The changing faces of al-Qaeda in Syria
As the Syrian regime continues its brutal assault into Idlib in northern Syria, much of what remains of the Syrian rebel forces are fighting a desperate rearguard action against Damascus’s inexorable advance.
Within the province, one of the region’s dominant jihadist groups, the Turkish-funded Ahrar al-Sham, and its allies resist the regime’s advance. To their side stands another Syrian jihadist group, one that played a defining role not just in the history of Syria but within the world.
Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham — formerly Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly an al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra — was the spearhead of the jihadist campaign now engulfing various parts of the world. Despite ostensibly severing links with al-Qaeda in 2016, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s (HTS) ties to the group render it a virtual pariah within Syria’s rebel network, excluding it from refuge in the country’s “de-escalation zones” and barring it from participating in discussions on ending Syria’s carnage.
Though HTS and its predecessors disavow active links to al-Qaeda, the perception of them as the group’s Syrian proxy persists. Whatever the degree of control al-Qaeda exerts over its affiliate, events from its various media rebranding to the state-building efforts within its territories have done little to dissuade anyone that this child of al-Qaeda is anything but wayward.
From the outset, Jabhat al-Nusra appeared reluctant to advertise its affiliations. It was not until 2013 when the newly emerging Islamic State (ISIS) attempted to subsume the group that Jabhat al-Nusra publicly declared its loyalty to al- Qaeda. Even then, the relationship between the two was rarely straightforward.
By 2016, with the tide of the war turning against Syria’s rebels, the value of Jabhat al-Nusra’s al-Qaeda affiliation grew questionable. Who was doing that questioning is in dispute. What is less disputed is the toxicity al-Qaeda’s brand had assumed.
While Jabhat al-Nusra managed to form various alliances with factions in Syria’s rebel groupings, the group’s explicit ties to al-Qaeda always carried the risk of international blacklisting and, for groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and other internationally backed groups, the potential loss of funding. Something had to change.
“The whole point was to achieve a shift in perception, without really changing much on the ground,” Jason Burke, author of several books on al-Qaeda, wrote by e-mail.
“So, for example, though the nominal allegiance of the organisation changed, the personal allegiance of individual leaders of the group, which is much more important, did not. Many are sworn by a traditional bayat to be loyal to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the [al-Qaeda] leader, and have in no way repudiated that loyalty. To do so would be virtually impossible anyway.”
Despite the rebranding, old faces and ties remained and new alliances failed to materialise. As ISIS sucked the majority of the air from the room, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham was only able to make limited headway in ingraining itself within Syria’s wider rebel milieu.
It was only when rebel infighting near Aleppo broke out in January 2017 that it drew other, more “mainstream” groups into its fold, with the Sunni Islamist group Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki, the jihadist alliance Jabhat Ansar al- Din and at least two other groups joining Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, calling itself Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.
Though ties between the newly minted group and al-Qaeda continued, more frustrations followed. Last April, al-Qaeda’s leadership issued an audio message, likely directed at HTS, warning against embarking on the kind of state-building projects in Idlib as ISIS had undertaken in Raqqa and elsewhere.
Instead, al-Qaeda urged the group to adopt guerrilla-style tactics rather than holding territory. Despite this, HTS embarked on significant state-building efforts, co-opting local councils in their control and establishing civil authority over areas as diverse as museum administration and mobile phone contracts.
As analysts such as Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi pointed out, it is precisely such efforts that leave the group vulnerable to military attack, attacks that might lead to the group being reduced to the kind of guerrilla warfare as initially instructed by al-Qaeda.
For the West though, events in Idlib offer only temporary respite.
“Currently, HTS is focused on the local struggle within Syria — and on survival in the face of a resurgent regime,” Burke wrote. “Yet this could change rapidly. Among HTS leaders are some very senior [al-Qaeda] people who have spent much of their lives in an organisation committed to attacking the west, especially the US, before taking on local regimes.”
The debate between targets far and near is only likely a temporary one, Burke said.
“The Far vs Near enemy strategic debate is complex and dynamic, so though at the moment the emphasis is on the near enemy that may not always be the case. It could well be that at some stage soon, a strike against the far enemy might be seen as helping the battle against the near enemy,” he said.
Simon Speakman Cordall is a section editor with The Arab Weekly.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.