On the subject of the Syrian war there has been much deserved mockery of the name change by Jabhat Al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s local Syrian branch, to its new name: “Jabhat Fateh al-Sham”. It has been rightly pointed out that this name change, and the organisation’s attempt to distance itself from its Al-Qaeda parent, is a transparent fraud made all the more obvious by the fact that Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda’s leader, has given it his blessing.
A point hardly anyone makes however is that these name changes and re-labellings of Jihadist groups in Syria go on all the time. Our contributor Afra’a Dagher – a Syrian writer who actually writes for The Duran from Syria – wrote about this phenomenon weeks ago on 17th May 2016, long before Jabhat Al-Nusra announced its latest name change:
“In Syria fighters call themselves the “Free Syrian Army” or “Islamic state fighters” or Daesh or by any other name that suits them. There is nothing “magical” about this. It is just a kaleidoscope of names intended to cause confusion. In reality it is always the same people calling themselves by these different names.
The US and its allies of course know this. They keep up this game of names so that they can go on pretending that there are “moderates” in Syria who they can support in place of the terrorists they actually support, and that these so-called “moderates” are fit to form a transitional government in place of the legitimate Syrian government and can also be persuaded to fight Daesh. In Syria nobody is fooled by any of this.
The truth is that the Syrian people are being slaughtered by cold-blooded mercenaries. They may call themselves the “Free Syrian Army,” “Ahrar Al Sham”, “Ahlo Al Sonna”, “Jaish Al Esalm” or any of a myriad of other names all of which however simply designate factions affiliated with Al-Qaeda’s local franchise the Al Nusra front. They are however always the same cold-blooded mercenaries pouring into Syria from Turkey paid for the Gulf Arab states to commit aggression upon Syria’s people.”
The primary purpose of this constant shifting of names and labels is – as Afra’a Dagher says – to give the impression that there are moderate groups in Syria fighting the Syrian government when in fact there are none.
There is a Syrian opposition based mainly in Istanbul and London which is distinct from the groups that are actually fighting in Syria, though it maintains contacts with them. However it is debatable how much support in Syria it actually has. It is difficult to avoid the impression that the reason this opposition insists so intransigently on President Assad’s removal from power as a pre-condition for a political settlement is because it knows that he has far more support inside Syria than it does, and that in any genuinely free and fair election against any candidate it supported he would easily win.
There was also once a genuine domestic non-sectarian predominantly leftist opposition within Syria. However it too appears to have been small. My impression is that under the pressure of the war the great majority of its supporters and some of its leaders have quietly gone over to the side of the government.
There were of course also factional disputes before the war within the government itself, which got an undue amount of attention in the Western media even though factional infighting is universal amongst all Arab governments. Today these factional disputes have become irrelevant as all sections of the Syrian government have united together to fight the common enemy in the war.
Lastly, there are also large numbers of local village militias led by local strongmen that appeared all over the Syrian countryside as government authority collapsed with the withdrawal of the Syrian police and army to defend the cities. Some of these militias, in order to get access to Western supplies and to supplies from the Gulf, have claimed allegiance to the otherwise largely fictional “Free Syrian Army” – an ephemeral group set up at the end of 2011 by Western intelligence agencies and certain Arab governments from deserters from the Syrian army. Most of these militias in reality have little or no real commitment to any side in the war. Since the announcement of the “cessation of hostilities” in February many of them have quietly made their peace with the government in local deals often brokered by the Russians.
The overwhelming majority of fighters actually waging war against the Syrian government in Syria are and always have been Jihadi Salafists. This has been true ever since the war began in earnest in the spring and early summer of 2012 with the rebel attempts to storm Aleppo and Damascus. As for the 2011 protests which preceded the war, they were never as peaceful as is of often claimed, and seem to have been dominated by religious groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, though some sections of the non-sectarian leftist opposition were also initially involved in them.
The overwhelming preponderance of Jihadi Salafist fighters amongst the rebels continues in Aleppo today, just as it continues in the areas of Syria further east which are controlled by Daesh. Given the fanatical insistence by Jihadi Salafist groups in Syria on imposing their brutal and extremist version of Sharia law on everybody they come across in the areas of Syria they control, their co-existence with so-called “moderates” is actually physically impossible. Any genuine “moderates” who found themselves in areas controlled by these Jihadi Salafists, or who even came into contact with them, would quickly find themselves dead.
Not only do the groups these Jihadi Salafist fighters belong to frequently change their names but the fighters themselves move easily from one group to another. Though the majority of these fighters are (probably) native Syrians a significant minority are foreigners. What are by far the two best organised and most powerful Jihadi groups fighting the Syrian government in Syria – Jabhat Al-Nusra (or“Jabhat Fateh al-Sham”) and Daesh (or the “Islamic State” or ISIS or ISIL) – are both foreign based. In the case of Jabhat Al-Nusra it owes ultimate allegiance to Al-Qaeda, which is based in Pakistan or Afghanistan and which is led by Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who is Egyptian. In the case of Daesh it owes its allegiance to the man who once called himself Ibrahim Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi but who now calls himself “the Caliph Ibrahim”. He is Iraqi, as are most of his associates. As it happens most of the territory Daesh controls – including Mosul, the biggest city within its so-called “Caliphate” – is also in Iraq. Though Raqqa in Syria is sometimes referred to as Daesh’s “capital”, most of Daesh’s leadership – including “the Caliph Ibrahim” – actually seem to be based in Iraq, which is not surprising given that they are mostly Iraqis.
On this occasion Jabhat Al-Nusra’s re-labelling was just too transparent even for the US and other Western supporters of the regime change policy in Syria to go along with it. However the leadership of Jabhat Al-Nusra could be forgiven for expecting otherwise given that what they have just done has worked so often before.
To avoid confusion I will continue to call the organisation “Jabhat Al-Nusra”, which is the name by which it is best known.