Are Syrian Islamists moving to counterbalance al Qaeda? Will it last?

Charles Lister writes: On March 22, the Syrian insurgency witnessed the latest in a series of mergers, when the Islamist Suqor al-Sham faction effectively subsumed itself into one of the country’s most powerful organizations, Ahrar al-Sham. Both groups had been amongst the very first armed groups to form in Syria in mid-2011 and although Suqor al-Sham has reduced in size over the past 12-months, both have consistently been amongst the most consequential actors in the fight against the Assad regime. Following the union, Ahrar al-Sham now finds itself in command of approximately 15,000 fighters across Syria, with active operations in 10 of Syria’s 14 governorates.

This merger was only the latest sign that Ahrar al-Sham has begun re-asserting its preeminent position within the broader Syrian insurgency. Although its membership had not necessarily declined throughout 2014, the year had been a challenging one due in part to a serious cut back in funding and support from Qatar and Turkey and also to the group’s key role in fighting against the Islamic State (IS), alongside its military ally Jabhat al-Nusra — Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.

This latter alliance with Jabhat al-Nusra has been a consistent facet of insurgent dynamics in Syria, but not only in terms of conservative Salafist groups like Ahrar al-Sham. In fact, while rarely acknowledged explicitly in public, the vast majority of the Syrian insurgency has coordinated closely with Al-Qaeda since mid-2012 – and to great effect on the battlefield. But while this pragmatic management of relationships may have secured opposition military victories against the regime, it has also come at an extraordinary cost. The assimilation of Al-Qaeda into the broader insurgency has discouraged the U.S. and its European allies from more definitively backing the ‘moderate’ opposition. That, by extension, has encouraged the intractability of the conflict we see today and the rise of jihadist factions like Jabhat al-Nusra, IS, and many others.

Now finding themselves involved in the fifth year of a brutal civil conflict that has left at least 220,000 people dead, displaced 10 million others inside and outside the country, and trapped over 640,000 under military siege, the strategic thinking within the Syrian insurgency is subtly shifting. Since October and November 2014, the leaderships of countless Syrian insurgent groups — encompassing ‘moderate’ Free Syrian Army (FSA), mainstream Islamists and hardline Syrian Salafists — have been expressing private concern in person to this author regarding the worrying evolution of their long-time ally Jabhat al-Nusra. Back in November 2014, an Ahrar al-Sham leader described the group as leading the revolution “down the wrong path,” while a moderate Islamist from Aleppo exclaimed that “Nusra no longer wants what we want — Al-Qaeda is taking over.”

Despite inaccurate reports that the latest merger of Ahrar al-Sham and Suqor al-Sham represented a hardening of the group’s ideological stance, the unity initiative has instead been described to this author by several Syrian Islamist officials as a conscious attempt to balance Jabhat al-Nusra’s growing power, particularly in the northwest governorate of Idlib. [Continue reading…]

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