The image of Omran Daqneesh, patiently sat in the back of an ambulance, his face caked in blood and dust, has highlighted the heavy fighting taking place in Aleppo. Once Syria’s most populous city and home to a UNESCO World Heritage site, the city has become the crossroads in the battle between forces loyal to the Syrian regime and the Syrian armed opposition. Recent developments among rebel group coordination and battlefield victories have significant consequences for a civil war dragging toward yet another brutal year.
Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, leader of Syrian jihadist group and Al-Qaeda (AQ) affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), recently announced that his organisation would be dissolved and the formation of a new group called ‘Jabhat Fatah al-Sham’ (JFAS). The announcement was greeted warmly by other Syrian rebel groups, particularly groups Islamist in orientation, and was reported by several media outlets to represent JAN splitting off from Al-Qaeda. However assessment of the declaration provides little evidence to justify this claim. In fact, the news is a clearer demonstration of the evolved strategy that AQ is pursuing in the post 2003 Iraq war environment.
The announcement was a carefully stage-managed affair, giving the impression that it had been under much consideration, and that AQ sought a specific response. For the preceding several days, pro AQ social media and telegram accounts circulated the news, preparing the ground and allowing sympathisers to digest the news.
In the hours prior to the distribution of Jolani’s message, JAN media sources released a pre-recorded audio message in which Ahmed Hassan Abu Al-Khayr, identified for the first time as AQ’s deputy, blessed the split and proclaimed it had the consent of leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The ‘split’ was manoeuvred“ as being “for the good of Islam and Muslims”.
The message that followed from Jolani, who appeared with his face unmasked for the first time, thanked AQ for its stance and parroted Al-Khayr’s talk of the move representing a move benefits Islam and Muslims. He gave effusive praise to deceased AQ founder Osama Bin Laden and made no mention of any revised or new ideological stance of JFAS. He specifically noted that the new organisation (JFAS) would strive towards establishing the sharia as the basis of legislation in al-Sham (Syria). To accept that JAN has exited AQ without any compelling evidence of altered ideological foundations is naïve. Furthermore there is no indication that any current members of JAN would be disallowed from joining the new organisation, meaning that JFAS will be stocked by members, at all levels, who have accepted the ideological foundations of AQ. Therefore, from an ideological perspective it is clear that the supposed split has little relevance in this regard.
Secondly, it is not clear that the ‘split’ represents a concrete operational break from the Al-Qaeda organisation either. The interpretation that Jolani’s organisation has split with AQ emanates from his statement that the new organisation (JFAS) will have “no affiliation to any external entity”. However, it is clear from several pieces of evidence that this is simply a rhetorical device and ultimately doesn’t break the organisations. The use of “external entity” is an illusion to AQ, utilised to create the trap of believing in the split, is in some way true. Rather than taking direction from foreign based AQ leaders, those leaders have entered the Syrian theatre. Indeed, throughout Jolani’s statement Ahmad Salama Mabruk, a veteran jihadist who has personally served Ayman al-Zawahiri since at least the 1980s, is seated on his right. It is believed that Al-Khayr (A.K.A Al Masir) is currently in Syria, an assertion bolstered by his message on behalf of Zawahiri being released by JAN media sources and not by the al-Sahab, AQ central’s media source. Furthermore, Al-Khayr is only one of a considerable cadre of senior AQ members in Syria, with Saif al Adel, formerly AQ’s military commander and released from Iranian custody in 2015 in exchange for an Iranian diplomat held hostage in Yemen, also believed to be in Syria. Both men are thought to have embedded in Syria, helped direct JAN and move back and forth between Syria and Turkey, a NATO ally, in order to be safe from American drone strikes. The significance of two such senior figures being present in the Syria theatre is enormous and buttresses the justification that JFAS has no external affiliation, as members of AQ senior leadership are currently in Syria and therefore do not represent an “external entity”. Al-Kayr, al-Adel and Mabruk are all long-time members AQ loyalists and it is highly unlikely that these three men would have revoked their loyalty to the organisation or undergone an unknown ideological transformation. In summary, given the presence of several senior, and long-time, AQ figures in Syria JFAS will continue to operate with the same loyalty to AQ figures and strategy as previously.
Lastly, and most definitively of all, Jolani’s makes no mention of his bay’ah (oath of allegiance) to Zawahiri and certainly doesn’t renounce it. Under the hierarchical and religious model utilised by AQ the bay’ah is a binding oath that indicates fealty to the individual it is given. The oath pledges members to fall under the authority of other figures and ultimately creates a chain of religious ordained hierarchy that is difficult to break. Without explicitly renouncing this, there is no reason to believe the organisation has made any break or split with AQ.
The question that persists is what motivates Jolani to announce the formation of the new group and foster the impression that JFAS doesn’t have links to AQ?
The attempt to obfuscate links to AQ is consistent with a gradualist strategy that AQ has pursued under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri. The strategy is motivated by the disappointment and squandering of the unique opportunity presented by the U.S invasion of Iraq in 2003. Many of the files released from Bin Laden’s Abbottabad hideout showcase how he was concerned about the activities of Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of AQ in Iraq, and sought to rein in his excesses. While takfir (declaration of apostasy of other Muslims) is part of AQ’s ideology, Zarqawi elevated this to the principle driving force of his organisation, provoking country wide sectarian war and revelling in acts of horrific violence. The resulting partnership of Sunni tribes with U.S. forces in the Surge was an anathema to AQ.
Consequently, AQ underwent a period of strategic introspection. Atiyatullah al-Libi, leader of AQ’s Shura Council until his death in a 2011 drone strike, argued that even if groups had ties to AQ, these links should not be declared because they would prove politically useful to the United States as Zarqawi’s campaign had marred the general image of AQ. Demonstration of this evolved thinking has been the deployment of front organisations using different names, such as the Ansar al-Sharia movements in Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen, who kept their affiliation to AQ muted.
Although AQ internet forum distributed JAN messages from 2012 onwards, it is possible these links would have continued to be muted were it not for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s attempt to assume control over Jolani’s network which thrust the schism between AQ and IS public. Baghdadi’s power grab forced Jolani to declare his organisations ties with AQ in an appeal to Zawahiri for guidance. Incidentally, despite initial difficulties, this may have had a positive long-term effect for JAN as it lost much of its foreign fighter contingent and gave the group a more Syrian face, just as ISI had gone through during its Iraqisation period followed the death of foreign emirs.
The gradualist strategy relies upon local organisations embedding within existing opposition movements, building local support by employing a theologically pragmatic attitude.
JAN has utilised its superior military capabilities to launch operations alongside more moderate groups, creating leverage by proving indispensible to the wider rebel movement. Given the enmity toward Assad the rebel movement has often been prepared to partner with rebel groups of different ideological orientations. It is also the case that in many cities and towns, the choice for more moderate groups has been to accept the role of JAN or succumb to Assad’s forces.
Simultaneously, the group pursued a strategy to widen its support among the civilian population, notably assuming control of bakeries and the production of subsidized bread as well as delivering gas, water, cleaning and healthcare services in Aleppo which began in late 2012. Whereas other opposition groups suffered from corruption, fragmentation and cronyism, JAN was able to effectively deliver service without these hindrances and quickly built support as a result.
Further evidence of AQ theological pragmatism has been the suspension of the Hadud punishments (severing the hands of thieves etc) in rebel controlled Idlib. These have been suspended to prevent alienation of the local population and present a less alien practise of Islam to local populations. In part, this can be viewed as an opposition to the terrifying brutality that IS has inflicted on civilian populations, but also reflects AQ’s belief that local populations can be gradually brought round to supporting extremism and it isn’t necessary to impose it on them immediately. In this regard AQ is a more patient organisation and is willing to play out a long-term strategy to achieve its goal of establishing a caliphate.
By proving itself a capable military force, and engaging positively with local populations, JAN has integrated into Syria’s opposition. The gradualist strategy bore fruit earlier this year with the breakdown of peace talks between the opposition and the Assad regime. JAN refused to engage in the talks, lambasted the foreign-brokered deal and insisting that Assad must be removed by military means. The cessation of hostilities, and the reduction of violence, re-empowered mainstream opposition activists who originally sparked the initial Syrian uprising. Many returned to the streets and demonstrated in favour of freedom and democracy, provoking militant forces to violently break them up. This provides a key exemplification of how reliant JAN is on the continuing violence of the civil war and the grim spectre of Assad’s recapture of rebel-held territory. It is estimated that JAN recruited at least 3,000 Syrians between February and June once the peace talks failed to reach a political process. The slide towards JAN also surged after the involvement of Russia and the success of Hezbollah and other Shi’ite militias deployed by Iran and Assad. The surge of victories by these forces earlier in the year created a situation in which the immediacy of battle (and the expectation of massacres of Sunnis by almost entirely Shia forces) and failure of the political process bolstered JAN’s message that a peaceful process was impossible and they were the champions of Sunni resistance.
The nominal decoupling of the organisations is an attempt to satisfy twin goals. Firstly the tactical creation of a disincentive to stifle a much muted U.S agreement with Russia to jointly target JAN in Syria. Secondly, the strategic pursuit of deeper integration within the Syrian opposition, winning the hearts and minds of the people, and using controlled territory for the revival of AQ’s governance project.
In the days following Jolani’s announcement rebel forces in Aleppo launched an offensive to break the siege of their territory. Aleppo has been divided between the eastern rebel-held area and the regime controlled western area for years and previous rebel attempts to take the western part of the city have failed, while the regime has kept the east under a brutal siege. The population in the east have suffered from wretched starvation alongside regular Russian aerial attacks and regime barrel bombings. The offensive to break the siege included the broadest coalition of rebel forces yet seen in joint operations in Syria, with JFAS taking a leading role in fighting and coordination of operations. The majority of analysts have agreed that the Army of Conquest, a coalition of Islamist rebel groups led by Ahrar al-Sham, and JFAS played the leading role in the operations. The operation allowed food supplies to enter rebel held districts and saw jubilant reactions from local citizens. In a speech touting the victories, Jolani emphasised the unity of the rebels and promised the people of Aleppo that the mujahideen wouldn’t disappoint them.
The successful breaking of the siege by forces loyal to Jolani ceded to him an enormous amount of credibility amongst Aleppo’s citizens and Syria’s opposition movement at a time when one of the chief obstacles to Jolani’s organisation, it’s connection to AQ, has been superficially severed. The dire situations experienced by rebels and civilians on the ground may mean that the AQ-JAN split, artificial as it appears, leads to greater integration and reliance upon the new AQ Syrian organisation. It may also act to allow foreign backers of the rebel movement in Syria, particularly Qatar, to loosen restrictions on weaponry sent to areas in which JFAS has a significant presence.
For the Syrian regime, the breaking of the Syrian siege exposed the limits of its forces. The Syrian Arab Army is a threadbare organisation (a result of deaths, defections and frequent deployments) and soldiers, particularly Alawites, appear less determined to defend Aleppo (a hostile Sunni area) than greater Alawite populated cities such as Latakia, Homs and Damascus. The regime has increasingly relied upon Russian airstrikes and foreign proxy ground forces, such as Hezbollah’s elite Radwan battalion and Iraqi Shia militia Haraket Hezbollah al-Nujaba. These forces have long been present in the Syrian civil war and proven themselves capable of making large advances, but the lack of a native force capable of holding territory is a symptomatic of Assad’s overreliance on external allies. The regime and its allies responded to the breaking of the Aleppo siege in typical fashion, launching intense bombing raids of rebel-held Idlib using banned phosphorous weapons (rumoured to be napalm) and attacking rebel-held Aleppo districts with chemical weapons.
The developments in Aleppo have clear consequences for the Syrian civil war, and especially for the United States policy in Syria. The long-standing policy of the U.S has been to drive a wedge between extremists and other rebels, in particular targeting extremists with airstrikes. Aleppo has already bucked the effectiveness of this strategy as it has emphasised how militarily indispensible extremist groups remain to the rebel movement. Particularly troublesome is increased cooperation between Ahrar al-Sham and JFAS as evidenced in the Aleppo offensive, and the prospect this could create more formalised ties. Ahrar, a powerful and popular Salafi group founded by former Islamist prisoners released by Assad in 2011, espouses a militant extremist message but has gone to great lengths to portray itself as a moderate, nationalist force, including a New York Times Op-Ed and taking part in the failed peace talks.
The United States and Russia have been in talks to coordinate and launch joint aerial strikes on JAN targets. As recently as August 15th Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said they were edging closer to an agreement that would exclusively affect Aleppo. If the U.S and Russia were to reach an agreement that undertook airstrikes against, a now further, integrated Ahrar, JFAS and moderate force the U.S would invite virulent criticism from the Syrian opposition and empower JFAS. It would mean that the United States, seemingly content with the regime siege, and its attendant starvation, targeting of medicial facilities and use of chemical weapons, would be prepared to partner with a major enabler of the siege to bomb siege breaking forces. At a time when many Syrians criticise the U.S. for not doing more to protect Syrian civilians, it would represent a recruiting boon for JFAS and have a radicalising effect on the Syrian opposition.
The central dilemma facing the United States is developing a strategy that puts pressure on the Syrian regime and Russia in order to force a political transition without empowering JFAS and other undesirable elements of the Syrian opposition. Recently Turkey has softened its stance on Bashar al-Assad for the first time since the conflict began conceding that Assad could remain in charge through a political transition. This new position is recognition of Turkey’s reduced role in supporting the opposition as Erdogan cracks down internally following the failed coup and takes an increasingly active stand against Kurdish elements in Syria including the take over of Jarabalus. Turkish attacks on Syrian Kurdish elements further complicates U.S policy in the country as support for Kurdish forces battling extremist groups and Assad’s regime has been a consistently phalanx of Obama’s strategy for several years.
Obama’s policy in Syria has been influenced by his lack of desire to involve U.S troops (with the exception of special forces) in another Middle Eastern conflict, however he is likely to pass onto his successor several conflicts. While progress is being made in Iraq, with the caveat that much of IS’ longer term defeat will hinge on how inclusive a future Iraqi government is for the Sunni population, Syria remains a protracted conflict. The U.S. policy has focused on negotiating with the Russians in order to moderate the actions Putin is taking in Syria. However, this policy appears discredited. It has proven unable to halt or, discernably, reduce Russian and Assad aerial bombardment and use of internationally sanctioned weaponry. The result is that in the north of Syria, the United States is losing the battle for Syrian hearts and minds and risks the entire region capitulating to extremist organisations as the last resort of defence against Assad. For the remainder of his term, Obama will continue to prioritise the fight against IS in both Iraq and Syria, and proceed in negotiations with Russia. Short-term ceasefires allowing aid and supplies into civilians areas would be significant and represent a diplomatic success, however they will go no further to resolving the crisis. It appears, at least for the time being, that Russia and Iran are willing to maintain Assad until they have firmed the regime’s position before potentially jettisoning him. For Obama, and any incoming administration, the removal of Assad must be of primary concern. Assad has shown himself to be an especially brutal dictator, with the deliberate targeting of medical facilities and deployment of chemical weapons merely the tip of the iceberg of his regime’s depravity. It is because of these two features that any settlement in Syria must not include him. He has consistently, and brazenly, broken international conventions on the use of chemical weaponry and committed some of the most serious violations since Saddam Hussein post-Kuwait. International institutions, particularly organisations such as UN and others upholding international legal standards, face a troubling future as they appear out of step with today’s geopolitical balance of power and less able to influence actors. If the United States is still committed to leading a truly global world order via collective institutions and values then it must be prepared to show a firmer hand with Russia in their negotiations and ensure that Assad is remove from power in Syria. Failure to remove Assad will result in the indefinite continuation of the Syrian civil war, Syria becoming more entrenched as global terrorisms go to destination or a series of massacres by Assad’s forces.