BEIRUT (Reuters) - The leader of the Syrian Islamist rebel group Nusra Front said on Thursday it was cutting its ties with al Qaeda to deny foreign powers including the United States and Russia a pretext to attack Syrians.
Listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, the Nusra Front was excluded from a truce negotiated in February. Russia and the United States are discussing closer coordination to fight the militia.
The group’s leader, Abu Mohamad al-Golani, made the announcement in a video that was the first public pronouncement to show his face.
“We have stopped operating under the name of Nusra Front and formed a new body ... This new formation has no ties with any foreign party,” he said, giving the group’s new name as “Jabhat Fatah al Sham”.
He said the step was being taken “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”.
Golani said the action would narrow differences with other rebel groups that are also fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al Zawahri, had earlier given his blessing to Nusra Front to break organizational ties with the global jihadist organization in the interest of preserving its unity and continuing its fight in Syria.
Golani thanked Zawahri for putting the interests of Muslims and the people of the Levant over organizational interests.
Reporting by Lisa Barrington and Suleiman al Khalidi in Beirut and Ahmed Tolba in Cairo; Editing by Kevin Liffey