Nauman Sadiq for VT
The Russian Defense Ministry has claimed  that one of its airstrikes in Syria has critically injured Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, the leader of an al-Nusra Front (currently known as Fateh al-Sham), who has lost limbs in the attack in the northern province of Idlib on Tuesday.
According to the report, twelve field commanders, including Ahmad al-Gizan, the head of al-Jolani’s security service, were also killed in the airstrike along with about fifty guards.
Bear in mind that during the seven-year-long Syrian civil war, al-Jolani has emerged as the second most influential militant leader after the Islamic State’s chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In fact, since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in August 2011 to April 2013, the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front were a single organization that chose the banner of “Jabhat al-Nusra.”
Although the current al-Nusra Front has been led by Abu Mohammad al-Jolani but he was appointed  as the emir of al-Nusra Front by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State, in January 2012. Thus, al-Jolani’s Nusra Front is only a splinter group of the Islamic State, which split from its parent organization in April 2013 over a leadership dispute between the two organizations.
In March 2011, protests began in Syria against the government of Bashar al-Assad. In the following months, violence between demonstrators and security forces led to a gradual militarization of the conflict. In August 2011, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was based in Iraq, began sending Syrian and Iraqi jihadists experienced in guerilla warfare across the border into Syria to establish an organization inside the country.
Led by a Syrian known as Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, the group began to recruit fighters and establish cells throughout the country. On 23 January 2012, the group announced its formation as Jabhat al-Nusra.
In April 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released an audio statement in which he announced that al-Nusra Front had been established, financed and supported by the Islamic State of Iraq. Al-Baghdadi declared that the two groups were merging under the name “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.”
The leader of al-Nusra Front, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, issued a statement denying the merger and complaining that neither he nor anyone else in al-Nusra’s leadership had been consulted about it.
Al-Qaeda Central’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, tried to mediate the dispute between al-Baghdadi and al-Jolani but eventually, in October 2013, he endorsed al-Nusra Front as the official franchise of al-Qaeda Central in Syria. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, however, defied the nominal authority of al-Qaeda Central and declared himself as the caliph of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Keeping this background in mind, it becomes amply clear that a single militant organization operated in Syria and Iraq under the leadership of al-Baghdadi until April 2013, which chose the banner of al-Nusra Front, and that the current emir of the subsequent breakaway faction of al-Nusra Front, al-Jolani, was actually al-Baghdadi’s deputy in Syria.
Thus, the Islamic State operated in Syria since August 2011 under the designation of al-Nusra Front and it subsequently changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in April 2013, after which it overran Raqqa and parts of Deir al-Zor in the summer of 2013. And in January 2014, it overran Fallujah and parts of Ramadi in Iraq and reached the zenith of its power when it captured Mosul in June 2014.
Excluding al-Baghdadi and a handful of his hardline Islamist aides, the rest of Islamic State’s top leadership is comprised of Saddam era military and intelligence officials. According to an informative Associated Press report , hundreds of ex-Baathists constitute the top and mid-tier command structure of the Islamic State who plan all the operations and direct its military strategy.
More to the point, it is an indisputable fact that morale and ideology play an important role in battle, and well-informed readers must also be aware that the Takfiri brand of most jihadists these days has directly been inspired by the puritanical Wahhabi-Salafi ideology of Saudi Arabia, but ideology alone is not sufficient to succeed in battle.
Looking at the Islamic State’s astounding gains in Syria and Iraq in 2013-14, a question arises that where does its recruits get all the training and state-of-the-art weapons that are imperative not only for hit-and-run guerrilla warfare but also for capturing and holding large swathes of territory?
According to a revelatory December 2013 news report  from a newspaper affiliated with the UAE government which supports the Syrian opposition, it is clearly mentioned that along with AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and other military gear, the Saudi regime also provides machine gun-mounted Toyota pick-up trucks to every batch of five jihadists who have completed their training in the training camps located at the border regions of Jordan.
Once those militants cross over to Daraa and Quneitra in southern Syria from the Jordan-Syria border, then those Toyota pickup trucks can easily travel all the way to Raqqa and Deir al-Zor and thence to Mosul and Anbar in Iraq.
Moreover, it is clearly spelled out in the report that Syrian militants get arms and training through a secret command center known as the Military Operations Center (MOC) based in the intelligence headquarters’ building in Amman, Jordan that has been staffed by high-ranking military officials from 14 countries, including the US, European nations, Israel and the Gulf Arab States to wage a covert war against the government in Syria.
Regarding the Syrian opposition, a small fraction of it has been comprised of defected Syrian soldiers who go by the name of Free Syria Army, but the vast majority has been comprised of Sunni Arab jihadists and armed tribesmen who have been generously funded, trained, armed and internationally legitimized by their regional and international patrons.
The Islamic State is nothing more than one of numerous Syrian militant outfits, others being: al Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, al-Tawhid brigade, Jaysh al Islam etc. All the Sunni Arab militant groups that are operating in Syria are just as fanatical and brutal as the Islamic State. The only feature that differentiates the Islamic State from the rest is that it is more ideological and independent-minded.
The reason why the US has turned against the Islamic State is that all other Syrian militant outfits only have local ambitions that are limited to fighting the Assad regime in Syria, while the Islamic State has established a global network of transnational terrorists that includes hundreds of Western citizens who have become a national security risk to the Western countries.
Moreover, according to a recent report  by CBC Canada, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), which was formerly known as al-Nusra Front until July 2016, has been removed from the terror watch-lists of the US and Canada after it merged with fighters from Zenki Brigade and hardline jihadists from Ahrar al-Sham and rebranded itself as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in January this year.
The US State Department is hesitant to label Tahrir al-Sham a terror group, despite the group’s link to al-Qaeda, as the US government has directly funded and armed the Zenki Brigade, one of the constituents of Tahrir al-Sham, with sophisticated weaponry including the US-made antitank TOW missiles.
Regarding the rebranding of al-Julani’s Nusra Front to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in July 2016 and purported severing of ties with al-Qaeda Central, it’s only a nominal difference because al-Nusra Front never had any organizational and operational ties with al-Qaeda Central and even their ideologies are poles apart.
Al-Qaeda Central is basically a transnational terrorist organization, while al-Nusra Front mainly has regional ambitions that are limited only to fighting the Assad regime in Syria and its ideology is anti-Shi’a and sectarian. In fact, al-Nusra Front has not only received medical aid and material support from Israel, but some of its operations against the Shi’a-dominated Assad regime in southern Syria were fully coordinated with Israel’s air force.
The purpose behind the rebranding of al-Nusra Front to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and purported severing of ties with al-Qaeda Central has been to legitimize itself and to make it easier for its patrons to send money and arms. The US blacklisted al-Nusra Front in December 2012 and pressurized Saudi Arabia and Turkey to ban it, too. Although al-Nusra Front’s name has been in the list of proscribed organizations of Saudi Arabia and Turkey since 2014, but it has kept receiving money and arms from the Gulf Arab States.
It should be remembered that in a May 2015 interview  with al-Jazeera, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani took a public pledge on the behest of his Gulf-based patrons that his organization only has local ambitions limited to fighting the Assad regime in Syria and that it does not intend to strike targets in the Western countries.
Finally, this rebranding exercise has been going on for quite some time. Al-Jolani announced the split from al-Qaeda in a video statement last year. But the persistent efforts of al-Jolani’s Gulf-based patrons have borne fruit only in January this year, when al-Nusra Front once again rebranded itself from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which also includes “moderate” jihadists from Zenki Brigade, Ahrar al-Sham and several other militant groups, and thus, the US State Department has finally given a clean chit to the jihadist conglomerate that goes by the name of Tahrir al-Sham to pursue its ambitions of toppling the Assad regime in Syria.
Sources and links:
 Russian strike critically injures jihadist leader al-Jolani:
 Al-Julani was appointed as the emir of al-Nusra Front by al-Baghdadi:
 Islamic State’s top command dominated by ex-officers in Saddam’s army:
 Syrian rebels get arms and advice through secret command center in Amman:
 Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate escapes from terror list:
 Al-Julani’s interview to Al-Jazeera: “Our mission is to defeat the Syrian regime”:
About the author:
Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based attorney, columnist and geopolitical analyst focused on the politics of Af-Pak and Middle East regions, neocolonialism and petro-imperialism.