On May 8th, the story broke that Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri appeared to give permission for Nusra Front-Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria-to break away from the terror group’s main command and become independent. But did Zawahiri really say Nusra is free to break away from Al Qaeda? And will they actually do so? A closer look at his words tells a different story.
According to a translation of his speech by The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Zawahiri did call for unity of the Syrian opposition, more fighting against America, Iran, Russia etc. Par for the course, as far as jihadis go.
On Nusra itself, he said a few notable things. First, he reportedly said “JN's organizational affiliation will never pose an obstacle to these great objectives that we, as part of the Islamic nation, hope for." The "organizational affiliation" refers to that with Al Qaeda.
Specifically on Nusra’s relationship with Al Qaeda, MEMRI reported him as saying “We have said time and again that, if and when the heroic people of Syria establish an Islamic government and choose for themselves a leader, whoever they choose will be acceptable to us.”
This appears to indicate his desire for Nusra to work well with the rest of the opposition, especially other Islamist groups. But it doesn’t exactly call on Nusra to formally break with their Al Qaeda leaders. “There’s been no public talk by Nusra of a disassociation,” one DC-based research analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his employer does not authorize him to give interviews, told Al Bawaba.
Zawahiri even asked “would the arch-criminals accept JN if it left Al-Qaeda?" while addressing the subject. He then went on to speculate that the West may attempt to co-opt Nusra in such a scenario.
Some western media outlets reported that explicit permission to split had been granted, on the other hand. Writing in The Independent, veteran journalist Robert Fisk wrote “So ol‘ Doc Ayman al-Zawahiri...has told the Syrian Jabhat al-Nusra that it can dissociate itself from Al-Qaeda.”
Still, others argue ties between Nusra and Al Qaeda are growing stronger. “Al Qaeda has recently transferred a number of highly influential jihadi figures from its central leadership circles into Syria,” wrote analyst Charles Lister in Foreign Policy.
If Nusra were to split, would the Al Qaeda affiliate become a moderate force and a potential partner for the international community? Or would the group remain Al Qaeda in all but name? The aforementioned analyst is going with with the latter. “If they were to split, they’d still cooperate closely with Al Qaeda,” he said.
Five years in, the Syrian Civil War remains as complex-and devastating-as ever.
Note: this article was edited to clarify a source's remarks on Nusra's statements
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