Sep 5, 2019 – Press ISW By Jennifer Cafarella and Emily Estelle
Al Qaeda’s senior leadership reinvigorated its effort to unite anti-Assad groups into a single military force in northwest Syria after Russia enabled the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad to break a months-long stalemate in northwest Syria in August 2019. Greater cooperation between two separate al Qaeda–linked operations rooms in Idlib may indicate these forces will attempt to implement this directive despite a long history of failed attempts to unify.
Russian special forces and pro-Assad militias seized Khan Sheikhoun, an urban center on the M5 highway connecting Damascus to Aleppo, on August 22. The advance is a major win for Assad, Russia, and Iran after a months-long, grueling stalemate had imposed heavy casualties on the pro-Assad forces. Further regime gains threaten to constrict al Qaeda’s governing project in Idlib to a smaller corner of northwest Syria, west of the M5 highway. It is thus a major threat to al Qaeda’s project, but it is also an opportunity for al Qaeda to reinvigorate and possibly unify the Salafi-jihadi movement in Syria. The renewed military pressure has stimulated al Qaeda’s global recruitment and fundraising for operations in Syria. It has also enabled senior al Qaeda leaders to try unifying anti-Assad forces again after years of infighting.
Al Qaeda’s General Command issued a call for mobilization in Syria on August 15 to halt the regime’s advance into Idlib province. It directed fighters to return to the model of Jaysh al Fatah, the joint operations room that seized Idlib city in March 2015 and threatened the regime’s control in Hama province, farther south, and in the Syrian coast in Latakia province. Russia’s intervention in Syria in September 2015 sought to halt and reverse this serious threat to Assad’s survival. Senior al Qaeda commanders in Syria led Jaysh al Fatah, which included participation from U.S.-backed groups and was the high-water mark to date for unified military effort in northwest Syria. By referencing Jaysh al Fatah, al Qaeda’s General Command is harkening back to that period of victory in Syria to stimulate a new period of cooperation.
Al Qaeda has always supported multiple Salafi-jihadi groups in Syria to generate a diverse Salafi-jihadi movement that it can lead and that it calculates can replace the pro-democracy rebellion over time. Intense infighting and disagreements have emerged in Syria between these groups, occasionally disrupting their cooperation. Much of this infighting relates to the question of what concessions are permissible to grant to Syrian opposition groups and external actors, such as Turkey, to leverage their help. The statement from al Qaeda’s General Command is an instruction to the Salafi-jihadi forces in Syria that it supports setting aside these arguments in favor of marshaling a more coherent military response to the pro-Assad advance. It also gives permission and enticement to al Qaeda leaders in Syria, such as Abu Mohammed al Joulani, who have sought to mask the extent of their role in al Qaeda to openly collaborate with more overtly globalist Salafi-jihadis.
A new Jaysh al Fatah would require greater cooperation between groups currently spread across two separate operations rooms: Incite the Believers, which includes the al Qaeda–linked Hurras al Din, and Fatah al Mubin, which includes the al Qaeda–linked Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS) and Turkish-backed opposition forces. Hurras al Din’s leaders include senior al Qaeda figures who have resisted cooperation with Fatah al Mubin due to disputes over leadership and Turkish support. These two operations rooms (Incite the Believers and Fatah al Mubin) both announced the start of a counterattack against pro-Assad forces on August 27, their first publicized coordination in northwest Syria since each was formed. It may indicate expanded coordination will follow. However, Russia announced a cease-fire in Idlib on August 30. It does not apply to al Qaeda–linked groups but indicates Russia will now attempt to renegotiate with Turkey and possibly Europe for a new deal in Idlib before resuming military operations.
Veteran al Qaeda figures both inside and outside of Syria continue to invest in shaping the actions of al Qaeda–linked groups in Idlib. Al Qaeda General Command eulogized Sari Shihab (aka Abu Khaled al Muhandis), a Jordanian Hurras al Din leader and senior al Qaeda militant who was assassinated in Idlib city on August 22. Shihab was an associate of al Qaeda in Iraq founder Abu Musab al Zarqawi and was related by marriage to senior al Qaeda official Saif al Adel. Shihab and Adel were two of five senior al Qaeda members released from Iran in 2015 after al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula kidnapped an Iranian diplomat in Yemen to facilitate the hostage exchange. A statement attributed to Adel on August 14 warned that Turkey seeks to compromise al Qaeda’s effort in Syria. The statement is an example of the ongoing argument at senior leadership levels over how to proceed in Idlib.
American strikes on al Qaeda operatives planning external attacks from Idlib may disrupt greater cooperation between groups in northwest Syria. Concern over drawing U.S. strikes has encouraged Syrian opposition groups to resist greater unification with al Qaeda–linked groups in the past. U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) conducted a strike targeting al Qaeda leadership planning an attack “threatening U.S. citizens and partners” north of Idlib on August 31. The strike targeted members of the al Qaeda–linked Ansar al Tawhid and possibly Hurras al Din. CENTCOM previously struck an al Qaeda cell planning an external attack at a facility near Aleppo in northwestern Syria on June 30.