The battle for Aleppo could be a turning point in Syria’s civil war — not simply because it may prove a decisive moment in the struggle between the government and the opposition, but because the leadership of the rebel forces is at stake.
Rebel groups have struggled to reorganize and recover from the heavy blows dealt them by the joint Russian and Iranian military surge that began last fall and has shifted the military momentum back toward the government. Yet the already powerful Qaeda franchise Jabhat al-Nusra (or Nusra Front) has now moved to ensure its indispensability and consolidate its influence over more moderate opposition militias.
The Nusra Front fighters have been key players in a loose alliance in the crucial struggle over Aleppo that has recently produced significant rebel victories. Nusra is seeking to build on this success with a deft tactical rebranding: On July 28, its leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, announced that the organization was breaking ties with Al Qaeda and forming a new organization, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (or Levant Conquest Front).
In practice, this rebranding is virtually meaningless. Mr. Jolani left no doubt that his group, under whatever name, retains its Qaeda-inspired ideology: His announcement was peppered with effusive praise for Al Qaeda, its current leadership and Osama bin Laden, and he promised no deviation from standard existing doctrines.