Syrian war enters a new phase as factions realign

Hassan Hassan analyses the significance and the possible outcome of the rebranding of Jabhat Al Nusra.

Opposition fighters drive a tank in an eastern government sieged neighbourhood of Aleppo. Omar Haj Kadour / AFP
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O n Friday, the Syrian rebels made their most significant gains in 14 months. Nearly 30 armed groups took part in a successful counterattack to break the siege around Aleppo, which the regime of Bashar Al Assad had briefly imposed on Syria's second largest city.

The effort was widely celebrated not just because of the breakthrough but because of the remarkable unity shown by various strands of the anti-regime forces in northern Syria. The way the coalition co-operated is reminiscent of the formation of the defunct Liwa Al Tawhid around this time in 2012. Liwa Al Tawhid was an early model of rebel collaboration that rapidly helped expel regime forces from the eastern parts of Aleppo, which the rebels continue to control.

As Liwa Al Tawhid marked a defining moment for the Syrian conflict, the offensive last week may be the beginning of a new dynamic. This is mostly because of the birth of Jabhat Fateh Al Sham (JFS), the new name for Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al Nusra after it rebranded itself two weeks ago as a Syrian group with “no relationship to any external ­entity”.

According to Free Syrian Army commanders in Aleppo, the counterattack last week was in the works since June. The timing of the assault, on the iconic artillery academy in south-western Aleppo, with the announcement by Jabhat Al Nusra was not a coincidence.

Notwithstanding what happens next in Aleppo, JFS has already made its entrance. Inside and outside Syria, support for the group appears to have risen. Many seem to be comfortable with showing support for a group that is supposedly no longer part of Al Qaeda, while others support it for its lead role in the continuing counterattack. This normalisation and show of support are at the heart of the group’s reconfiguration – and the Aleppo offensive was partly designed to achieve that.

The social goodwill that the group has gained over the past two weeks should not be taken lightly. The way the situation looks for anti-regime Syrians is that, while the world stood by as nearly 300,000 civilians were under siege by the regime, and in violation of an understanding between Moscow and Washington not to support such a siege, it was extremists who again won the day. Also, despite the involvement of Russia, Iran and foreign Shia militias fighting under their command in Syria, those forces could overrun a well-secured regime base and break a siege within a few days.

This is a new phase in the conflict. The rebranding of Jabhat Al Nusra was not a compromise in any sense. It is part of a familiar and stated strategy by Al Qaeda’s current leader, Ayman Al Zawahiri, who in 2006 spoke of four phases of jihad that involved the expulsion of American troops from Iraq; the formation of an Islamic authority there, which could evolve into a caliphate; the spreading of the “jihadi wave” into neighbouring countries; and confrontation with Israel.

His strategy, which was stated in a letter he sent to Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, then the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, was echoed two weeks ago when the group announced the formation of JFS. Al Qaeda’s current deputy, Ahmad Hassan Abu Al Khayr, spoke of the move as an “advanced phase”. The new phase will involve an effort to implement Sharia and create the infrastructure for the envisioned Islamic authority.

Paradoxically, the move both brings JFS closer to and sets it apart from ISIL. JFS follows a similar road map for the establishment of an Islamic state, but it significantly distinguishes itself in approach. On one hand, the formation of JFS proves that the two groups are not getting closer to each other, as some suspect. They have inverse directions, meaning that their divergence increases every time each group needs to adapt to new circumstances.

Al Qaeda and its franchises, if pressured, move closer to the communities in which they operate. ISIL, on the other hand, still thinks that compromise or appeasement will not take it anywhere. That will continue to be the case for both groups.

For JFS, Aleppo is the first attempt to embed itself further within rebel-held areas. The group’s objectives should be clear: mainly the consolidation of its gains inside Syria and the building of a coalition that shares its goal of implementing Sharia and forming an Islamic entity in the country. The group is unlikely to rush into the formation of such an entity by itself. Instead, it will seek to entrench itself in areas where it operates and bring people closer to it.

Many in the group’s top echelon have operated under ISIL before. It is unlikely that they will follow ISIL’s ways of polarising and dominating society, but they probably share the general principles, such as the surest way to survive and dominate is to present itself as the only capable armed group that could stand for Syrians opposed to the regime. This is the way ISIL has operated by presenting itself as the only armed Sunni group in Iraq that could conceivably fight Shia-led Iraqi forces.

The new phase of Jabhat Al Nusra’s project in Syria is a critical one. Its success hinges not on whether the rebels win or lose the war against Mr Al Assad, but on the protraction of the war. The outcome is not the crucial factor for the group. Time is.

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