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What’s in a Name: Jahbat al-Nusra, the Syrian Civil War and Israel

Aug 5, 2016 | Aaron Torop

What's in a Name: Jahbat al-Nusra
Israeli soldiers treat Syrian civilians and rebels

On 28 July Jahbat al-Nusra (also known as the Nusra Front) voted to officially sever ties with al-Qaeda and change its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (“Front for the Conquest of the Levant”). The vote took place after al-Qaeda voiced its approval of the separation. The split comes as al-Sham tries to maintain and expand its influence in Syria amidst the violence of the ongoing civil war.

Since mid-2015, JN has controlled a majority of the Israel-Syria border in the Golan, with relative quiet to this day. Though US airstrikes have diminished its power, it is still one of the most powerful rebel groups – secular or jihadi – in Syria. What does this name change mean for Israel’s security along the border?

JN has waged war against President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, fighting alongside different rebel groups such as the Free Syrian Army, since JN’s inception in 2012. While ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi once claimed JN had formed an alliance with ISIS, JN denied it, and soon after, al-Qaeda criticised ISIS for its brutality. Since then, JN and al-Qaeda have remained close. While ISIS has been focused on creating a sovereign state fashioned in its worldview, al-Qaeda has been committed to destabilising the West and to global jihad instead.

Al-Sham hopes that this split will result in the cessation of US airstrikes targeting the group. It hopes to portray itself as a popular resistance movement focused solely on Syria instead of a global jihadi movement like al-Qaeda. This would make it more similar to the other rebel groups in Syria that are not being targeted by the US. However, the US State Department has not changed its stance on al-Sham, saying that its actions and ideology will determine if any change is made.

It is unclear as to what extent the formal split from al-Qaeda will impact its work in Syria or relationship with al-Sham. It has been reported that al-Qaeda is moving to increasingly base its operations out of Syria, and al-Sham and al-Qaeda may continue to partner, if only unofficially, for years to come.

Throughout the conflict, Israel has cooperated with a few rebel groups at various times, occasionally launching airstrikes against individual targets, mostly targeting weapons transfers to Hezbollah, but also preventing ISIS from getting advanced weapons technology and attempting to help protect the Druze communities in Syria. Additionally, Israel has been helping to treat wounded rebel soldiers and civilians from 2013 onward in a field hospital in the Golan and at hospitals inside Israel. While some of those soldiers were reportedly from JN, it appears that such cooperation stopped in mid-2015, when Israel instituted a new policy that such wounded fighters would be treated by doctors at the border but generally not be allowed to enter Israeli territory.

There has been little fighting near the Syrian-Israeli border, perhaps in part due to the medical aid Israel provided to anyone who needed it, but also due to effective Israeli deterrence. However, there is a larger reason why Israel is not keen to get involved deposing Assad or fighting JN: Iran.

Fighting alongside the Assad regime is Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based terrorist group that receives most of its support from Iran. Hezbollah has been responsible for almost all of the attacks in northern Israel in the past four decades, and is viewed as Israel’s most dangerous threat from the north. As long as al-Sham continues to fight, kill, and pre-occupy Hezbollah, it is less likely Hezbollah will attack Israel.

Israel’s policy in Syria is thus largely to watch and wait, ensuring its border is protected while enabling others to fight Iran-funded groups like Assad’s regime and Hezbollah.

However, recent attacks on the Druze population by al-Sham provide some cause for concern. While most Syrian Druze support Assad, the Israeli Druze have long had good relations with Israel, and Israel has pledged to protect the Druze people on both sides of the border whenever possible. Recently, they objected to a UN statement that included them with other groups on the “hardship of the occupation.” A leader of the Druze called their inclusion “laughable,” and said that Israeli Druze live a good life and do not suffer discrimination. Given Israel’s interest in maintaining good relations with both its Druze citizens and the Druze of the Golan, attacks on Syrian Druze communities may force Israel to become more involved against al-Sham.

Another cause for concern is al-Sham’s latest ground for recruitment: Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Both ISIS and al-Sham have been successfully recruiting supporters from these camps – resulting in a Lebanese government warning to the Palestinian Authority to either fix it or risk Lebanese security forces raiding the camps. While at this point, al-Sham appears to be composed almost exclusively of Syrians, an increase in Palestinian participation might alter its goals, and the radicalisation of Palestinians would not bode well for Israel’s attempts to make peace in the region.

Additionally, al-Sham has received tacit cooperation from Turkey. Many in Turkey openly demonstrate in support of al-Sham and it is supported by large segments of the Turkish population. More direct aid from Turkey may be possible now that it is no longer officially connected to al-Qaeda as Turkey decides whether it should get more involved in the Syrian conflict.

A mid-2016 analysis by IDC Herzliya’s International Institute for Counter-Terrorism outlined three paths forward for al-Sham: create a new emirate, leave al-Qaeda, or form an alliance with ISIS. Clearly, it chose the second option. They write that this separation was designed to try to alter the public image of al-Sham, to allow it greater acceptance and backing among other local groups and receive funding from other sources, such as Qatar.

Al-Sham benefits from cooperation and varying levels of support from Qatar and Turkey, two countries that have cooperated at some level with Israel recently. Both of these countries have a history of cooperating with Hamas, and are two of the majority Islamic countries with some level of relations with Israel. Turkey and Israel are set to fully normalise relations, and Israel has reportedly agreed to let Qatar pay Hamas public servants through arrangements with the UN over the next two months.

If there is a genuine shift from being allied with al-Qaeda to the more pragmatic Qatar and Turkey, there may be some hope that al-Sham will continue to refrain from making Israel a direct target – especially given the past medical assistance granted by Israel, and the mutual enemy of Iran.

In the fight against Iran, Israel is searching for all the allies it can gain, especially amongst Sunni Muslim nations: Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and it hopes to improve already close ties with Jordan and Egypt.

While it is unlikely that Israel will outright and publicly work with al-Sham, it seems clear that Jerusalem will avoid getting into a fight with the group if at all possible. Al-Sham has kept the Golan quiet since it took over most of the border, is fighting against Iranian-backed forces and cooperates with countries Israel desires to get on its side.

If the rebels ever overthrow Assad, it is likely al-Sham will continue to be a major actor in the country, and Israel would be loathe to do anything to have its focus shift toward targeting the Jewish state.

Of course, Israel will need to keep a close eye on al-Sham – as it currently does – in case attitudes or goals start to shift.

Aaron Torop

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