Syrian jihadists score big with Aleppo breakthrough
BEIRUT - The rebel breakthrough in Aleppo has been a major political, as well as military, triumph for jihadists who spearheaded the multi-group offensive, the largest mounted by the Syrian opposition in the war, now in its sixth year.
If the jihadists of the newly renamed Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Conquest Front of Syria), until recently known as Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Nusra Front), al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, can sustain their military gains and keep the unexpected alliance of some 20 rebel groups intact they seem certain to gain further popular support. That could have a significant effect on the shape and complexion of the United Nations’ faltering peace initiative.
The Conquest Front emerged July 28th when Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, the Syrian who headed al-Nusra Front, announced in a video — in which he appeared unmasked for the first time — that it was separating from al-Qaeda, with the agreement of al-Qaeda’s leader, veteran Egyptian jihadist Ayman al-Zawahiri.
This surprise split was widely seen as a pragmatic rebranding of al-Nusra, which under Jolani adopted a more nationalist Syrian position rather than pursuing a global jihad against the West.
Jolani’s strategy apparently is to publicly distance the front from al- Qaeda, internationally branded as a terrorist organisation, and the savagery of the Islamic State (ISIS) and thereby boost its domestic support, while quietly pursuing its jihadist policies.
This tactical shift could secure the group a place at the negotiating table in Geneva, from which the United States has excluded jihadists, while persuading the Americans and the Russians. to take the new front off their air strikes agenda.
The US reaction has been predictably negative. In some quarters, Jolani’s move is seen as “a ploy to deceive Western and Russian policymakers”, observed analyst Ahmed Rashid, who has written extensively on jihadism.
US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper dismissed Jolani’s apparent break with al- Qaeda as “a PR move”. He said the rebranded group “would like to create the image of being more moderate”.
Across Syria, but particularly among the long-suffering inhabitants of Aleppo, the front’s leadership in breaking the Damascus regime’s siege of rebel-held eastern sector of the battered city has won it support that will, if sustained, bolster the group’s military strength through enhanced recruitment.
Rashid, writing in the Financial Times, said Jolani’s “new non-Al Qaeda status will make it easier for its covert allies, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to provide it with funds and more powerful weapons”.
He said its support in northern Syria, currently the main war front, has already boosted recruitment.
Charles Lister, formerly of the Brookings Institution in Qatar, has met the leaders of jihadist and other armed factions in the region. Jolani’s group, he said, “has accepted more than 3,000 Syrians from Idlib and southern Aleppo into its ranks since February alone”.
With opposition forces trained and funded by the United States having failed so dismally on the battlefield, the emergence of the Conquest Front — the single most powerful rebel force in Syria today at the head of an alliance more united, and seemingly more successful, than any that has gone before — may well offer a new military option to bring the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad to its knees.
But that is only if it can retain its cohesion and not collapse amid the perennial rebel bickering.
Indeed, there are those who say the rebel advance in Aleppo, even if it does not achieve the stated objective of pushing the regime out of Aleppo altogether, has dramatically altered the perception that the Syrian opposition cannot bring about change.
“When many Syrians look at the choices within the opposition they see only the bad and the very bad, which is why Mr Assad still has some support,” Rashid observed.
The Conquest Front, he said, “is the strongest force on the ground to take on ISIS, and the West and the Arab states — and the Russians, who would raise the biggest objections — must eventually realise that any ceasefire, even a partial one, and future peace talks will have to include Islamist groups, even if it goes against the grain…
“The former Jabhat al-Nusra has grown in Syria because of the uncompromising aims of ISIS and Mr Assad at opposite ends of the spectrum, and the lack of a moderate force in the middle of the turmoil,” Rashid wrote in the Financial Times.
“The five years of civil war, with 350,000 dead and millions displaced, can only end if imagination and risk-taking are allowed into the peace process.”
The success of the jihadist-led offensive has resonated among Syrians who have long felt betrayed by the failure — or refusal — of the Americans and the West at large, along with the Saudis and their Arab partners, to help them get rid of Assad, rather than focus on battling ISIS.
“The world abandoned Aleppo,” tweeted Kyle Orton of the London-based think-tank the Henry Jackson Society. “The jihadis came to the rescue. Al-Qaeda’s rebranding could hardly have asked for more.”
Beirut-based Syrian analyst Haid Haid of the Middle East branch of Germany’s Heinrich Boll Foundation, noted: “Whether Jabhat al- Nusra timed the battle of Aleppo to coincide with its split with al-Qaeda or not, the group has used the occasion to increase its communal support and military power…
“The new phase of the battle, in which rebels announced their intention to recapture all of Aleppo, will likely empower the group even more.
“The continued indifference of the international community towards atrocities that are taking place in Syria (starvation, air strikes, etc) will likely allow the group to increase its military might and force other rebel groups to increase their cooperation with it.”
Not all Syrians are celebrating the jihadist-led breakthrough in Aleppo. “Now we have to deal with a new tragedy: that the saviours of the people of Aleppo include among them a terrorist group,” lamented Syrian activist Abdelaziz Hamza.
There have been suggestions that Jolani deliberately timed al-Nusra Front’s transformation into the all-embracing Conquest Front on July 18th, only a week before the rebels launched their most coordinated opposition operation of the war, an offensive that had been weeks in the planning.
The operation broke the exhausted regime’s stranglehold on Aleppo and showed that relentless Russian air strikes could be overcome, in itself a significant psychological breakthrough for the rebels who are highly vulnerable from air attack.
Jolani is determined to demonstrate his nationalist credentials and impress Syrians with his front’s humanitarian side and even ensured that seven trucks loaded with food, water and medicine for the long-suffering inhabitants of eastern Aleppo rumbled into the rebel-held zone on August 7th hard on the heels of his fighters.
It was not much help to the estimated 250,000 people trapped in eastern Aleppo but it was an inspired gesture that did not go unnoticed. The trick will be to open a steady supply route into eastern Aleppo to relieve the exhausted populace while expanding rebel territory.
Jolani has called for unity among the rebel groups, many of which have periodically fought one another as well as ISIS and the regime. The groups acknowledge that victory might not have been theirs without the Conquest Front’s spearhead of suicide bombers who blasted holes in regime defences, particularly the heavily fortified military academy complex in Ramousa district of south-western Aleppo on August 7th.
The next few weeks will show whether Jolani’s overall leadership will be consolidated with the jihadists moving into the opposition mainstream, adding new strands to the Gordian knot that is the Syrian war.