Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate is grappling with its identity

Charles Lister writes: In a three-hour lightening assault launched on the evening of Thursday 28 May, a coalition of Syrian opposition fighters successfully captured the last remaining major regime-held town in the governorate of Idlib. In taking control of Ariha, the largely Islamist Jaish al-Fateh coalition and its allied Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions have successfully imposed a near-total province-wide strategic defeat upon the Bashar al-Assad regime.

With Idlib therefore effectively out of regime control — with the exception of the now isolated Abu Duhour Airbase and several small pockets of villages — opposition attention can now shift south to Hama, west to the regime stronghold of Latakia, and east to Syria’s largest city of Aleppo. All seem likely candidates.

Parts of northern Latakia are now dangerously exposed and one of the leading Islamist commanders active there has told this author to expect “a lot of surprises” in the coming weeks. Other insurgent commanders say a large multi-group operations room is in the midst of being formed in Aleppo amid escalating fighting south of the city. “We’re feeling more confident than ever and sooner or later, the regime will experience the consequences of that — Idlib was just the first stage of a more comprehensive plan,” claimed one prominent Islamist commander now in Idlib. However, a renewed Islamic State (IS) offensive north of Aleppo may prove a dangerous distraction to the implementation of the next stages of that more ‘comprehensive plan.’

A majority of the media coverage of Jaish al-Fateh’s advances across Idlib has focused on the role of al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra over and above the part played by Syrian opposition factions. Admittedly, Jabhat al-Nusra and its close ally Jund al-Aqsa have indeed played a key role in frontline operations in Ariha and previous battles in Idlib city, Jisr al-Shughour, Al-Mastouma and many other Idlib fronts. However, according to interviews with multiple commanders involved in Jaish al-Fateh operations, it has in fact been more expressly Syrian factions that have lent the most combined manpower and led much of the decision making within the operations room. Faylaq al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham — two groups increasingly close at both leadership and ground level — have been particularly central. Moreover, none of the major victories in Idlib since early-April would have been possible without the crucial rearguard actions of U.S.– and Western-backed FSA units and their externally-supplied artillery shells, mortars and American-manufactured BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missile systems.

Thus the reality on the ground is more complex than YouTube videos and media headlines would suggest. As this author revealed in early-May, the depth of coordination between Western-backed FSA factions, Islamists, Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadists has increased markedly in Idlib since April, both due to a natural need for cooperation on the ground, but also thanks to a tacit order to do so from the U.S.- and Saudi-led coordination room in southern Turkey. Having spoken extensively with leading commanders from across the Syrian spectrum in recent weeks, it is clear this cooperation has at least partly been motivated by a desire to ensure victories in Idlib do not become strategic gains for al Qaeda. After all, it has been starkly clear since the summer of 2014 that Idlib in particular represents Jabhat al-Nusra’s most valuable powerbase. [Continue reading…]

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