Throughout 2016, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate underwent a series of rebrandings—from Jabhat al-Nusra to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham—all in an attempt to present itself as a moderate alternative to more extreme groups operating in Syria, including the Islamic State (ISIS).
And although the rebranding was regarded as a bald-faced feint by many counterterrorism scholars, it just might have worked to recast al Qaeda’s image within Syria. Al Qaeda in Syria’s carefully calculated decision to distance itself from its parent organization was an effort to portray itself as a legitimate, capable, and independent force in the ongoing Syrian civil war. Another objective was to prove that the militants were dedicated to helping Syrians prevail in their struggle. Finally, it would give al Qaeda central a modicum of plausible deniability as it paves the way for its erstwhile allies to gain eligibility for military aid from a collection of external nations.
Al Qaeda in Syria’s shift was not lost on Syrian Sunnis desperate to topple the brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad. Now that ISIS has lost its capital in Raqqa, al Qaeda may be the only group viewed as militarily capable of challenging the Assad regime’s grip on power. And unlike ISIS, al Qaeda is perceived as working with locals and possessing the resources necessary to provide the trappings of governance.
It remains unthinkable to most that the term "moderate" could ever be applied to an affiliate of the group responsible for the attacks of September 11, 2001. But al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise has quietly emerged as the less extreme alternative to ISIS within the jihadist universe. And that could spell a situation, at least in the long-term, in which al Qaeda begins to resemble the Lebanese group Hezbollah—a violent non-state actor that has solidified political legitimacy while still retaining its ability to wage large-scale acts of terrorism and political violence.
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