Beirut and London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s official franchise in Syria, could split from the organization and create a new armed group to fight rival extremists the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the country, a senior member of the Western-backed armed opposition told Asharq Al-Awsat on Tuesday.
Rami Dalati, a member of the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) Military Command Higher Council, said talks were currently underway between the FSA and the Al-Nusra Front to convince the latter’s leadership to make the break from its parent organization.
Dalati said the FSA—the armed wing of the main, Western-backed opposition umbrella group the Syrian National Coalition—is seeking to drum up flagging international support for the armed Syrian opposition, support which has dwindled due to the widespread association among many, especially in the West, between armed rebel groups fighting in the country and extremist groups like Al-Nusra and ISIS.
This comes as other sources close to Al-Nusra told Reuters recently that main backer Qatar is also attempting to influence the group to take the decision and has, along with other states, been meeting with Al-Nusra’s leader Mohammad Al-Golani.
They say the split would move the group closer to the moderate Syrian opposition fighting both President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces and ISIS, and free up sources of funding blocked due to the group’s international status as a terrorist organization.
But Al-Nusra’s leadership remains split on the decision, Dalati said, with one camp keen to legitimize the group internationally by dissociating itself from Al-Qaeda, while the other sees the move as moot given the group’s already grisly reputation and Western suspicion toward armed groups in Syria.
“Those who oppose the split don’t believe the international community can deal with the Syrian conflict or the Syrian opposition, in all its various incarnations, in a positive way. They believe the situation will not change no matter how many groups or factions change their names,” Dalati said.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on Wednesday, a source from the US State Department—who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to brief the media—said it was unlikely the group’s status as a terror organization would be changed any time soon, even if does break from Al-Qaeda.
The source said the group’s recent moves to annex the Hazm Movement, a US-backed rebel group in Syria, ruled out any moves by Washington to take it off international terrorism lists—which, furthermore, would be a lengthy and complex process requiring the coordination of numerous US governmental departments, the source added.
The Al-Nusra Front, which like arch rival ISIS is fighting a war on two fronts—against Assad on the one hand, and against rival armed groups on the other—has lost ground recently in the conflict after initially being the main group fighting Assad’s forces.
ISIS’s recent gains and a bolstered campaign from Assad’s forces have resulted in dwindling fortunes for Al-Nusra in the now four-year-long Syrian conflict.
But the recent international strikes against ISIS, as well as increased ground offensives against the group in Iraq from the Kurdish Peshmerga and forces loyal to the Baghdad government, could leave ISIS exposed to attacks from a new group with better funding and access to fighters if Al-Nusra does make the split and fight its rival.
The two groups are close in terms of ideology and origin, with both having emerged out of Al-Qaeda. ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi actually founded the Al-Nusra Front before falling out with Golani and creating ISIS.
The United States, the UN and the United Kingdom as well as NATO have all placed the Al-Nusra Front on their terrorism lists.
Paula Astih contributed additional reporting from Beirut.