Jabhat al-Nusra: The disengagement from Al-Qaeda and changing attitudes towards antiquities in Syria

The Nusra Front or Jabhat Al-Nusra (JN) is a Sunni opposition group that aims to overthrow the Assad Regime and establish an Islamic Emirate in Syria. On July 28, 2016, Jabhat al-Nusra announced its disengagement from al-Qaeda and changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham; on 28 January 2017, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham rebranded yet again when it merged with several other Syrian groups to establish Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), and since then a series of transformations have appeared its attitudes. Jabhat al-Nusra arrested a number of al-Qaeda leaders in areas under its control, the level of its violence was decreased (CSIS 2018, 3), it began to rely on the local population to manage civil and military affairs (Al Kanj 2019) and it formed a civilian “Syrian Salvation Government” to manage its regions. It also allowed Turkish soldiers to enter Idlib, it committed to a ceasefire as part of the Astana peace process, its leadership has abandoned its prior rhetoric about the establishment of an Islamic state in Syria (Tsurkov n.d). Among the most noteworthy of the transformations is its attitudes towards the looting and destroying antiquities, which had become endemic in Syria. Jabhat Al-Nusra targeted archaeological sites: destroying and looting them, as well as using them as military training sites and observation points, it was also accused of looting the warehouses of Idlib Museum. But, after its disengagement from al-Qaeda, in February Jabhat al-Nusra allowed the reopening of the Idlib Museum under the supervision of local archaeologists and allowed the launch of local initiatives led by volunteers from local communities to protect antiquities in areas under its control. The Salvation Government of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham claims that it contributes to the protection of antiquities in its areas by allowing awareness campaigns within its schools and universities and within local communities. It also claims to provide facilities to initiators by allowing them to implement protection projects for archaeological sites and allow them to cooperate with local and international institutions and organizations to obtain support and funding for the implementation of these projects. This research aims to document and study the shifts in attitudes of Jabhat al-Nusra (Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham) regarding the Syrian cultural heritage and to outline the nature, reasons and motives for this transformation during the war in Syria, through constructing a detailed timeline through which we can understand the relationship between HTS decisions, the broader Syrian context and antiquities and archaeological sites on the ground in northwest Syria.

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