TSG IntelBrief: Extremists and Rebels Battle for Northern Syria
February 10, 2015

Extremists and Rebels Battle for Northern Syria

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Bottom Line Up Front:

 • Amid reports the Islamic State is withdrawing from parts of Aleppo, the fighting in northern Syria has increasingly become Turkey’s regional battlefield

• With the pullback of the Islamic State from some locations, the battlefield in northern Syria is being divided into two camps: al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and a rebel umbrella group called al-Jabhat al-Shamiyah, which contains both extremist and comparatively more moderate fighting factions

• The decline of the Islamic State near Aleppo, Idlib, and other areas does not mean that the group is in its death throes nor that extremism is in retreat; it is simply changing its name.

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Reports that the Islamic State is repositioning its resources away from Aleppo—an important city in northern Syria over which the group has been battling with al-Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), as well as other rebel groups and the Assad regime—is an indication of how the northern battlefield is shifting. With the relative decline of the Islamic State in the area, the territory is now being divided between two main groups: JN, the official affiliate of al-Qaeda in Syria, and an umbrella rebel group called al-Jabhat al-Shamiyah, which is under the influence—if not guidance of—neighboring Turkey.

It is important to state upfront that the situation in Syria is so complicated yet so important to global stability as to make the situation in Iraq look benign. Late last year, JN, which had previously focused on fighting the Syrian government more so than other rebel groups, fought and won against the coalition-backed group led by Jamal Maarouf in the area around Idlib. That was the first stage of JN’s battle against the “Army of the Moderates,” its pejorative term for the coalition-backed rebel groups that have steadily lost influence and territory in the area. When the Maarouf group collapsed, another much more extremist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham benefited by absorbing many of Maarouf’s members. That group suffered a grievous blow last September when many of its senior leaders were killed in a bombing, which ended up with the Turkish-leaning faction of the group in a stronger position. This is important because Turkey, by proximity and design, is the most influential actor in northern Syria. For example, Turkey seems to entrust Ahrar al-Sham with the border-crossing at the town of Bab al-Hawa.

One group that has benefited from Maarouf’s difficulties was Harakat al-Hazm, to which many of his followers fled, and which then became the target of JN’s next offensive. JN has decided that al-Hazm is next on its strategic list of competition to eliminate, and has engaged in serious fighting with the group. Many of al-Hazm’s members are now flocking to al-Jahbat al-Shamiyah, which is becoming the main rebel alternative to JN in the north. The battles between JN and Maarouf and Hazm are benefiting al-Shamiyah and Ahrar al-Sham. The latter groups appear to be more Turkish-leaning, so it seems that Turkey is playing an increasingly influential role in the shifting dynamics in northern Syria. This puts Turkey into a commanding position as it relates to the rebel forces fighting Assad, which is Turkey’s primary objective, not extremism.

It remains to be seen if al-Jabhat al-Shamiyah and JN will truly fight over northern Syria. Both groups are primarily interested in defeating the Assad regime and not in fighting each other. Even while fighting groups like Hazm, one of JN’s senior leadership, Abu Maria al-Qahtani, has made gestures towards wanting to work with Turkey against Assad, which suggests perhaps that the group won’t press its fight against rebel groups while simultaneously skirmishing against them. Allegiances and power dynamics switch weekly depending on who is perceived to be in a position of power. Rebel groups are playing the short-term game, seeking advantage whenever and wherever, while regional actors such as Turkey, Iran, and al-Qaeda are playing the long game. Western-trained and equipped groups, whenever they arrive in numbers, will walk into a battlefield in which they are almost irrelevant given that the real moves have already been made by other actors. The battlefield is shifting in northern Syria and Turkey’s role in bringing to the fore groups outside JN is becoming more visible.

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