During the past year, many stories have circulated about the fate of the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat Al Nusrah (JAN), and the policies of the regional and international players who have something to do with the Syrian opposition view towards this organization. It is still too early to write the full story of Al Qaeda’s activities in Syria since 2011, let alone to claim that we have reached its final chapter. However, it seems that what is happening on the ground in North and South Syria is indeed ushering in a new chapter of the story and that this new chapter, if written smartly, could be the beginning of the end of any considerable presence of Al Qaeda in Syria.
All the details, admittedly maddening most of the time, lead to one general conclusion: It is difficult to move in the space between the fanatics in JAN and ISIL on the one side and the warlords and mercenaries on the other without enlarging this space on the ground. Success in creating a real Syrian opposition that is able to shape the future of the country and empowering it to confront both the regime and all the parasites feeding on the body of the Syrian revolution is the condition for defeating all kinds of thugs. There is the regime, and there are those that are using Islam as a self-justification for theft, drug smuggling and terrorizing civilians. Their defeat will not be achieved only by military means. It will not only require arms, but also the ability to convince the population that there is indeed a true Syrian face presented in a block of the opposition that expresses the real spirit of the aspirations of all Syrian.
But in order to create this space, the details of the complex map of the opposition in this chapter of the Syrian opposition’s story must be studied carefully. The general logic behind that map will reveal the practical approach for diminishing the presence of both warlords and radical Jihadists.
This chapter –as is everything Syrian in these times – is very complex, where different players change their positions according to the changes made by other larger players; and interact according to personal, political, military and financial factors. To avoid exhausting details we will mention here only the general directions of the recent developments and how they fit in the story of JAN and ISIL in Syria.
The most important development in the North of Syria is the collapse of the four-month-old Syrian Front (Al Jabha Al Shamayeh-JAS). Upon its formation, JAS was considered a “turning point” in the course of the Northern opposition. Almost twelve groups came under its banner amid signs that the regional reconciliation, particularly between Qatar and Saudi Arabia on the one hand and Ankara and Riyadh on the other, would lead to a closer ties between their clients in the North.
But the error of this assumption is that it omitted the fact that these regional players are not the entire picture. The US effort in Syria cannot be left out of the picture, and these local players have their own calculations, personal alliances and enmities.
JAS was backed mainly by the Turks. Ankara played a role in getting Abdul Azis Salameh to head the Front. Salameh is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and close to JAN. Others in JAS wanted Sheikh Tawfiq Shehab Eldeen, the leader of the Nour Eldeen El Zinki, to lead JAS. The Turks vetoed Sheikh Tawfiq, and as they were committed to “taking care” of JAS, they felt entitled to impose their choice.
The problem of Salameh is that he is as exclusive as the rest of the MBs. He quickly started to gather all aspects of the new organization in his hand and into the hands of other MBs in JAS. The US also expressed some concern about the style of Salameh and his ties to JAN. In the meantime, the Turks were not providing the help that the other groups hoped for. For some unclear reason, the Turks chose not to go all the way in supporting JAS. This position may have been a result of closer coordination with the Saudis who felt uncomfortable with Salameh.
The contempt for Salameh inside JAS and the dissatisfaction of Riyadh with his policies were combined in internal contacts among three groups—Amjad Al Islam, Anour Al Islameyh and Al Huda—leading to a decision to split. These three groups (collectively estimated at 2500 fighters) are effective. They gathered in a new formation called Thwar Al Sham (TAS) or Syria’s Revolutionaries.
So, what we have now is, grosso modo, three camps: The semi-moderates (TAS and some smaller groups), the leftover of JAS in the form of independent groups as the Front does not exist anymore, and the radical Jihadists (JAN and ISIL).
The idea behind forming JAS in the first place was to create a counter balance to JAN and ISIL. But this smart intention was poorly implemented in the admittedly moving sand of the Syrian opposition. However, the concept itself is sane and applicable, provided that a blunt approach to TAS is tried. The leaders of TAS are certainly not radical Jihadists, and they are relatively combat-skilled.
Al Nusrah and ISIL are “comfortable” in their areas now in the North. But to fight both there must be another “pole” that is capable of neutralizing the warlords for the time being and focusing solely on JAN and ISIL. The Military Operations Command (MOC) in Turkey should take a bolder step in trying to create this pole and aiding it to fight the terrorists, while of course keeping the terrorists as divided as they are now.
It is possible to say now that as complex as the map of the opposition in the Syrian North is, we are starting to see the alignment of centers of gravity in a process that should be helped to evolve. From the mess on the ground, we can draw a general picture of the positions of these groups and pick those which will be helpful in the near future.
It is possible to also say that JAN is not as internally cohesive as is assumed outside of the North of Syria. The debate within JAN should be encouraged as it might lead to very desirable results.
Strengthening the moderate pole will help achieve such desirable results by creating a space for those who want to defect from JAN in the future. And in fact, there is quite a few.
Overall, the story of JAN and ISIL in the North of Syria has entered a more mature phase with the semi-crystallization of the three camps mentioned above. The natural progress of such a development should be to prepare for the inevitable confrontation with the terrorist organizations. Obviously, it is not that simple. Yet, the direction of the “logic” of the fight in the North must be clear.
In the South we will find a symbolic presence of ISIL and a considerable presence of JAN. Yet, JAN received a blow when the Jordanians decided that it had grown to such a threateningly large degree that it should be reduced in size and influence. Amman’s decision, for those who know the previous history of JAN in the South of Syria, was a turning point for the organization.
The South Syrian opposition groups declared war on JAN. The threat of ISIL expansion in the South worried Amman and a large number of the opposition groups in that region. If the position of Amman holds for some time, and if MOC Amman tries to create a coordinating structure on the ground between the semi-moderates (a non-Jihadi pole), the continuing pressure may lead indeed to a substantial reduction in the size and influence of JAN. Two organizations should be isolated from the beginning: Harakat Al Muthana and Shuhada’a and Shuhada’a Al Yarmouk as they show signs of leaning towards ISIL.
Those who follow the evolution of the Jihadist radicals in JAN and ISIL can see the general lines of a method to defeat both emerging from the maddening map of Syrian opposition groups in the North and the South. Once the logic of a specific dynamic of the confrontation is clear, it should be tested without delay.