Al-Qaeda’s Turning Against its Syrian Affiliate

By Charles Lister | Senior Fellow - The Middle East Institute | May 18, 2017
Al-Qaeda’s Turning Against its Syrian Affiliate

“There are really big problems right now,” a conservative Islamist cleric close to Syria’s armed opposition told me – “al-Qaeda is trying to create a new loyal faction in Idlib, but that’s being prevented by al-Hayat.” As this influential cleric and four other similarly well-connected Islamist opposition figures have described to me in recent days, al-Qaeda’s central leadership is growing increasingly exasperated at its former Syrian affiliate – now named Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (H.T.S.), after a second rebrand in January 2017 – and is now actively seeking to build a rival movement more loyal to al-Qaeda’s transnational brand and strategic vision. “al-Qaeda disagrees very strongly about Tahrir al-Sham’s vision and is giving up on rescuing it,” one senior Islamist military commander told me. All five sources spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, given the sensitivity of the subject, and given a recent uptick in assassinations and threats in Syria’s northwest.

According to these sources, al-Qaeda’s central leadership outside Syria no longer considers H.T.S. as its official affiliate for two reasons: because, according to al-Qaeda’s standards, H.T.S. has accepted insufficient levels of purity in its structure, rhetoric, vision, and practice and because its core leadership has allegedly violated its oath of religious loyalty to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The roots of this conflict of strategies date back at least to July 2016, when the publicly acknowledged al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra chose to rebrand as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (J.F.S.) and claimed to have severed its external ties to al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda’s deputy leader, Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, who was based in Syria, permitted and then publicly blessed the move at the time.

However, multiple al-Qaeda linked figures have since revealed publicly that Zawahiri had not been consulted. When he discovered his Syrian affiliate had become J.F.S. through a claimed break with al-Qaeda, he rejected the change and discord duly ensued. “Zawahiri has had no direct contact with [Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani] since late-2014 – everything has been done through intermediaries,” a prominent Islamist cleric who frequently meets with H.T.S.’s leadership, told me. “This is a big problem… Jolani has made his own decisions many times, without Zawahiri’s permission. This isn’t the first problem they have had, but it is the most significant.”

A recent audio statement by Zawahiri released on April 23 that was addressed to fighters in Syria relayed a stark warning against pursuing a Syria-focused agenda – an image that the Nusra-to-J.F.S.-to-H.T.S. evolution has explicitly sought to project – and called on them to correct their “mistakes” and re-embrace an internationalist agenda in order to secure “victory.” It was hard not to see this as being an explicit rejection of J.F.S.’s and now H.T.S.’s attempts to present itself as an Islamic movement seeking solely Syrian objectives.

“[Some] wish to deceive you into buying the myth that only if you were to change your jihad to an exclusively nationalist Syrian struggle, the leading international criminals would be pleased with you… critical assessment and correction of mistakes is the first step in the path to victory.”

It is no secret that Jabhat al-Nusra’s rebrand to J.F.S. was deeply unpopular within the group’s most senior and hardline, al-Qaeda committed circles. In fact, as people who were in the room told me at the time, in the final vote within Jabhat al-Nusra’s shura council, nearly half of its leadership voted no. Afterwards, almost a dozen senior leaders either quit the group altogether, or refused to assume positions of authority within J.F.S. Since then, several major figures have publicly defected and proclaimed their opposition to the rebranding as having represented a slippery slope, or a concessionary erosion of the group’s purity for the sake of Syrian opposition support.

Several of these dissenting figures are, I’m told, now centrally involved in al-Qaeda’s attempts to create a new Syria-based faction. These include veteran jihadist figures Iyad al-Tubasi (Abu Julaybib) and Sami al-Oraydi – the first being a long-time aide to the original founder of ISIS, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the latter, a Jordanian cleric close to al-Qaeda ideologues Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filistini. “They are some of the most important,” one commander in Ahrar al-Sham claimed to me. “They’ve been meeting with frustrated [H.T.S.] fighters for some time, to gain their trust. This is exactly what Daesh (ISIS) did before arriving in Syria, trying to undermine their rival in order to gain power.”

It’s Not All Easy

Al-Qaeda has already lost one affiliate in the context of the conflict in Syria (ISIS in 2013), but to lose a second would be a very significant blow to its global jihadi standing. So how did this state of affairs come to be?

Two years ago, it would not have been an exaggeration to say that Jabhat al-Nusra was al-Qaeda’s most successful ever affiliate. By mid-2015, the group had built a highly capable fighting force of approximately 8,000-10,000 militants spread across Syria and since late-2012, it had been a lead force in virtually all major opposition victories against the Assad regime. Moreover, through the first half of 2015, Jabhat al-Nusra had jointly spearheaded a rapid series of major victories in Syria’s northwest province of Idlib and appeared to enjoy widespread acceptance and support within broader Syrian opposition circles. The group’s military success paired with its relative restraint in extremist behavior—at least in comparison to other affiliates elsewhere in in the world—placed al-Qaeda in a prime position to manage some kind of sustainable jihadi project in Syria. Moreover, with al-Qaeda’s central leadership under pressure and in hiding in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Jabhat al-Nusra’s success in Syria also heralded an invaluable opportunity to redeploy and revitalize substantial portions of al-Qaeda’s global leadership on Syrian soil, ideally positioned along Europe’s border.

From late-2015 however, Jabhat al-Nusra found itself facing a number of interlinked challenges that threatened to slow or even potentially reverse its long-maintained period of methodical success. The most impactful of these challenges were developments inside Jabhat al-Nusra itself; within Syria’s broader political and armed opposition; and between external stakeholders in the Syrian conflict. All three of these factors, and more, imposed complications upon al-Qaeda’s ability to sustain the nature and trajectory of its long-term strategy in Syria. This was also compounded by the extent to which Jabhat al-Nusra’s use of ‘controlled pragmatism’ was capable of securing further, irreversible broad-spectrum opposition buy-in. Al-Qaeda has called this latter objective ‘uniting the ranks.’ In other words, al-Qaeda hoped that its Syrian affiliate would eventually build enough trust and credibility inside Syria that a majority of the people in at least one geographic region of the country would unite under its banner.

However, as Jabhat al-Nusra gained more influence militarily on the battlefield, it found itself struggling to achieve broad spectrum political and social buy-in from opposition communities in its midst. Having identified publicly as an affiliate of al-Qaeda since its split with ISIS in April 2013, it was increasingly clear from early-2016 that it was the controversial nature of the transnational, extremist al-Qaeda brand, and Jabhat al-Nusra’s acknowledged link to it, that was the factor preventing further progress toward a uniting of the ranks.

When Jabhat al-Nusra religious leaders and several Turkey-based clerics close to al-Qaeda initiated a brief process of consultation with independent Syrian Islamist figures in mid-2016 on the prospects for an Islamic emirate in northern Syria, the group was met with near-unanimous rejection. That served as a stark reminder of the limited progress that had been made in converting the non-Nusra Islamist circles over to Jabhat al-Nusra’s vision for Syria. The key concern raised during the consultation was that the establishment of an emirate was more likely to be motivated by al-Qaeda’s international agenda, than by the interests of the Syrian opposition.

Jolani’s Gamble and Rebrand No.1

The strong pushback experienced during that brief phase of consultation catalyzed a period of introspection, at least within the circles of Jabhat al-Nusra commonly referred to as the “doves.” These were individuals like former Nusra deputy leader, Abu Mariya al-Qahtani, and Aleppo emir, Abdullah al-Sanadi, as well as recently expelled founding member, Saleh al-Hamawi, who had long pushed for Jabhat al-Nusra to embrace an even more nationally-focused, community-sensitive approach to winning hearts and minds in Syria. Through June and early-July 2016, these “doves” had conducted an intensive lobbying effort alongside a diverse group of independent Islamic figures, aimed at forcing Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani to distance himself from al-Qaeda through a breaking of extra-Syrian ties. As part of this lobbying effort, Hamawi, Sanadi, Qahtani and others had, as they told me at the time, acquired the support of more than 3,000 Nusra fighters in northern Syria. By mid-July, Hamawi told me, Jolani was effectively faced with an ultimatum: “either disengage [from al-Qaeda] and merge with Islamic factions, or face isolation socially, politically and militarily.”

Almost immediately, the subject was raised at a gathering of Nusra’s shura council and, despite intensive disagreement and a virtual 50:50 split, the group decided to rebrand after al-Qaeda’s deputy leader gave his blessing. Those who had led the lobbying effort considered the blessing official al-Qaeda permission—something that now appears to have been somewhat premature. This move was Jolani’s gamble. The rebrand and claim to have severed external ties to al-Qaeda was primarily intended to convince more Syrian oppositionists that J.F.S. was solely interested in the Syrian cause and not with an international jihadi agenda. Though some in the U.S. considered it to be so, it was not an attempt to remove the group’s U.S. terrorist designation.

Jolani’s gamble failed. Three subsequent separate initiatives to seek broader opposition mergers—a ‘uniting of the ranks’—ended in acrimony throughout the second half of 2016. In fact, Jabhat al-Nusra’s most loyal and invaluable military partner, a Syrian Salafist group known as Ahrar al-Sham, turned out to be the most difficult to convince. The third unity initiative ended especially bitterly, with J.F.S. figures accusing Ahrar al-Sham of being a puppet of foreign powers (read: Turkey).

Pre-Emptive Offense and Rebrand No.2

The Turkish angle was especially important, as Ankara had shifted to a posture of prioritizing its own national security interests, frequently at the expense of the Syrian opposition. Aleppo city fell to the Assad regime, Iran, and Russia in late-December 2016, thanks in large part to a Turkish deal with Moscow. After the agreement, Turkey stopped supporting Aleppo’s opposition in exchange for permission to intervene against ISIS and the Kurdish YPG in Aleppo’s northern countryside. That Turkish intervention—known as Euphrates Shield—was supported by virtually all of Syria’s northern opposition, leaving J.F.S. isolated after they refused to do so. In fact, J.F.S.  vehemently opposed Euphrates Shield and groups involved in it. They labeled these groups —including Ahrar al-Sham—potential threats to Syria’s revolution and, behind the scenes, threatened to attack them.

That threat was realized in January 2017, when J.F.S. launched coordinated attacks on U.S.-vetted and Turkish-backed opposition groups in Idlib and Aleppo’s western countryside. By this point, J.F.S.’s military allies in the Syrian opposition had increased their role in Euphrates Shield and had begun to attend Russian-sponsored negotiations in Kazakhstan. J.F.S. also feared that Turkey was coercing opposition groups into considering an externally-backed offensive against its forces in Idlib. Those fears were not entirely unfounded. As early as August 2016, all of Syria’s main opposition groups in Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo were attending frequent meetings with Turkish intelligence, many of which focused on the feasibility of anti-J.F.S. operations in Idlib. Multiple opposition leaders informed me of these meetings as they happened throughout late-2016.

Nevertheless, J.F.S.’s assaults on northwestern Syria’s opposition in January 2017 sparked more complications for J.F.S. Multiple groups chose to join Ahrar al-Sham for their own protection, lending Ahrar at least 8,000 additional fighters. Within this tense context, Ahrar al-Sham and J.F.S. clashed repeatedly, with the former threatening on multiple occasions—in public and in private—to declare war on J.F.S. As tensions rose further, roughly 1,000 Ahrar al-Sham fighters and at least a dozen leaders defected to J.F.S. With these new recruits and the addition of four other opposition groups, J.F.S. then established an entirely new jihadi movement: H.T.S. The new movement named defected Ahrar al-Sham figure, Hashem al-Sheikh (Abu Jaber), its new leader.

Thus, over the course of 6 months, Jabhat al-Nusra had controversially, though peacefully, rebranded itself to J.F.S. (in July 2016) and then aggressively established an entirely new movement through a violence-induced merger (in January 2017). While Zawahiri was seemingly excluded from the first move, he had nothing at all to do with the second. In a short period of time, the group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra grew in size and consolidated its territorial holdings, but greatly damaged its reputation within Syria’s opposition. Having formed H.T.S. alongside hardline dissenting elements of Ahrar al-Sham and four other opposition groups, this new jihadi movement had become something completely new.

In the months since, H.T.S. has sought to revive its military and political standing. It established a political office, conducted unilateral and high-profile military operations, intensified efforts in governance and service provision, and has even allegedly sent an envoy to Qatar to establish a political relationship. These steps have not improved H.T.S.’s image inside Syria, but its willingness to aggressively defend its interests and its superior military capabilities appear to have ensured its strong position in Idlib. More recently, it expanded tax and customs duties collections, suggesting that they may require additional funds to maintain its enhanced involvement in governance.

Divergent Models

There are two key takeaways from this complex state of affairs. First, the evolution of Jabhat al-Nusra to H.T.S. was based on an assumption that certain actions were necessary to sustain the group’s long-term project in northern Syria. When a broad-spectrum ‘uniting of the ranks’ proved impossible, and as geopolitics appeared to be conspiring against the jihadi project in Syria, the group felt it needed more aggressive measures to secure its interests. Crucially, the evolution to H.T.S. does not appear to have resulted in any discernible ideological moderation. However, it does appear to have further prioritized the group’s Syria focus over transnational interests. H.T.S. remains a committed Salafi-Jihadi movement, but one that is now overtly pursuing a strategy at odds with instructions from al-Qaeda’s central leadership. Consequently, this leadership appears to be giving up its attempts to control H.T.S.—instead seeking to create its own loyalist movement that would commit to al-Qaeda’s traditional transnational agenda.

“The people now under al-Qaeda’s influence are real extremists, who never wanted to work with Syrians for Syria,” a senior Islamist opposition commander told me. “We always had problems with them before, but their power was limited because they were only one factor within Nusra. Now, they determine their own priorities and our revolution is not really a matter of importance for them.”

While the precise outcome of this falling out remains unclear, H.T.S. is undoubtedly the actor with the advantage. With at least 14,000 fighters under its command, H.T.S. is one of the most powerful armed opposition actors in the country. Additionally, its willingness to aggressively protect its interests earlier this year may have deterred any major action against it in its Idlib stronghold. H.T.S. can afford to fully lose the al-Qaeda brand and any support that comes with it because it is succeeding perfectly well without it. Unless the international community considers any substantial initiatives aimed at isolating H.T.S. from the rest of the opposition, H.T.S.’s future in Idlib appears secure. Even a major Russian-backed, pro-Assad offensive on the Idlib province would benefit H.T.S. more than any other opposition actor. H.T.S. has all the cards.

Consequently, the second main takeaway is that al-Qaeda’s traditional transnational model—guerilla-style insurgency against the near enemy while simultaneously plotting against the far enemy—appears to be falling out of favor. Since the success of H.T.S. in Syria, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has, to great effect, visibly replicated the same practices in Yemen. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Mali also appears to be embracing a focus on the local, seeking to embed themselves irreversibly into broader indigenous dynamics. While there is no indication that AQAP or AQIM are distancing themselves from al-Qaeda’s leadership or refusing to abide by its orders, the nature of their activities implies a similar strategic difference as that between al-Qaeda and H.T.S.

For a time, it had seemed that Zawahiri and his deputies were supportive this longer-term, locally-focused approach to building durable jihadi projects.  However, recent statements by Zawahiri and Osama Bin Laden’s son Hamza indicate that the traditional transnational model is coming back into favor within al-Qaeda’s central leadership circles. This may have something to do with the territorial decline of ISIS’s Caliphate in its Syrian and Iraqi heartlands. Zawahiri may be now be attempting to exploit ISIS losses to present himself once again as the leader of a superior global jihadi movement.  Ultimately, however, Zawahiri and his al-Qaeda cohort will always face the disadvantage of having to operate in hiding with poor lines of communication to affiliates abroad.

Outlook

Moving forward, the most likely scenario in Syria is the further consolidation of today’s existing state of affairs, in which the distance between H.T.S. and al-Qaeda’s central leadership continues to widen. Al-Qaeda may then place its umbrella over a smaller and more secretive circle of jihadis in northern Syria who are committed to maintaining a guerrilla insurgency while plotting attacks on the West. This scenario would result in blurred lines: neither H.T.S. nor al-Qaeda would perceive or treat the other as a hostile rival, and the very existence of each would serve to reinforce the other’s existence. “For now, [H.T.S.] is willing to allow al-Qaeda some freedom in Idlib,” an Islamic cleric based in northern Idlib told me, “but only if al-Qaeda does not interfere in [H.T.S.] affairs. This is what Abu Mohammed al-Jolani has prevented until now, but it has not been easy. Actually, it has been more difficult in recent days.”

However, the five sources who spoke to me on this issue made it clear that al-Qaeda’s loyalist circle in Idlib is assuming an increasingly vitriolic stance towards H.T.S., accusing it of betraying core Islamic principles and of openly partnering, negotiating with, and turning a blind eye to the enemy. Nevertheless, al-Qaeda simply does not appear to have the resources or the need to initiate active hostility with H.T.S. It is more likely to continue to distance itself through condemnation and criticism, while gradually attempting to build a capable loyalist jihadi movement of its own.

This would leave Idlib and northwestern Syria with two very different but equally threatening jihadi actors. The principal threat posed by H.T.S. would be in its ability to prevent moderate groups from presenting an alternative to jihadi rule and to dominate the trajectory and influence the strategic decisions of Syria’s opposition. Its continued success also risks mainstreaming its more locally-focused jihadi strategy within certain regional actors and populations, making it that much more difficult for genuinely moderate actors to secure backing and credibility. Meanwhile, the presence of a smaller, covert al-Qaeda loyalist faction operating in Idlib—where room for international maneuver would be highly limited—could come to pose a far more serious threat than that posed by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the lead-up to 9/11.

Both threats are distinctly different, meaning they must be countered using very different tool kits and methods. Embracing solely kinetic counter-terrorism actions against al-Qaeda operatives in Syria or elsewhere may work up to a point, but they will determinedly fail to undermine or weaken H.T.S. Therefore, the two threats combined truly make for a worst-case scenario for Western counter-terrorism policymakers, deserving of far more attention than they receive today.