IRBIL, Iraq — Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate split from its parent organization and changed its name Thursday in a move widely interpreted as a bid to head off a U.S.-Russian plan to launch joint airstrikes against the group.
Jabhat al-Nusra announced that it would henceforth be known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham — or Front for the Conquest of Syria — and said it no longer owes allegiance to al-Qaeda.
The announcement was made in a video statement delivered to the Al Jazeera television network by the group’s leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, who revealed his face for the first time since he declared the formation of the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda in early 2012.
He said the split was intended to remove any “pretext” for the United States and Russia to conduct airstrikes against the wider rebel movement while claiming they are targeting al-Nusra. He also outlined a plan aimed at promoting unity among Syria’s fractious rebel groups at a critical time for the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.
Whether the new name will work to persuade moderate rebels — and, more importantly, their Western backers — that the group should no longer be considered a terrorist organization is in doubt. It is also highly unlikely to convince Russia, which has consistently referred to all rebels as “terrorists” and has been escalating its bombardments of rebel positions in recent weeks, notably around the besieged northern city of Aleppo.
In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the Obama administration is not expected to change its assessment of the group, also known as the Nusra Front.
“There continues to be increasing concern about Nusra Front’s growing capacity for external operations that could threaten both the United States and Europe,” he told reporters.
Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. described the split from al-Qaeda as “a PR move.” Al-Nusra “would like to create the image of being more moderate,” Clapper said in an appearance at a security conference in Aspen, Colo. “I think they are concerned at being singled out as a target,” particularly by Russian strikes, he said.
The announcement of the split came hours after a deputy to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri said that al-Qaeda had ordered the separation for “the good of Islam and the Muslims.”
“This is a step from us, and a call from us, to all the factions in Sham [Syria] to unify in what Allah approves of and to work together,” said the deputy, Ahmed Hassan Abu al-Khayr, in a video released by al-Nusra.
In his statement, Jolani thanked al-Qaeda for its stance, invoked Osama bin Laden and suggested there would be no shift in the group’s hard-line ideology. The split is being implemented, he said, “without compromising or sacrificing our solid beliefs.”
At the State Department, spokesman John Kirby said the rebranding did not signal a change. “We certainly see no reasons to believe that [al-Nusra’s] actions or their objectives are any different. And they are still considered a foreign terrorist organization,” he said.
Al-Qaeda’s endorsement of the split suggests, rather, that it is part of the organization’s long-term strategy of “progressively radicalizing local populations,” said Ludovico Carlino of the IHS risk consultancy group.
The split coincides with ongoing negotiations between Washington and Moscow over a proposal to conduct joint strikes against al-Nusra and its rival, the even more militant Islamic State. Kirby said the rebranding would not affect the proposed deal, which the United States envisions reducing Russian and Syrian attacks against moderate, Western-backed rebels.
Meanwhile, Russia and the Syrian government launched a plan to open up humanitarian corridors to enable civilians to flee the rebel-held portion of Aleppo, where an estimated 300,000 people have been living under siege for nearly two weeks. Warplanes dropped leaflets over the city on Thursday indicating three escape routes for civilians and a fourth intended for rebel fighters who wish to lay down their arms.
At the same time, Assad declared an amnesty for rebels who surrender to the government within the next three months. Many previous such amnesty offers have gone largely unheeded by rebels who do not trust the government.
International aid agencies, the United Nations and the State Department expressed concern that the plan will do little to alleviate suffering among civilians in the city, who are running short of food and endure daily bombardments from Syrian and Russian warplanes.
Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, described the proposal on her Twitter account as “chilling,” because it asks Syrians to “entrust lives” to a government “that’s bombed and starved them.”
The Mercy Corps aid agency said humanitarian corridors are no substitute for aid deliveries to vulnerable civilians who may be too weak, poor or afraid to leave their homes.
“For those who do choose to leave, the question is, where can they go?” the agency’s Syria response director, Dominic Graham, said in a statement. “Today in Syria, the stark reality is nowhere is safe for civilians.”
The United Nations has said food in Aleppo is expected to run out by the middle of August. The U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, told reporters in Geneva that he is launching a bid to try to reconvene stalled peace talks by mid-August, spurred by concerns about the increasingly critical situation in Aleppo and other parts of the country.
DeYoung reported from Washington. Greg Miller contributed to this report in Aspen, Colo.