SITUATION REPORT – A major merger has occurred in the past days in Syria, giving birth to a troubling Jihadi force, called Tahrir al-Sham. The group is built on the bedrock of Al-Qaeda in Syria. Rumors and buzz surfaced about clashes between the two strongest radical opposition groups: Ahrar ash-Sham and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Both of them are based in Idlib Governorate located in northwestern Syria, while Idlib city is placed just 40 km southwest of Aleppo. They have supposedly received funding over the years from individuals originating from the Gulf states, and have Salafist agendas.
Jabhat Fateh al-Sham was also know as Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al-Qaida off-shot in Syria, tried in early 2016 to publicly break ties from the central Al-Qaeda group in order to escape political isolation it lived in Syria. While a re-branding occurred, the group’s core philosophy remained, one of establishing an Islamic state in Syria under strict Sharia Law and Sunni dominance.The group was the original “Islamic State” clone sent over the border in Syria by abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in late 2013. In early 2014, the two groups began their fallout after al-Baghdadi announced that the “Islamic State in Iraq” is extending into Syria, incorporating Jabhat al-Nusra (now Fateh al-Sham) into its core, while mentioning that it will break ties with al-Qaida central. The Nusra group did not agree neither with the incorporation into ISI, nor with the independence from Al-Qaida. Fights broke out between the two until Al-Qaida emissaries came to moderate talks and achieved a non-aggression pact. Although Jabhat al-Nusra gained its autonomy, many of the jihadists defected and joined ISI, formally extending the group in Syria. This group, despite its re-branding from 2016, is designated as a terrorist organization and was repeatedly attack by the United States.
Ahrar ash-Sham is a group incorporating many other smaller factions that coordinate under a common war-room and chain of command. It is one of the most successful and powerful actor on the Syrian battlefield. The regard themselves as being an “Islamist, reformist, innovative and comprehensive movement. It is integrated with the Islamic Front and is a comprehensive and Islamic military, political and social formation. It aims to completely overthrow the Assad regime in Syria and build an Islamic state whose only sovereign, reference, ruler, direction, and individual, societal and nationwide unifier is Allah Almighty’s Sharia (law)” (Translated into English by Malak Chabkoun at the Al Jazeera Center for Studies). While the United States have not formally designated it as a terrorist organization, Russia, Syria, Iran, UAE and Egypt did – even through Russia later green-light the group to join their peace-talks. Nonetheless Ahrar ash-Sham is a volatile, extremist group. However, the faction developed a pragmatic PR campaign, especially towards the international community. They have limited their exposure of jihadist remarks and actions, while strategically asserting itself into the battlefield by forging close ties with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and by having a presence over key territories.
Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and Ahrar ash-Sham have been long term allies, leading the “Islamic Front” (also known as the “Nusra Front”) until now.
Information about clashes between Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and Ahrar ash-Sham emerged last week, when the later was attacked and had its positions taken by the Al-Qaeda franchise. One main reason of this tension could be that Russia officially vetted Ahrar ash-Sham to participate in the Astana peace talks. The group appeared on a list containing the accepted factions of the ceasefire and negotiations. Ahrar later backed-off from the negotiations, in order to not isolate diplomatically Jabhat al-Fateh. A consequence of this action was deeply dividing the group in those who stood by the action, honoring the alliance, and those who felt that they have missed the opportunity of being part of the political transition. The polarization quickly rushed from one group to another as fights broke out. In response, the leader of Ahrar ash-Sham, Sheikh abu-Jaber Hashim defected to led a new group called Tahrir al-Sham (The Levant Liberation Body).
“In view of the plots shaking the Syrian revolution…we announce the dissolution of all groups mentioned below and their total merger into a new entity named ‘Tahrir al-Sham,” they said in a statement, according to AFP news agency.
The militant group said the actions taken against Ahrar ash-Sham were in response to “conferences and negotiations…trying to divert the course of the revolution towards reconciliation with the criminal regime [of Assad],” referring to the peace conference held in Kazakhstan. The divide is reflective of the ideological split between jihadists and those members of the Syrian opposition supported by foreign governments.
(1) The group was formed from a merger between Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki, , Jabhat Ansar al-Din, Liwa al-Haq, Jaysh al-Sunnah and others. In response, groups also joined Ahrar ash-Sham, marking a polarization and a possible rift in the Jihadi monolith. Although it is worth of mentioning the fact that Sheikh abu-Jabar Hashim (ex-Ahrar leader) is commanding the group, and not al-Jolani (al-Golani) of the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.
(2) Smaller factions within Ahrar ash-Sham began to also defect to the newly founded Tahrir, as it’s the preferred choice by most of the regional groups.
(3) All of the named factions are active in northwestern Syria: Aleppo Governorate, Idlib Governorate and some in Hama Governorate.
(4) In the meanwhile a ceasefire has been agreed between the two factions, even though clashes continued.
(5) The impact of this commotion throughout the war is difficult to assess at this time. But the clear division between the two powerful jihadi groups and overall polarization of the radical layer of the Opposition, is an opportunity for the Coalition or willing actors to employ harm on them.
(6) If Tahrir al-Sham manages to integrate the huge wave of factions joying them and continue to receive aid from its donors, we may witness the awakening of Al-Qaeda. The group is clearly an Jabhat Fateh al-Sham initiative which asserts its interest and dominance over the Idlib region.
(7) The group should immediately be designated as a terror organization in order to deter more factions from joining it. Moreover, almost every smaller groups have began picking a side, between the two. In the end, the balance inclines in favor of Tahrir ash-Sham, an al-Qaeda affiliate.
(8) Russia is currently drafting a new Syrian Constitution. Given their double-standard approach towards other terror groups, it should be kept any eye on whether they will deem Tahrir acceptable, or make another offer to Ahrar ash-Sham.
(9) The US-led Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve needs to act swiftly in order to contain the jihadi groups and ultimately degrade them.
(10) President Donald Trump had received confirmation of support from King Salman of Saudi Arabia on the initiative of building “safe zones” for refugees in Syria and Yemen. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are pivotal assets in fighting these not-so-mainstream Salafist groups.