Jabhat Fateh al-Sham dominates Aleppo rebels despite losing senior commander
A top figure of al-Qaeda’s rebranded branch in Syria was killed in an aerial assault that targeted a secret meeting of the rebel coalition’s leaders in Aleppo.
The militant commander, known by the nom de guerre Abu Omar Saraqib, was killed during an air strike at Kafr Naha, a village 15km west of Aleppo city. Abu Omar was a founding leader of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), formerly known as al-Qaeda franchise Jabhat al-Nusra, and the general commander of the JFS-led coalition of Jaysh al-Fateh.
Abu Omar’s deputy, Abu Muslim al-Shami, was reportedly killed in the same air raid.
JFS released a statement confirming Abu Omar’s death, stating that a jet belonging to the US-led coalition carried out the attack. A spokesman for the US Department of Defense said the American military played no role in the death of Abu Omar. An al-Qaeda ideologue in Syria, Abu Abdullah al-Muhaysini, suggested in an audio recording that the Assad regime was responsible for the killing of Abu Omar.
Limited details have emerged about the death of Abu Omar and it remains unclear who is responsible for the raid that killed him. It was unknown whether JFS leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani was present at the targeted meeting.
Abu Omar, whose real name was Ossama Nammourah, was a veteran figure of al-Qaeda and fought within Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group in Iraq against the United States in 2004. He played a major role in al-Nusra Front’s capture of Idlib governorate in 2015 and the group’s expansion into Aleppo. Rebel forces credited Abu Omar with commanding the prominent operation that broke the regime’s siege on East Aleppo.
Analysts suggested that Abu Omar’s death signifies a major blow to Jaysh al-Fateh and the rebels’ performance in Aleppo. The rebels lost the strategic Ramousa district to the regime and Abu Omar is the highest ranking person in Jaysh al-Fateh killed to date. The rebels’ holding of Ramousa, however, was not likely to continue due to the increasing regime deployment of forces and Damascus’s air power advantage.
Jaysh al-Fateh, a coalition of Islamist rebel factions, led by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, is considered the most powerful rebel force in Aleppo. In addition to the loss of the Ramousa district, the rebels in Aleppo, particularly JFS, are likely concerned with the security breach that allowed the location of the leaders’ meeting to be known to the attackers.
This breach has probably been cause for mistrust and suspicion among the groups in Jaysh al-Fateh, ultimately serving the regime’s interests in diverting rebels resistance in contested Aleppo. Further, it is expected the event will delay the rebel’s efforts to establish military unity among the groups.
JFS maintains that the United States was behind the attack, adding to the group’s narrative that the Americans wish to attack all rebel forces to provide the regime with means to recapture Aleppo.
The recent US-Russia ceasefire further feeds into JFS’s narrative. The agreement framework will focus on distinguishing nationalist rebels from al-Qaeda forces in Aleppo — something Russia has long demanded — so the US-led coalition can target JFS along with the Islamic State (ISIS).
However, with JFS, unlike ISIS, being embedded in local communities and among rebels, it would be very hard to target JFS without attacking rebel positions, unless nationalist rebels are empowered enough to become able to reject JFS themselves, which seems quite unlikely.
The death of Abu Omar came two days before the US-Russia agreement and may have influenced the rebels’ stance on the pact. JFS, along with most rebel factions with Islamist-leanings such as Ahrar al-Sham, opposes the cessation of hostilities. JFS has played a role in disengaging rebel groups in northern Syria from the international community, especially when it comes to ceasefires.
Regardless of who carried out the attack that killed Abu Omar, the strategy of air strikes in Aleppo will push rebels towards adopting an al-Qaeda-like ideology, placing JFS in a dominant position over opposition factions. All will lead to an international consensus that allows regime forces to advance in Aleppo against what would likely be called whole-terrorist rebels.
To maintain the existence of nationalist and non-terrorist rebels in Aleppo, a different approach must be adopted by the international community, namely by the United States, to empower nationalist rebels to counter JFS expansion. It is clear that JFS, despite losing senior figures, is effectively manipulating rebels’ decisions and gaining local support.