Al Qaeda’s powerful Syrian branch, the Nusra Front, says it is cutting ties with the global militant network.
The announcement coming from leader Mohamad al-Golani, in the first known video statement to show his face.
He said that the group would re-form under a new name, with “no ties with any foreign party.” It will now be called Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.
The move was being made “to remove the excuse used by the international community – spearheaded by America and Russia – to bombard and displace Muslims in the Levant: that they are targeting the Nusra Front which is associated with al Qaeda,” said al-Golani.
It appeared to be an attempt to appeal to Syrians who have long had deep misgivings about Nusra’s links with al Qaeda and the presence of foreign jihadists in its ranks.
It could alter the strategic alignment on the ground if the renamed Nusra gains acceptance among other rebel groups.
But Assad and his Russian allies are unlikely to accept the re-branding as a reason to halt military operations that have put the Syrian leader in the strongest position on the battlefield for years.
The White House said on Thursday that it was skeptical about the Nusra Front ending its al Qaeda relationship – and said that it had assessed that it has the intent to conduct attacks on the West in the future.
The Nusra Front, one of the most powerful rebel forces in Syria’s five-year, multi-sided civil war, was excluded along with ISIL from a US and Russian-backed ceasefire this year.
Moscow and Washington are discussing closer coordination to target the group.
Al Qaeda’s leader has given his blessing to the Nusra Front breaking off.
It all came as pro-Syrian government forces tightened their grip around the besieged rebel-held city of Aleppo.
Safe corridors are said to have been opened for civilians to flee. Washington said that appeared to be an attempt to depopulate the city and make fighters surrender. The opposition called it a euphemism for forced displacement.