November 3, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Al-Qaeda’s Growing Influence in Aleppo

• Al-Qaeda’s rebranded branch in Syria, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, has played a critical role on the frontlines of the battle for Aleppo.

• A rebel offensive launched last week to break the regime’s siege of Aleppo has lost its momentum.

• It is now less a question of which flag flies over what battered neighborhood than which rebel units are still independent from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

• Reports that a U.S. airstrike killed a senior al-Qaeda member in Idlib province in mid-October will be used by the Assad regime as further evidence that the opposition has devolved into an extremist project.

The ongoing rebel counteroffensive in Aleppo is slowly dragging to a halt, as pro-Syrian regime forces hold the line against the rebels’ attempts to break the siege of the strategic city. Jabhat Fateh al-Sham—formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra before rebranding itself—has played an important role in the battle. As U.S. airstrikes continue to target al-Qaeda operatives in rebel-held territory, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appears to be patiently waiting for the international community to acquiesce to his consistent claim that the opposition is composed exclusively of terrorists. 

The renewed rebel operation to break the siege of Aleppo has centered on the southwestern flank of the city. Regime forces retook the neighborhoods in September, after a rebel offensive under the Jaysh al-Fateh (Army of Conquest) coalition successfully broke through their blockade in early August.   Jabhat Fateh al-Sham was a key component of that coalition, which continues to absorb more and more rebel factions. With Aleppo once again encircled by regime forces, it is unlikely that the pro-regime factions will yield their ground a second time, even as Russian airstrikes in Aleppo remain temporarily halted after weeks of international criticism. 

Since its debut as al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch in 2012, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham has repeatedly proven itself as one of the most effective fighting forces in the Syrian opposition. Imagery from the frontlines of the most recent battle features the group as the shock-troops of an increasingly asymmetrical conflict. Along with the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), Jabhat Fateh al-Sham contributed a number of suicide bombers who led the assault into Aleppo. After a barrage of artillery fire, the suicide bombers opened gaps in pro-regime lines; infantry and light armor quickly followed, as the majority of regime forces retreated from a few neighborhoods on the city’s outskirts. In the days since, reinforced regime forces appear to have turned the tide, launching attacks to retake lost territory.

Unless the siege is broken again, the exchange of a few neighborhoods is unlikely to alter the military balance in Aleppo. At this point, it is less a question of which flag flies over what battered neighborhood than which rebel units are still independent from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham; photos showing the group’s leader Abu Mohammed al-Julani directing the assault from a command center reinforce the impression that Jabhat Fateh al-Sham represents the opposition as a whole. 

On November 2, the U.S. announced that it had killed senior al-Qaeda operative Haydar Kirkan in a drone strike in Idlib province. Kirkan had reportedly been in Syria preparing attacks against the West. The area of Idlib province where Kirkan was killed is controlled by many of the same rebel groups now attempting to break the siege of Aleppo—lending an air of credibility to the claim that the Syrian opposition is in league with al-Qaeda, whether intentionally or by necessity.

For the Assad regime, the increasingly blurred lines between the moderate opposition and al-Qaeda-linked groups is an ideal development; international support for the rebels will inevitably diminish as the rebellion appears to devolve further into an extremist project. Indeed, the Syrian regime appears confident that it will maintain the upper hand, as evidenced by Assad’s recent openness to Western journalists in Damascus. Assad hosted a cadre of Western press at an international conference in the Syrian presidential palace last week, where he presented a revisionist interpretation of the civil war. According to reports from the New York Times, Assad intends to remain in power until at least 2021. The regime is eager to point out that the rebels’ recent indiscriminate rocket attacks on eastern Aleppo blur any moral distinctions between the two sides’ brutal tactics.

As the U.S.-backed coalition is finally gaining traction against the so-called Islamic State’s territorial gains in Iraq and Syria, the international community is increasingly aware of the possibility that extremist groups could establish a similar safe-haven in rebel-held territories in Idlib and Aleppo provinces. With the possibility of a so-called ‘third-way’ in Syria rapidly disappearing along with any semblance of a moderate opposition, the choice between al-Qaeda and Assad is an increasingly stark reality.


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