The Slatest

Can al-Qaida’s Syrian Branch Rebrand?

A Nusra Front fighter wave the movement’s flag at a parade at the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp, south of Damascus, on July 28, 2014. 

Photo by Rami Al-Sayed/AFP/Getty Images

The complex and ever shifting alliances of the ISIS war are about to get even more complicated. Reuters reports that the Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qaida affiliate in the Syrian civil war, is considering cutting ties with the international terror network. The group’s leaders are reportedly mulling the move at the urging of Qatar, one of the leading sponsors of the rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad.

Qatar has been an important supporter of the anti-Assad opposition since the earliest days of the uprising and has been far less hesitant than other governments about helping anti-Assad groups with jihadist ties. Since ISIS became an international concern, Qatar has been under pressure from the U.S. and others to be a bit more choosy about whom it does business with—which is why it is hoping to convince Nusra to break from al-Qaida. Qatar evidently believes Nusra can be an effective fighting force against both ISIS and Assad, but will suffer from a lack of outside funding as long as it’s tagged as an al-Qaida affiliate.

Qatar’s relationship with Nusra is a little murky. Government officials have had some contact with the group, and some wealthy Qataris have been allowed to fundraise for Nusra with tacit government support. But the Qatari government clearly feels that if Nusra were to drop its al-Qaida affiliation, Qatar could be a more open and generous sponsor.

Nusra, established in late 2011, was once affiliated with ISIS—then known as al-Qaida in Iraq—but the two have been at odds since a jurisdiction fight in 2013, which led ISIS to dissolve its ties with the international al-Qaida network.  

Since then the two groups have been at war. ISIS has generally been doing a lot better, though Nusra has made some recent territorial gains against government forces as well as other rebel groups in northwest Syria. Nusra has more allies than ISIS among other Syrian rebel groups. It’s more focused on fighting against Assad and is somewhat less brutal in the areas it controls. (This is an admittedly low bar.) The Qatari hope is that a rebranded Nusra could join with other rebel groups to form a new non-Assad, non-ISIS front in northern Syria.

But from a U.S. perspective, it’s not clear that Nusra gains are better than ISIS gains. In fact, some U.S. security officials have suggested that the al-Qaida chapter, which now includes some hardened longtime fighters from Pakistan and Afghanistan in its ranks, poses more of a direct threat to U.S. interests than ISIS. The U.S. actually began bombing Nusra positions about the same time it launched its air assault against ISIS. (Nusra positions were hit by an explosion on Thursday, though the U.S. says it wasn’t involved.)

Even if Qatar’s new-look Nusra cuts ties with al-Qaida, its core ideology is unlikely to change—these guys joined al-Qaida in the first place for a reason. If they start to make headway against ISIS while the U.S.-vetted “moderate” rebels are still being trained, Obama is going to have yet another “enemy of my enemy” conundrum on his hands.