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The United States and therefore the international Coalition is about to step up its operations against Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), al-Qaeda’s recently rebranded Syrian branch. This is a necessary policy, but pursued in isolation—without replacing the capacities that JFS provides to the insurgency—this action will strengthen the coalition supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the actors chiefly responsible for the humanitarian abomination in Syria that has deliberately given rise to the security menace of the Islamic State (IS) and the flow of refugees into Europe that has destabilized Western security. Assad’s coalition also includes the Islamic Republic of Iran, a more significant global terrorism threat than IS which has repeatedly attacked the West.
The first airstrikes by the then-nascent anti-IS Coalition into Syria in September 2014 were actually against JFS, at that time known as Jabhat al-Nusra, and specifically against the al-Qaeda “core” element within al-Nusra dubbed “The Khorasan Group”. There have since been sporadic attacks against the Khorasannites and al-Nusra/JFS more broadly. The two most notable recent cases were the strike at the beginning of October that killed Ahmad Salama Mabruk (Abu Faraj al-Masri), a veteran al-Qaeda member with an extensive history at senior levels of the network, and the elimination of Jaysh al-Fatah commander in Aleppo, Usama Nammoura (Abu Umar al-Saraqib) the month before that. It now appears this campaign is to be escalated.
The most interesting of these is al-Muhaysini. With an enormous social media following and access to considerable financial networks, al-Muhaysini has long been a prominent cleric within the jihadi-salafist part of the insurgency in Syria, compared by some to Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian mentor of Usama bin Ladin who issued the ruling after the Soviet conquest of Afghanistan that mobilized the Arab jihadists against the Red Army’s occupation.
Al-Muhaysini has always maintained that he is independent of any one faction. There have always been good reasons to doubt this. It was evident that al-Muhaysini was favourably disposed to al-Qaeda, and had connections with the network. Al-Muhaysini is a student of Sulayman al-Alwan, for example, whose mosque in the Qassim Province, in the Najdi heartland of Wahhabism in Arabia, was known to have played a significant part in radicalizing two of the 9/11 killers, Saeed al-Ghamdi and Mohand al-Shehri, and had contact with an associate of a third, Hani Hanjour. In Syria, al-Muhaysini’s public statements and activities have always closely tracked al-Qaeda’s. So the confirmation from the U.S. Treasury that al-Muhaysini is al-Qaeda’s man is welcome.
These designations are part of a new push against al-Qaeda in Syria.
It was also reported yesterday:
Obama’s new order gives the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, wider authority and additional intelligence-collection resources to go after al-Nusra’s broader leadership, not just al-Qaeda veterans or those directly involved in external plotting. … In the president’s Daily Brief, the most highly classified intelligence report produced by U.S. spy agencies, Obama was repeatedly told over the summer that [al-Nusra/JFS] was allowing al-Qaeda leaders from Pakistan and Afghanistan to create in northwest Syria the largest haven for the network since it was scattered after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Officials also warned Obama that al-Nusra could try to fill the void as its rival, the Islamic State, lost ground.
Activists and JFS itself have reported that the U.S. got off to a running start with an airstrike in Idlib Province yesterday, though the increased use of U.S. armed drones in north-western Syria goes back to September, according to military officials. The last reported Coalition strike in Idlib was on 2 November, very oddly claiming to have hit an IS target. This was the second time in a month such a claim had been made. IS has not had a presence in Idlib since it was expelled by the rebellion in the early months of 2014.
The problem with the policy, apart from the Pentagon’s worry that turning to al-Qaeda in a serious way will remove resources from the counter-IS fight, was expressed by several dissenters within the administration:
Many of al-Nusra’s fighters are Syrians who joined the group because of its ample supply of weapons and cash, and its commitment to defeating Assad, not to plot against the West. … U.S. officials who opposed the decision to go after al-Nusra’s wider leadership warned that the United States would effectively be doing the Assad government’s bidding … The strikes, these officials warned, could backfire on the United States by bolstering the group’s standing, helping it attract more recruits and resources.
The counter-terrorism focus of the Obama administration is self-defeating on its own terms. JFS has taken great pains to embed itself, vanguard-style, within the Syrian revolution, by among other things providing military capabilities and government services, precisely in order to shield itself from Western reprisals. To defeat JFS requires disentangling JFS from the rebellion, which cannot be done with airstrikes. Rather, mainstream armed opposition groups have to be empowered out of dependency on JFS.
The attempt to attack JFS in isolation from all other considerations was a primary flaw in the misconceived ceasefire agreement the U.S. worked out with Russia: the plan was to threaten rebels to move away from JFS. A defeat for JFS would remove a pillar of insurgent strength, allowing the regime back in. It was therefore a simple matter of protecting themselves and their families that led the rebels to refuse the instruction to separate from JFS.
“Most Syrians living in opposition areas now view al-Qaeda as a more trustworthy and capable protector of their lives than the United States,” Charles Lister wrote recently. And the opposition have hardly been mistaken thus far. This consideration is also why the optics of this change in JFS policy right now are so negative, with Russia preparing a “final” assault on rebel-held eastern Aleppo City—and the U.S. doing nothing about it, indeed diverting attention to enabling a PKK-led offensive against Raqqa. Expanded U.S. anti-JFS operations at this moment—in the wake of the failed ceasefire and in airspace co-occupied with the Russians—looks a lot like the U.S. directly collaborating with Russia to crush the Syrian opposition. The fact that the U.S. continues to target Sunni jihadists while doing nothing about the flow of Iranian-controlled Shi’a jihadists fighting for Assad underlines the view that the U.S. has sided against the rebellion in Syria.
It is both inevitable and desirable that al-Qaeda’s leading operatives in Syria, especially those planning attacks against the West, should be more systematically sought and neutralized. But this cannot destroy JFS; the group has to be uprooted by the revolutionary societies it has tangled itself into. More to the point, even if JFS could be destroyed by Western air power, if that policy is not accompanied by a qualitative increase in support to the vetted rebel groups to make up the difference it would enable the advance of the pro-Assad coalition—a disastrous outcome for Western interests.
The pro-Assad coalition bears the overwhelming responsibility for murder and ethnic cleansing in Syria. An increase in the territory where the pro-regime forces are able to inflict terror and slaughter is nothing to celebrate, even in selfish terms since this barbaric behaviour has caused a refugee flow into Europe that Russia has been able to use to damage Western unity, including NATO. The regime and its backers have also cynically enabled the growth of IS as a means of increasing Western political tolerance for the preservation of the regime, not something it seems wise to reward. And the pro-Assad coalition, specifically the Iranian component of it, is a terrorism threat in its own right. If JFS falls back and pro-regime troops move in in northern Syria, they will largely be foreign Shi’a jihadists tied into Tehran’s global terrorist network that has struck Western interests around the world for more than three decades.