Al Qaeda and ISIL are still potent forces in Syria

Hassan Hassan says losses of territory can be temporary, as the example of Palmyra shows

ISIL's recapture of  Palmyra proves that defeat does not always mean demise. Hassan Ammar / AP
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As counterintuitive as it may sound, ISIL will still be stronger than Al Qaeda in Syria even after the former is dislodged from Mosul and Raqqa.

Many counterterrorism experts have argued in recent months that it is time to turn attention towards Syria’s Jabhat Fateh Al Sham, formerly known as Jabhat Al Nusra, as it is now the more dangerous group. This is the reverse logic to countless statements in 2014 suggesting Al Qaeda had been eclipsed by the Iraqi ISIL.

Yet the suggestion that ISIL will still be stronger than JFS even if it loses its major strongholds does not mean Al Qaeda is less dangerous, and that is the point – it does not have to be a choice between one group or the other.

The two organisations should be viewed as two threats emanating from two fronts. The binary often leads to what I call “cyclical punditry”, whereby commentators shift from one extreme assertion to another and back to the first one depending on how events unfold.

In 2011, for example, many proclaimed Al Qaeda was finished thanks to the democratic aspirations of Arab youth. After the resurgence of Al Qaeda following the uprisings, many asserted Al Qaeda was back, only to declare it was forever eclipsed by ISIL when the splinter group swept through Iraq and Syria in 2014.

When ISIL started losing ground last year, the narrative reverted to emphasising Al Qaeda’s longevity especially as JFS was emerging as the leader of the Syrian insurgency. This cyclical thinking ignores the fluidity of these organisations.

In August, admittedly, it was easy to perceive JFS in Syria as a particularly perplexing challenge. Thousands of Syrian militants, who do not necessarily share Al Qaeda’s world view, relied on the leadership of JFS to break the siege around Aleppo. The group was discussing mergers with Syrian insurgents, conversations that have emerged again since the expulsion of the rebels from eastern Aleppo. JFS’s project to weave itself into the insurgency posed profound challenges for the United States, which tried and failed to extradite these groups from Al Qaeda’s main affiliate in a country ravaged by serveral conflicts.

JFS looked too dangerous because it was difficult to extricate it from a legitimate rebellion against the Syrian regime. It also seemed easier to form alliances against ISIL than against Al Qaeda. These factors understandably prompted some to warn that Al Qaeda, not ISIL, was the most problematic group.

Surveying the military map of the Syrian conflict, JFS is currently crammed into Idlib. Nowhere else is the group a dominant force. The organisation appears to be a shadow of its former self. As a force, ISIL appears larger than JFS even if it is defeated in its capitals in Iraq and Syria. Headlines such as the National Interest’s “Forget ISIS: Al Qaeda is Back” in April seem to apply in reverse to the situation in Syria today. But saying the opposite now would also be a mistake.

ISIL’s recapture of Palmyra in four days of fighting last week is an ominous reminder that military defeats do not equal demise. The same applies to Al Qaeda even if it now looks like it is on the back foot in northwestern Syria.

The erosion of ISIL’s legitimacy could have happened had the anti-ISIL campaign addressed the factors that make its project relevant. That has not happened. Just consider the current fight in Mosul, which entered its third month on Saturday. The defeat of ISIL in Mosul was envisioned as a final blow to the group’s claims to legitimacy. Anyone who believes that will be the case, given the extraordinary damage it has inflicted on Iraq’s most elite forces, even though it is outnumbered in the largest ground and air campaign in recent history, is out of touch with reality.

The battle of Mosul could have been about much more than simply dislodging militants from Iraq’s second largest city. Instead of reducing Mosul to a counterterrorism operation, it could have been about setting a new direction for the country. Two months ago, Iraqis had high hopes about what the battle for Mosul meant. Defeating the militants in Mosul will still be a big win for the city’s inhabitants and for Iraq, but it will be a diluted victory. The group will continue to think big over the coming years, and many will continue to gravitate towards it.

JFS too will not go away. It might soon emerge somewhere else in Syria, far stronger than it may now appear. Well-placed sources indicate jihadists working with JFS have already embarked on such an expansionist strategy. The destruction of Aleppo, with the help of sectarian militias imported from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, will be enough to revitalise recruitment for these groups – one because it works closely with the rebels and the other because the attack on Aleppo was merciless and brutal.

The bottom line is that both threats are here to stay, and the inability to perceive them as two distinct and durable threats will perpetuate the cycle. One of the lessons of the past decade is that a jihadist group can be reduced to a few dozen operatives but it can re-emerge many times stronger than before.

Hassan Hassan is a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror

On Twitter: @hxhassan