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Analysts question Fatah al-Sham Front split with al-Qaeda

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo

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Fighters from Fatah al-Sham Front (FSF), formerly known as al-Nusra Front (ANF), take part in a show of force in Syria's Maarat al-Numaan. [Photo courtesy of Abdullah al-Jark]

Though it claims to be a faction of the Syrian opposition, Fatah al-Sham Front (FSF) includes foreign fighters -- an inconvenient truth its leadership works hard to downplay, analysts tell Diyaruna.

They also question whether the group, formerly al-Nusra Front (ANF), has actually parted with al-Qaeda , saying the declaration of its split may be a calculated move to ensure its participation in a political solution in Syria.

Following in the footsteps of al-Qaeda

A significant number of foreign fighters in the ranks of FSF have previously fought in conflicts in places such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Libya and Yemen.

These fighters, particularly those from central Asia, enjoy a higher status in the group, as they are the top fighters and possess the most battlefield experience.

"After FSF’s alleged split from al-Qaeda, it has basically operated on the principle of recruiting jihadists and takfiri elements from all countries of the world, following the example of its parent group, al-Qaeda," said retired Egyptian army officer Maj. Gen. Yahya Mohammed Ali, an expert on extremist groups.

Terror groups typically rely on this type of recruitment effort to ensure their global presence and threat is "not only confined to a specific geographical area", he told Diyaruna.

"ANF was able in the past to recruit a large number of foreign and Arab fighters into its ranks on the basis of being the first jihadist group to announce its existence after the outbreak of the events in Syria," Ali said, adding that ANF's foreign fighters are known for their ferocity in battle.

Despite the presence of a large number of foreign fighters in its ranks, FSF, like ANF before it, tries to give the impression that the majority of its fighters are Syrian and that it is a "Syrian opposition group", he added.

By distancing themselves from al-Qaeda, FSF leaders are trying to secure their place in Syria's political future, said Sami Gheit, a researcher with al-Sharq Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies.

"They want to ensure they are not marginalized" as Syria transitions to a political solution, he told Diyaruna.

However, many foreign fighters have sworn allegiance to FSF and "enjoy great privileges over Syrian, Iraqi and Arab fighters", he said.

"They have their own hierarchy," he told Diyaruna. "Their emirs are all of the same nationality, and even fight in their own exclusive battle zones."

"FSF leader Abu Mohammed al-Joulani may have given them these privileges to keep them from defecting [from FSF] and prevent conflicts from arising between them and other FSF groups of other nationalities," he said.

Doubts about al-Qaeda split

In addition to Europeans and central Asians, there are fighters from across the Arab world in the ranks of FSF, Ali said.

The large number of Iraqi fighters casts doubt on whether FSF actually split from al-Qaeda, he said, noting that Iraqi fighters make up al-Qaeda’s core in Iraq.

It is not possible to determine the precise number of foreign fighters, Ali added, because incoming fighters joined both the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) and ANF upon their arrival in Syria.

Some later switched allegiances between the two groups, he added.

Foreign fighters are a key component of FSF's military force, Syrian journalist Mohammed al-Abdullah told Diyaruna, based on his monitoring of FSF publications and information he receives from sources inside Syria.

"Foreign fighters are constantly pledging allegiance to either ISIL or FSF," he said.

In 2015, for example, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar (Army of Emigrants and Supporters) pledged its allegiance to the group, then known as ANF, he said.

The 2,000-strong force is comprised of fighters of various nationalities, from Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Chechnya, among others, he added.

Smaller factions such as the Chechen Crimean Group, Katibat al-Tawheed and Katibat al-Jihad, comprised of fighters from former Soviet blocs, also have pledged their allegiance to the former ANF, he said.

A number of European fighters including a sizable number of Russians, directly joined FSF, he said.

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