsed in May and since then government forces have been advancing with Russian support.
The US secretary of state John Kerry has been holding talks with Russians with the aim of building a system of military cooperation that would allow them to jointly identify legitimate targets not covered by the truce. But so far the negotiations have yet to bear fruit.
A Russian deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said Washington’s stance would allow militants to regroup since it would call for a ceasefire before distinguishing between terrorists and other opposition groups.
“There is an element here of a political ruse at least,” Sergei Ryabkov said.
One US national security official said it was difficult to negotiate with the Russians as long as the wider objectives of Moscow and Washington diverge.
“The Russians want to destroy ISIS to save Assad,” the official said. “We want to destroy ISIS to eliminate a terrorist threat and start a political process to remove Assad, whom President Obama has said must go.”