Al-Qaeda Rebrands, Marches on in Syria

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on August 2, 2016

First ever picture of the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria), Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani), 28 July 2016

First ever picture of the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria), Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani), 28 July 2016

The leader of Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria), Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, whose real name is Ahmad al-Shara, ostensibly broke the link between his organization and al-Qaeda last week. This is another stage in al-Qaeda’s long-term strategy of embedding itself into local societies so that it can more effectively reshape the faith and shield itself from the international community.

What Happened?

After rumours began circulating on 23 July, al-Qaeda carefully coordinated the announcement of its formal dissociation from al-Nusra on 28 July.

In the early afternoon, a speech was published by al-Manara al-Bayda—al-Nusra’s media arm, let it be noted—by Abdullah Muhammad Rajab Abd al-Rahman (Abu Khayr al-Masri), identified as Ayman al-Zawahir’s naib (deputy). The jihad in Syria “should not be held back by group thinking or an organization,” Abu al-Khayr said.

A few hours later, after al-Qaeda had published the first ever picture of al-Jolani (above), al-Jolani gave the following address:

We thank [al-Qaeda’s leadership] for their stance, whereby they gave priority to the interests of the people of Syria, their jihad, their revolution … Their blessed leadership has, and shall continue to be, an exemplar of putting the needs of the community and their higher interests before the interests of any individual group. …

[W]e declare the complete cancellation of all operations under the name of Jabhat al-Nusra and the formation of a new group operating under the name “Jabhat Fatah al-Sham” (The Syrian Conquest Front), noting that this new organisation has no affiliation to any external entity.

Shortly thereafter, a founding document was released for Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), which inter alia promised “jihad by the hand and the tongue, as well as the money, body, heart and possessions” for the sake of “establishing the governorship of the shari’a until fitna (strife) disappears, the religion of Allah reigns supreme across the Earth and the glory and dignity of our umma (Islamic community) is restored.”

What Does It Mean?

At its most basic, the ostensible severing of links between al-Nusra and al-Qaeda is a sleight of hand. As I wrote in May, after al-Qaeda’s emir Ayman al-Zawahiri gave a speech saying that is a “rightly guided” Islamic government comes into being then al-Nusra will pledge its allegiance to that body and dissolve its al-Qaeda ties, this is part of al-Qaeda’s design. And it was masterly, at one stroke throwing “the ball into the court of the other Islamists regarding their long-standing demand that al-Nusra breaks its links with al-Qaeda,” meanwhile “al-Qaeda is giving up the name for the sake of the thing (an Islamic state or emirate)”.

With this move now executed, al-Qaeda—while retaining its ideology and strategic guidance—further embeds itself into Syrian revolutionary dynamics. Al-Qaeda has increased its ability to both neutralize the mainstream rebels and the threat from the West.

The Qaeda link was the most solid ground on which armed opposition groups could resist an alliance with al-Nusra; that has now been removed, and the tables turned. The rebranded al-Nusra will be able to claim it has made this unprecedented sacrifice for the revolution and groups refusing unity with JFS are hirelings of foreigners and opponents of the revolution.

Al-Qaeda believes it has stolen a march on the Islamic State (IS). From the statements of al-Qaeda’s leadership, it is clear they think IS’s approach is a dead-end. Al-Qaeda continues to address IS as an impatient child, emphasizing that it was willing to foreswear petty factionalism for the sake of Muslim unity, while IS maintains the position that only those within its organization are true believers. In this way does al-Qaeda explicitly have it both ways: al-Qaeda will “break” from al-Nusra to allow the formation of a wider jihadist alliance, which means al-Qaeda has put Islam (Jihadi-Salafism) above factional interests, but al-Qaeda still needs to be credited with everything al-Nusra does because this non-al-Qaeda branch operates under al-Qaeda’s approval and in conformity with its model of jihad.

This intentional ambiguity—where al-Qaeda surrenders the name, so long as everybody is doing what it wants them to—is what al-Qaeda is relying on to confuse its enemies and bolster its position inside Syria: the fact al-Nusra is and will remain al-Qaeda means international actors have no choice but to treat it as such, but al-Nusra can then say—as it has already begun to—that the hostility of the “international community” is to the Syrian revolution and (their version of) Islam. Another pro-Qaeda outlet gloated that the formation of JFS was “checkmate“.

Some have noted that the ambiguous wording of al-Jolani’s statement means that he did not explicitly sever his connection to al-Qaeda—he did not renounce his bay’a to al-Zawahiri. This, though, is not the most notable example of the deception involved in portraying this as a “break” with al-Qaeda: there is no need for relations with an “external entity” when a strategic majority of al-Qaeda “central” (AQC) has relocated from Pakistan to Idlib.

Al-Qaeda Central

Ahmad Salama Mabruk (Abu Faraj al-Masri), Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani), Abdulrahim Attuon (Abu Abdullah al-Shami)

Sat on one side of al-Jolani (see above) during the statement was Abdulrahim Attuon (Abu Abdullah al-Shami), a senior shar’i within al-Nusra and a member of both its Shura and Shari’a Committees, and on the other was Ahmad Salama Mabruk (Abu Faraj al-Masri), al-Zawahiri’s “closest political confidant” (p. 268) for more than two decades. Mabruk first appeared in the second part of al-Nusra’s “The Heirs of Glory” video on 18 March 2016 (the first part, among other things, celebrated the 9/11 massacre.)

Mabruk is a long-time member of al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), which for many years worked side-by-side with Usama bin Ladin’s organization before merging into AQC in June 2001. Mabruk was picked up in the dragnet that followed Khalid al-Islambouli’s assassination of Egypt’s ruler, Anwar al-Sadat, in October 1981, and was in jail until 1988, at which point he relocated to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. Mabruk then moved to Yemen and subsequently to Sudan, where Bin Ladin was located as al-Qaeda took shape in the early 1990s.

Mabruk was involved in one of the strangest incidents in the history of the Jihadi-Salafist movement when he and Mahmud Hisham al-Hennawi were arrested while traveling with al-Zawahiri in Russia in December 1996, before being freed in May 1997. Mabruk thereafter ran EIJ’s “cell in Azerbaijan under the cover of a trading firm called Bavari-C”. Azerbaijan functioned as the rear base for the Chechen jihad—as Syria did for Iraq and Pakistan for Afghanistan. Mabruk was taken into custody by the CIA in Baku in 1998, one of the dozen or so people who were captured under the “extraordinary rendition” program during the Clinton administration. Mabruk’s laptop was described as “the Rosetta Stone of al-Qaeda” (p. 268-9). While the exact circumstances are contested, one version holds that Mabruk, Ihab Saqr, and a Canadian EIJ member Essam Marzouk, who trained two of the bomb-makers for the attack on the African Embassies, were arrested just before a meeting with representatives from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence (VEVAK).

Mabruk was shipped back to Egypt, imprisoned, and later freed after the 2011 revolution. It appears Mabruk had some role in Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, a Sinai-based Jihadi-Salafi group that might well have been a secret branch of al-Qaeda before its November 2014 oath of allegiance to IS. Mabruk was also often seen in the company of Mohammed al-Zawahiri before the violent military coup in Egypt in July 2013, which led to his flight from the country.

Mostafa Mahamed (Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir)

Mostafa Mahamed (Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir)

Many other AQC agents remain in place within al-Nusra/JFS, such as al-Qaeda’s former internal security chief Abdul al-Juhani (Abu Wafa al-Saudi), military leader Samir Hijazi (Abu Hammam al-Suri), the Australian preacher Mostafa Mahamed (Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir), and Abu Ammar al-Shami. Radwan Nammous (Abu Firas al-Suri), an al-Nusra religious leader and a very senior AQC official, was recently struck down by the Coalition, and just before that two further, major AQC figures within al-Nusra were killed: strategic guide Abdul al-Sharikh (Sanafi al-Nasr) and Muhsin al-Fadhli, the apparent leader of the “Khorasan Group“.

Ahmad al-Khalayleh (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi)

Ahmad al-Khalayleh (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi)

The Khorasan Group has a noticeable connection to Iran, through which al-Qaeda runs its major facilitation network from Pakistan to the Middle East, Syria specifically, with the complicity of the Iranian government. Al-Fadhli was based in Iran before he arrived in Syria, and last autumn, Tehran “released” five senior AQC jihadists in mysterious circumstances: al-Qaeda’s one-time number three Sayf al-Adel; the above-mentioned Abu al-Khayr; an al-Qaeda operational planner, Abu Muhammad al-Masri; a former intimate of IS founder Ahmad al-Khalayleh (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi), Khaled al-Aruri (Abu al-Qassam); and Sari Shibab. These men are now believed to be in Syria.

Ahrar al-Sham

Al-Qaeda’s infrastructure in Syria has also extended into groups that are not formally part of its network, notably Ahrar al-Sham.

Mohammed al-Bahaiya (Abu Khalid al-Suri)

Muhammad al-Bahaya (Abu Khalid al-Suri)

Muhammad al-Bahaya (Abu Khalid al-Suri) was Ahrar’s effective deputy and a powerful influence over its emir when he was killed by IS in February 2014. Al-Bahaya, despite working closely with Bin Ladin in Taliban Afghanistan and operating for years as an al-Qaeda facilitator in Turkey in the 1990s, had not given a formal bay’a to the organization. Nonetheless, he was among the most respected jihadists by al-Qaeda’s leaders, who made him their representative in Syria when the schism broke out between IS and al-Nusra, and al-Bahaya long functioned as the “linchpin” of the operational alliance between al-Nusra and Ahrar.

Two other AQC figures, Abu Ayman al-Hamawi and Abu Hafs al-Masri, have been killed fighting for Ahrar.

Hashem al-Sheikh (Abu Jaber), who led Ahrar between September 2014 and September 2015, was allegedly a member of IS in the early 2000s when it was al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Assuming the reports about al-Sheikh are correct, he was among those whom the Assad regime facilitated in joining IS, then arrested when they felt the threat was getting too close to home, and subsequently released at the outset of the uprising to try to stain it with sectarianism and terrorism.

Ahrar members Iyad al-Sha’ar (Abu al-Hassan), Mohamed Ayman Aboul-Tout (Abul-Abbas a-Shami), and Baha Mustafa al-Jughl are not al-Qaeda, exactly, or not in public anyway, but they have extensive jihadist histories.

Rifai Ahmed Taha (Abu Yasser al-Masri)

Rifai Ahmed Taha (Abu Yasser al-Masri)

Perhaps most intriguingly, Abu Umar al-Masri, the right-hand-man to al-Qaeda’s leader of the Chechen jihad, Thamir Saleh Abdullah (Emir Khattab), was apparently a commander within Ahrar al-Sham when he was killed during the wave of Coalition airstrikes that cut down a dozen senior jihadists in April, and killed alongside him was Rifai Ahmed Taha (Abu Yasser al-Masri), the leader of al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya, who had taken up something like al-Bahaya’s role of liaising between the leaderships of Ahrar and al-Nusra.

Taha fled Egypt around the same time as Mabruk for Turkey, where he took up residence with, among others, Mohammed al-Islambouli, brother of al-Sadat’s murderer. Taha was ostensibly “independent,” but he was a signatory to the February 1998 fatwa by Bin Ladin, which declared that to “kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim,” and he was suspected of involvement in the bombing of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania later that year. Taha was invited into Syria to mediate between al-Nusra’s leadership factions, and with other Islamist groups, Ahrar specifically.

In the aftermath of al-Nusra’s rebranding, the pressure has been exerted most directly on Ahrar to join JFS. Among other things, a statement by the Syria-based Saudi cleric Abdullah al-Muhaysini, demanding the mujahideen unify around JFS, leaves Ahrar more or less nowhere to go.

The proposal for al-Nusra to publicly break ties with al-Qaeda to facilitate integration with other Islamists, particularly Ahrar, is not a new one. After a failed trial balloon last year, the negotiations that ultimately led to JFS began in early January 2016 when al-Jolani proposed a merger to the leaders of Jaysh al-Fatah, the insurgent coalition formed to capture Idlib City in March 2015 that Ahrar and al-Nusra dominate. It foundered when Ahrar demanded that al-Nusra break its ties to al-Qaeda and al-Jolani flatly refused. About a month later, another meeting was convened wherein al-Jolani said that al-Nusra’s allegiance to al-Qaeda was now on the table.

Ahrar has “proven to have been the greatest enabler of Jabhat al-Nusra’s sustained rise in influence in northern Syria, particularly … as an invaluable intermediary between al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate and the more mainstream Syrian opposition,” Charles Lister writes in a new report on al-Nusra. “Perhaps the only obstacle to the two movements formally combining their forces has been Jabhat al-Nusra’s overt ties to al-Qaida.” That obstacle has now been eliminated.

When al-Nusra first emerged in Syria in January 2012, it acted as its parent branch, IS, had in Iraq with mass-casualty attacks on public areas and harsh shari’a punishments in areas it controlled. By the summer of 2012, al-Nusra had switched to the track it has remained on ever since of playing down its international agenda and trying to socialize the population into its worldview while acting to gain popular credibility by providing to the opposition specialist military capabilities and services to populations in rebel-held areas. It was Ahrar, as al-Nusra’s closest battlefield ally, that provided al-Nusra a way into the rebellion.

The symbiotic relationship between Ahrar and al-Nusra revolves around Ahrar providing al-Nusra a nationalist carapace that protects it, inside and outside Syria, and providing al-Nusra a channel to forms of state support, while al-Nusra provides Ahrar credibility in the wider Jihadi-Salafist world, access to channels of finance, battlefield capabilities such as suicide bombers to break hard targets that Ahrar has been largely unwilling to engage in, and deniability from dirty work like assassinations.

Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr)

Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr)

Ahrar’s contribution to al-Nusra might well also be existential. By the time al-Nusra broke from IS, the caliph’s then-deputy, Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr), had coordinated ahead of time for a mass-defection from al-Nusra to IS. IS had also been providing half of al-Nusra’s budget. Al-Nusra was left with severe “financial and military weakness,” according to Abu Yazan al-Shami, a deceased Ahrar commander who was deeply tied to AQC and to al-Nusra, and “Ahrar bore this burden, at the direction of [al-Bahaya] and others.”

Al-Qaeda’s desire to hide its involvement in the Syrian insurgency is clear. Al-Qaeda has operated through the creation of front groups to give itself strategic depth—the appearance of allies and popular support, and options other than having to approach problems as an overt branch of al-Qaeda. A notable case is Jund al-Aqsa,[1] but groups like Jabhat Ansar al-Din, the Turkistan Islamic Party, Katibat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, and Jaysh Muhammad fi Bilad al-Sham are on the same model. After Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi tried to overtly take control of al-Nusra in April 2013, al-Jolani rejected this by “renew[ing]” his bay’a to al-Zawahiri, who was called on to mediate the dispute. Al-Zawahiri ruled in al-Jolani’s favour on 23 May 2013, ordering that al-Baghdadi’s forces should return to Iraq and leave al-Nusra as an independent branch of al-Qaeda in Syria. Nonetheless, al-Zawahiri criticised al-Jolani for “showing his links to al-Qaeda”. An al-Nusra jihadi once explained that the plan was: “We would show our values, deal with people well, and then after a while we’d tell them, ‘The al-Qaeda that was smeared in the media? This is it. We are it. What do you think of us—Jabhat al-Nusra?'” But “until then … Zawahiri had given strict instructions not to reveal his involvement.” Al-Nusra’s transition to JFS is effectively the resetting of this original condition.

Al-Nusra’s behaviour in Syria is consistent with al-Qaeda’s methodology. From al-Qaeda’s very founding, the notion of influence through front groups and organizations not wholly under al-Qaeda’s control has been current. When Bin Ladin was putting together al-Qaeda in the early 1990s, he “had a vision of himself as head of an international jihad confederation” and established an “Islamic Army Shura” in Sudan that “was composed of his own al-Qaeda Shura together with leaders or representatives of terrorist organisations that were still independent” (p. 58). Al-Qaeda strategist Mustafa Nasar (Abu Musab al-Suri), a close personal friend of al-Bahaya’s, wrote in a lessons-learned book to “beware of an overt jihad, centralized in open battlefronts” (p. 196), noting that such structures made it easy for the Americans to destroy them. Which begs the question about Ahrar.

The close battlefield alliance, the apparent sharing of resources, the Qaeda members among Ahrar’s founders, and the strong likelihood (p. 58) that al-Qaeda financiers on the Gulf provided the first donations to Ahrar in 2011 make it at least conceivable that Nicholas Heras is correct in arguing that Ahrar and al-Nusra “are parallel organizations established by al-Qaeda in Syria … seeking to be the vanguard of the popular revolution against the Assad regime.”

[Update] Exactly this accusation is made by a defector from al-Qaeda to IS, Abu Ubaydah al-Lubnani. “Al-Qaeda had two lines of operation,” says Abu Ubaydah. “The first was with Ahrar al-Sham, through which Abu Khalid al-Suri was working with them, communicating with al-Zawahiri and informing him of the situation. … As for the second part of the project [i.e. Jabhat al-Nusra], it was under the direct supervision of al-Qaeda leadership in Khorasan.” According to Abu Ubaydah, if al-Nusra/JFS and Ahrar now merge, it will be the completion of a plan laid down by al-Zawahiri that was disrupted by IS killing al-Bahaya. “Al-Zawahiri was hoping that the work of Abu Khalid al-Suri in leading Ahrar al-Sham would bring al-Qaeda closer to the factions … Al-Zawahiri’s plan was based on merging ‘Jabhat al-Nusra,’ after taking control over it [from the then-Islamic State of Iraq], into the ‘Ahrar al-Sham’ model. This did not take place because of the killing of Abu Khalid al-Suri, who was the leader of the project of bringing both al-Qaeda and ‘Ahrar al-Sham’ together”.

This is not to say that every, or even most, members of Ahrar are al-Qaeda loyalists; that clearly isn’t true. It is to say that Ahrar structurally, and some significant fraction of its leadership consciously, serves as the portal through which al-Qaeda has infiltrated the Syrian revolution to enact its strategic goal of shaping, not ruling, the rebellion and its supportive populations. Al-Qaeda’s long-term goal is to co-opt the Syrian revolution to provide itself a durable base that is a permissive environment for global jihad and can, in time, be used a launch-pad for external terrorism that it will be difficult to respond to since al-Qaeda is so tangled into the local population. In that project Ahrar is, and long has been, an ally.

Will States Now Fund Jabhat al-Nusra?

While European ransom payments might be among the most significant state contributions to al-Qaeda, what is meant by this question is the belief that the formal dissociation between al-Qaeda and al-Nusra will “pave the way for greater support from Gulf states”. Al-Nusra relies on al-Qaeda’s financial networks—private donors on the Gulf and in Turkey, some of whom have already been sanctioned—and the history of these governments when they perceive themselves to have no other options makes this a reasonable concern. Indeed, in Syria, with the U.S. standing back and Russia and Iran intervening ever-more-deeply on the regime side, it finally led to Saudi Arabia reluctantly uniting with Turkey and Qatar to support the Jaysh al-Fatah coalition, in many ways the forerunner to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.

In reality, however, the removal of the Qaeda allegiance, a clear demarcation between transnationalist and non-transnationalist groups, means that the question becomes one about ideology and that is likely to make it more difficult to support not only JFS but Ahrar al-Sham and some other Islamist groups that Ankara and Doha have heretofore favoured inside Syria.

Ahrar is a large organization by this point, and this brings an inherent complexity. But Ahrar’s roots in Jihadi-Salafism are not contested and an important recent speech by Ahrar’s deputy, Ali al-Umar, suggested the organization retained this orientation where it matters—at the very top. One defining feature of the Jihadi-Salafist movement is a belief that “jihad … should … be considered an ordinary act of worship … [and should] not be regarded as something transient or exceptional” (p. 34). Al-Umar clarified that jihad was not, for Ahrar, a temporary tactic, but rather was “the main tool to attain our rights and to defend Islam and Muslims … [and] will continue until the Day of Judgement”. Al-Umar also made clear that while Ahrar’s focus was local, it conceived of itself as part of an international project to “mobilize all Sunnis”. Al-Umar contended that Ahrar was “mujahideen, not jihadists” because they did not “limit” themselves to the use of jihad and had, for example, taken part in some of the peace process as a form of subversion. But al-Qaeda does not only use jihad—as outlined above—and finding a distinction between these beliefs and those of al-Nusra/JFS once the Qaeda connection is denied is no easy feat.

The “local not global” argument has even been applied by some to al-Nusra itself to contend that it is in some way distinct from al-Qaeda. The premise is based on al-Nusra having foresworn foreign terrorist attacks. This requires at least two qualifiers. First, al-Nusra has been engaged in plotting external attacks: the signs of this picked up over the summer of 2014 are what led to the U.S. airstrikes against the Khorasannites that September and the ongoing campaign against them. Second, even after al-Zawahiri apparently ordered this stopped in early 2015, this is a temporary and tactical decision, designed to allow al-Qaeda to dig-in so far in Syria that it is protected by local allies from reprisal when it eventually uses Syria as a launch-pad for global jihad.

The limited scope of al-Nusra’s prohibition on foreign attacks was revealed again in response to David Ignatius’ claim in his 19 July Washington Post column, based on official sources, that there is “increasing evidence [al-Nusra] is plotting external operations against Europe and the United States” and has sent “operatives … to infiltrate Syrian refugee communities in Europe”. Al-Nusra issued a sharp response via Abu Ammar al-Shami. These were “flimsy” and “false” claims, Abu Ammar said, adding: “In the interest of keeping the Syrian jihad ongoing and strong, all other desirable interests, including targeting the West and America, fall away and disappear”(italics added). If al-Nusra really has sent agents to Europe this might well be in preparation for external operations, and al-Nusra has hinted at this before, as Sam Heller points out: when al-Jolani appeared on al-Jazeera in May 2015 he said that “options are open” for al-Nusra if the U.S.-led Coalition continues to target al-Nusra.

To allow the focus on external terrorism to be the marker of “true” al-Qaeda is to misunderstand the organization’s structure and goals. According to the 9/11 Commission Report (p. 67), up to 20,000 jihadists were trained at al-Qaeda camps between 1996 and 2001, but “no more than a few hundred seem to have become al-Qaeda members.” To underline the fact that formal membership is also somewhat of an arbitrary category: Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, the planner of the 9/11 atrocity, never gave bay’a to Bin Ladin. Al-Qaeda involved itself in local insurgencies in the 1990s—the classic “ABC” conflicts (Algeria, Bosnia, Chechnya). In these theatres, al-Qaeda effectively talent-spotted for operatives, specifically Europeans, who could be repurposed as global terrorists. That model has been refined in the years since, but al-Qaeda “always integrated into the community, whether … in Bosnia, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, or elsewhere,” as one of its propagandists noted. In this way, al-Qaeda did gain political influence on the ground and a base of operations—at least to fundraise, recruit, and facilitate—but most importantly it set down Jihadi-Salafism as a locally-rooted and self-sustaining phenomenon to compete with traditional forms of Islam native to these areas.

Going Forward

The imposition of a siege on rebel-held eastern Aleppo City by the pro-Assad coalition on 27 July, enabled by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Kurdish Marxist force that has become the U.S.’s favoured anti-IS proxy in Syria, in direct collusion with Iranian-run Shi’a jihadists, has provided al-Qaeda with an invaluable opportunity to baptize its new brand. The pro-Assad coalition has handed al-Qaeda an objectively just cause that no rebel group can dissent from without incurring potentially-lethal political costs and Western passivity—at best—has left al-Qaeda and its allies as the best option for civilian protection in north-western Syria, able to advertise its worth to the opposition and form connections that can be used later to shield al-Qaeda.

The launching of a massive insurgent offensive, spearheaded by the Jaysh al-Fatah coalition, on 31 July to lift the blockade—which has made unexpectedly rapid gains—has, as with the original Jaysh al-Fatah offensive in Idlib in the spring of 2015, left the nationalist Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels no choice but to be involved, even though collaboration enables the expansion of power for forces that will, in time, turn on the FSA. If the FSA stands on the sidelines it would leave al-Nusra and its allies to run away with the situation entirely in the immediate future. The incentive for unity in Aleppo is greater even than Idlib: it is a simple question of the rebellion’s survival; without Aleppo City, a “negotiated solution” is an Assad regime victory by another name.

Numerically, the nationalist contribution to the Aleppo offensive is significant, but al-Qaeda is well-positioned to reap the benefits as the tip of the spear in the north and specifically in the south against the FSA-branded Southern Front, which has been denied the ability by its backers to engage the regime and has been redirected against the Jihadi-Salafists, leaving the impression of a foreign proxy that does not serve the revolution.

It is in this context that the U.S.’s pro-Iran tilt is so dangerous: it leads to a lack of Western engagement with the armed opposition, which in turn allows al-Qaeda to assert itself, gaining politico-social capital and able to dismantle Western-aligned groups, because the nationalist groups are too weak to resist al-Qaeda and other groups perceive that al-Qaeda’s occasional crackdowns are a bearable price for the sake of al-Qaeda’s military utility against the regime.

The alliance between the Syrian opposition and al-Qaeda is tactical, though al-Qaeda works assiduously, and not-without success, to use this proximity to spread its ideology. The rebels and the civilian populations sympathetic to them are aware that “Nusra is going to take us down with them,” but their most pressing threat is the pro-Assad coalition that uses sectarian tactics, including mass-killing and ethnic cleansing, as central components of its war strategy. While that menace remains, the rebellion will look to any available source of support.

Al-Qaeda has been given near-perfect conditions in Syria to refine its model of jihad: a lot of time, the military facts of the extreme violence inflicted on the population by the pro-Assad coalition, and the political facts of an increasingly-flagrant Western alignment with the Iranian Axis. The only way to get rid of al-Qaeda in Syria is to disentangle it from the rebellion and that means becoming a more reliable ally to the rebellion than al-Qaeda, empowering the mainstream opposition to a point it can do without al-Qaeda’s support.

Even the reduction in hostilities, specifically regime airstrikes, in the spring led to a serious crisis for al-Qaeda within revolutionary dynamics. Without total mayhem, the opposition could make more decisions than who might be able to help their family live to the end of the day. To make this permanent would involve enforcing Western policy as it exists on paper, namely the formation of a transitional government based on mutual consent between the opposition and the regime, i.e. without Assad.

Unfortunately the U.S. is moving in the opposite direction, toward direct cooperation with the pro-Assad coalition. The U.S. has proposed a “Joint Implementation Group” (JIG) to Russia that would allegedly call off the pro-regime coalition’s airstrikes against vetted rebel groups in exchange for a joint, direct assault on al-Nusra—which might well have affected the timing of the JFS announcement.

The political complications now al-Nusra/JFS has wrapped itself even more tightly in the protective garb of the Syrian revolution are one thing. Russia’s inability, even if it wanted to, get the regime to cease attacks on U.S.-vetted groups is another. And that is before it is acknowledged that Russia’s intervention has quite deliberately weakened the nationalists and bolstered the jihadists; that the JIG means making the U.S. formally responsible for Russia’s systematic atrocities against the Syrian population; and that it means running a counter-terrorism operation with a government that enables IS’s recruitment and provides air cover for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hizballah jihadists. But what if it works exactly as planned?

“A successful JIG would prevent a negotiated settlement by eliminating much of al-Nusra’s capability without replacing or compensating for the insurgency’s lost capacity. This would either prolong the war or facilitate regime progress, killing and radicalizing more Syrians,” writes Faysal Itani of The Atlantic Council. As should by now be obvious, empowering the Assad regime is not a counter to al-Qaeda and IS but a spur to them. The present trajectory of Western policy, however, will do just that, ensuring bloodshed and instability, in the region and around the world, from terrorism to refugees, for the foreseeable future.







[1] Al-Jolani was aware by January 2013, when Jund al-Aqsa was founded, that IS leaders were “scheming” against him, according to Abdurrahman Harkoush, who worked as a spokesman for Jaysh al-Islam for a year before leaving recently to pursue journalism. Harkoush gained his insight from, as he told me, a well-placed source. Jund al-Aqsa was a contingency plan against IS’s hostile takeover and the backfiring of dragging al-Zawahiri in as mediator: al-Nusra “form[ed] a new faction called ‘Saraya al-Aqsa,’ which became later ‘Jund al-Aqsa’. … They planned to join it later if Baghdadi declared the expansion of his state to Syria and if Zawahiri decided to dissolve Nusra.” As it was, al-Jolani needn’t have worried: al-Zawahiri ruled that ISIS should be dissolved, ISI should return to Iraq, and al-Nusra should become an independent al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.

Post has been updated

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