Rebranding Failed to White-Wash Al-Nusra, It Won’t Help Azov Battalion Either

Ekaterina Blinova
In late May the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion dropped its infamous Wolfsangel insignia in an apparent re-branding effort. During the unveiling of a new Azov unit in Kharkov, patches handed to soldiers featured a golden trident, the Ukrainian national emblem.

The Azov Battalion’s Wolfsangel symbol, previously used by the Nazi German military, “helped perpetuate Russian propaganda about Ukraine being in the grip of far-right nationalism,” claimed British daily The Times.

Despite the insignia being dropped, Azov commander Maksym Zhorin made it clear at the official inauguration of a new unit that new Azov divisions will be guided by “the same principles and ideological basis as the legendary Azov regiment.”

The unit was founded in May 2014 by Andriy Biletsky, former leader of the Kharkov branch of “the Stepan Bandera All-Ukrainian Organisation ‘Tryzub'” and co-founder of an ultra-nationalist movement, the Social-National Assembly. Biletsky was quoted as saying in 2010 that Ukraine’s mission was to “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade…against Semite-led Untermenschen [subhumans]”.

Azov formally joined the Ukrainian National Guard in 2014. The group attacked and displaced residents in eastern Ukraine, looted civilian property, and tortured detainees in Donbass, according to a 2016 UN report by the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OCHA).

During the Russian special operation, a vast amount of neo-Nazi literature, images, and paraphernalia were found in Azov Battalion strongholds by the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) military. Likewise, members of the Azov Battalion who surrendered in Mariupol wear tattoos with Nazi symbols and inscriptions.

The Azov rebranding is unlikely to change the battalion’s modus operandi, says Basma Qaddour, a Syrian journalist, co-author of “Voices from Syria”, and head of the news department at The Syria Times. Syria has already seen a strikingly similar rebranding attempt, she says referring to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)*, formerly known as al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra).

“Replacing the symbol of Nazi Worfsangel with a golden trident and re-branding al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front as HTS has nothing to do with the change of the ideology of these groups,” she says.

“It has been reported that one of the biggest misperceptions by researchers is that global jihadis become more moderate when they localise even though there is no established link between localisation and moderation. Such reorientation signals a strategic shift that does not necessarily touch on the core beliefs of these groups.”

Al-Nusra Front

In December 2012, the al-Nusra Front was designated a terrorist organisation by the US State Department. The militant group changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham* in mid-2016 claiming that it had severed ties with al-Qaeda. On 28 January 2017, it joined four smaller Syrian factions to create the new Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS).

“The movement tripled its forces to around 31,000 fighters,” Qaddour says. “It also strengthened its hand militarily, expanding its presence from one front to operations in Idlib, Hama and Aleppo in the north and Daraa in the south.”

According to Qaddour, the rebranding helped the Islamist group get further backing from the West and Middle Eastern regional actors after it claimed to no longer be an al-Qaeda affiliate.

However, Lindsey Snell, a US independent journalist who had been a Jabhat al-Nusra captive for ten days in Syria, told The Grayzone in April 2021 that HTS still upholds the same ideology as ISIS (Daesh)*, but has decided to appeal to the West in order to preserve its influence in Idlib and international aid.

“Actually, their rebranding campaign started when I was their captive,” Snell told The Grayzone. “To this day most of them still call themselves ‘Nusra,’”

According to Qaddour, al-Nusra’s split from al-Qaeda was a “cosmetic” one: they’re still the same terrorists inflicting Sharia law on everyone in their territories.

In March 2021, former US special envoy to Syria Ambassador James Jeffrey called HTS “an asset” to America’s strategy in Syria in an interview with PBS News. According to Jeffrey, HTS was “the least bad option of the various options on Idlib, and Idlib is one of the most important places in Syria, which is one of the most important places right now in the Middle East.”

Do Syrian Jihadists and Ukrainian neo-Nazis Have the Same Backers?

The Syrian journalist does not rule out that Syrian jihadists and Ukrainian neo-Nazis have the same Western backers: following the beginning of the Russian special operation in Ukraine many Syrian jihadi groups stationed in Idlib expressed their support for Kiev. Some of them signalled a readiness to join the Ukrainian military regiments, according to Al-Monitor.

Likewise, the White Helmets, a controversial group known for staging chemical incidents in Syria, pledged to provide “tutorials” to the Ukrainian forces and reportedly arrived in the Eastern European country. Initial training and financial support to the White Helmets was provided by the Mayday Rescue Foundation, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) established by ex-British Army officer James Le Mesurier.

Probably, the Azov and al-Nusra’s rebranding was a PR move encouraged by their backers, according to the Syrian journalist.

“The goal is to legitimate the leaders of these groups and to show that the new brand poses no threat to the US and Western countries and these groups must be supported to achieve ‘noble’ goals, which simply means the interests of the US and its allies that seek to spread chaos, change regimes, weaken other countries, have hegemony of the other countries’ resources, etc,” Qaddour concludes.