Syria truce threatened by Nusra’s growing acceptance among rebels

When Jabhat Al Nusra broke from Al Qaeda and rebranded itself as Jabhat Fatah Al Sham was initially viewed with scepticism, the group's key role in the breaking of the first siege of Aleppo in August have solidified its credentials among members and supporters of the Syrian opposition.

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad walking on a street alongside officials after performing the morning Eid Al Adha prayer at a mosque in a government-controlled area of Daraya.  AFP PHOTO / HO / SANA
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BEIRUT // Just six months ago, rebel representative Zakaria Malahefji believed Al Qaeda’s Syria branch Jabhat Al Nusra and their extremist ideology had no place in Syria.

That was before Al Nusra said it broke ties with Al Qaeda in July and declared itself a reborn entity, Jabhat Fatah Al Sham.

Now, when visitors to Mr Malahefji’s modest office in the Turkish city of Gaziantep bring up Al Nusra – from habit or perhaps suspicion of the extremist group’s true motives – he is quick to correct them. “Jabhat Fatah Al Sham,” he says deliberately, pausing the conversation.

Mr Malahefji, the political officer of Aleppo’s Fastaqim Kama Umrit faction, believes the rebranded Fatah Al Sham group can be incorporated into the ranks of the rebels and their extremist ideology reformed.

His revised view of Al Nusra is increasingly common among rebels, even those who once despised the extremists.

While the group's rebranding was viewed with scepticism and wariness by observers of the war, Al Nusra's name change, its offer of cooperation and key role in the breaking of the first siege of Aleppo in August have solidified the group's rebel credentials among members and supporters of the Syrian opposition on the ground.

“Jabhat Al Nusra did not just change its name, it has seriously and critically cut the link with Al Qaeda,” said Col Abdel Jabbar Akaidi, the former head of the Aleppo military revolutionary council and, like Mr Malahefji, a fierce critic of Al Nusra in the past. “It’s willing now to be a national armed force in Syria like any other rebel group.”

However, Jabhat Fatah Al Sham is in the crosshairs of the United States and Russia under their deal for a ceasefire in Syria that went into effect on Monday evening. If the violence between rebels and government forces holds off for a week, the two powers have agreed to begin military cooperation against the group.

Still considered a terrorist organisation by international powers, Fatah Al Sham is excluded from the ceasefire as well as any place in peace talks or a future political settlement.

As with ceasefire attempts earlier this year, Fatah Al Sham rejects the current one. But this time its influence is greater, with more rebel groups seeing it as an ally, and talk of possible mergers.

The powerful Islamist group Ahrar Al Sham, a longtime ally of Fatah Al Sham that has recently been in talks about a merger, has also rejected the ceasefire.

Fatah Al Sham’s new standing among rebel groups affects the prospects of a successful ceasefire, given that one of its goals is to target the group. In the eyes of many, hurting Fatah Al Sham hurts the rebels.

Many rebel factions have been critical of the US role in Syria’s war but have held out hope that Washington and other western powers would ultimately boost their support. With the US now poised for its first concentrated effort to target Fatah Al Sham, it could be risking what is left of its relationship with rebel groups on the ground.

Despite the overall welcome given to the rebranded Al Nusra, many factions are waiting for the group to do more before they fully accept it into the opposition fold.

“We are looking forward to Al Nusra rethinking their doctrine or aims to be closer to the Syrian people’s aims … we are looking forward to Al Nusra showing a real change,” said Yasser Al Youssef, a spokesman for Harakat Nour Al Deen Al Zinki, a rebel group that has itself been painted as extremist after its members beheaded a 12-year-old boy in July.

“For sure, this is a positive step and a welcome step, but we already asked them not only to change their policies and their affiliation, but to change their thought and be closer to other national forces,” said Col Akaidi, the former Aleppo military council chief.

Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute and the author of The Syrian Jihad, said Al Nusra's rebranding had been effective so far.

“I think the trend toward some kind of unity, in general, is unquestionable,” he said. “The rebranding of Jabhat Fatah Al Sham was seen by so many Syrians as a concession … basically now Nusra has put something on the table to suggest that it might be more willing to compromise its values for the sake of furthering the Syrian revolution.”

Still, Al Nusra’s ability to merge with other groups could be hampered by its own hardliners who may not be willing to compromise Al Nusra’s identity and values, even for more power.

Fatah Al Sham appears to be trying to rebrand itself among the international community as well. The once secretive group has appointed an Australia-born foreign media director, Mostafa Mahamed, who tweets regularly in English, often stressing themes of unity with the Syrian people and rebel factions.

“#JFS is not a fringe group that exists on another planet. It is deeply embedded in society, made up from the average Syrian people,” Mahamed tweeted on Saturday, condemning the ceasefire deal.

Despite the fact that Al Nusra was explicitly formed as a branch of Al Qaeda – with its founders dispatched to Syria for that specific reason by Al Qaeda’s leadership – rebels believe it can shed its extremist mindset.

“Almost all Jabhat Al Nusra fighters joined the group not because of the ideology, they joined it because it was present in Syria and had the ability to fight the Assad regime,” said Col Akaidi, adding that other rebel groups did not have the same capabilities or support as Al Nusra, making it attractive to fighters.

Mr Malahefji, the Fastaqim Kama Umrit political officer, said rumours of desertions from Fatah Al Sham after its dissociation from Al Qaeda showed that its moves were sincere, while its past separation from ISIL showed that more moderate trends could prevail in the group.

“I think they have the ability to change and be more moderate. It’s not the first time a jihadist group or an extremist group has changed its ideas,” he said.

Mr Lister said the group’s rebranding had already changed the landscape of the war, regardless of whether it was able to pull off mergers with other groups.

“Syrians have bought it as a concession, and there’s almost no going back from that,” he said.​