TSG IntelBrief: Al-Qaeda Strengthens its Grip in Syria
July 25, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• The battle against the Islamic State in Raqqa is not to be the most consequential ongoing fight in Syria.
• In the last rebel-held province, a coalition dominated by an erstwhile al-Qaeda group has been fighting to expel Ahrar al-Sham, a once powerful Islamist rebel group.
• Turkey has sent rebel fighters from its Operation Euphrates Shield to support Ahrar al-Sham, a sign of how serious it takes the situation on its border.
• While the dominant rebel groups fight in Idlib, the U.S. is reconfiguring its positions on the ground in Syria, to include greater cooperation with Russia.
The last rebel-held province in Syria, Idlib, is now the scene of rebel infighting that is of far greater significance than the usual disunion among Syria’s fractured coalition of rebel groups. In the last week, almost one hundred rebel fighters have been killed in clashes between Ahrar al-Sham—an Islamist rebel group that displays varying degrees of moderation and violent extremism, and is supported strongly by Turkey—and a group called Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham—one dominated by the former Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra. The al-Qaeda-led group now controls the city of Idlib and much of the villages in the northern part of the province that shares a border with Turkey.
While much of the international attention toward Syria has been understandably focused on the battle for Raqqa, the fighting in Idlib is likely more consequential as to the future of the seven-year rebel fight against the Assad regime. The rebellion has long been marked by tactical ebbs and flows of groups with different degrees of connection to international terrorist organizations. The overall trend benefitted groups such as the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda in Syria, regardless of attempts by these groups to obscure their connections to international terrorism through repeated name changes and rebranding exercises. Ahrar al-Sham had been perhaps the strongest and broadest of the seemingly countless rebel umbrella groups, and has long been supported by Turkey and several Gulf countries. Ahrar al-Sham’s losses in Idlib, which is now the heart and center of the rebel movement, along with the rapidly growing strength of Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham—a designated terrorist group—has elevated concern from Ankara to Washington.
Last week, Turkey sent approximately 150 Syrian rebel fighters from its Operation Euphrates Shield, which was aimed at fighting the Islamic State and Kurdish groups along Turkey’s southern border, to help Ahrar al-Sham. The additional fighters traveled through the crucial Bab al-Hawa border crossing, control of which Ahrar al-Sham has now effectively lost. A cease fire between Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham has been announced, but it is unlikely to last.
The prospect of a sustained de facto governing presence by al-Qaeda in Idlib is a grave national security concern. The prospect may lead to U.S. airstrikes, though the air space over Idlib is far more complicated and crowded than over Raqqa. Idlib is just to the east of Latakia, an Assad regime stronghold with a sizable Russian military presence; Turkey’s air force is also quite active along the border. The U.S. has struck against al-Qaeda-related forces in Syria before, but for the last several years it has primarily focused on the Islamic State further to the east.
Along with the unfolding intra-rebel conflict in Idlib, the U.S. is in the process of shifting its own priorities in Syria. The Trump administration appears to have made cooperation with Russia—in the name of counterterrorism, however problematic that phrase is when dealing with Russia’s actions in Syria—an element of its new direction. The ceasefire in southwest Syria that began in early July suggests the two rivals have moved from ‘deconfliction’ to tenuous cooperation. The U.S. has always sought to limit its involvement in Syria to the fight against the Islamic State (the Trump administration last week announced the shutting down of a relatively ineffective CIA program to arm rebel groups), and is now moving to work with Russia in that fight, with unclear long-term consequences.
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