The Cipher Brief sat down with Charles Lister, Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute, to discuss al Qaeda in Syria’s latest rebranding, how the group is expanding its influence across the country, and the implications for U.S. security.
The Cipher Brief: How influential is al Qaeda in Syria? What are the group’s objectives there?
Charles Lister: Al Qaeda has methodically enhanced its standing in Syria and finds itself in 2017 as arguably the most influential, explicitly anti-regime actor in the conflict. This sustained increase in power has been achieved through a carefully managed strategy implemented by a central shura leadership that has clearly learned lessons from al Qaeda’s past and has set about operationalizing a more advanced level of strategic thinking that al Qaeda’s global strategists had begun debating in 2008-2009.
The first phase of this strategy began in mid-2012 and saw the group present itself to Syrian revolutionaries as an elite-led jihadi vanguard that had come to Syria as a “support front,” to lend its efforts towards the broader opposition’s armed struggle against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. This phase lasted from mid-2012 until late 2015. Al Qaeda in Syria, known then as Jabhat al-Nusra, focused on building alliances and avoiding enemies, while deeply embedding itself in the nationally-focused revolution. The purpose of this “embedding” phase was to establish a reputation as a necessary component of the opposition movement and to methodically socialize people into accepting the presence of jihadists in their midst. Over time, particularly amenable opposition groups saw themselves subtly infiltrated by figures who advocated an eventual integration of Islamic opposition factions under one united umbrella.
The second phase of al Qaeda’s operations in Syria began in late-2015 and can best be described as seeking to exploit the embeddedness of the group within the opposition revolutionary movement in order to encourage a large-scale “uniting of the ranks.” By convening a mass merger of Islamist-minded armed groups, at least tacitly, under its ideological and strategic influence, al Qaeda sought to establish and consolidate the influence gained in the first phase and to make permanent its leading role in the Syrian crisis. Once it theoretically achieved this in full, al Qaeda would have been in a position to achieve its ultimate goal: to declare one or more Islamic Emirates in Syria.
This second phase of transitioning into a mass movement has posed substantial challenges to al Qaeda’s long game plan in Syria, not least because Syrians remained concerned about the group’s transnational jihadi roots, even when al Qaeda’s current Syrian affiliate claimed to have broken all external ties. When faced with such concerted distrust, al Qaeda has tended to lash out against perceived challenges or threats, actions which have further dented any level of trust gained through the first phase.
Having said that, Jabhat al-Nusra and its successor movements — Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and now Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) — have consistently proved themselves to be formidable fighters on the battlefield. So long as enough Syrians remain committed to a military struggle against the Assad regime, al Qaeda will retain predominant influence over the trajectory of the opposition’s role in conflict. This is essentially where we are today: Syrians arguably distrust HTS more than at any point since late-2011, but the prioritization of the military struggle means that fighting the regime is likely to trump any distrust in existence.
TCB: Has al Qaeda’s (former) offshoot in Syria remained linked to the al Qaeda network since its “split” last summer when it changed its name from the Nusra Front to Jabhat Fateh al Sham (JFS)?
CL: Basically yes, although the nature of its relationship with al Qaeda changed somewhat. What’s worth mentioning at the outset is that Jabhat al-Nusra’s rebranding to JFS and the public claim to have severed “external ties” to al Qaeda was not something that was universally agreed upon within Jabhat al-Nusra’s shura council at the time. In fact, the issue was only raised within the council because al-Nusra’s leader Abu Mohammed al-Julani received an ultimatum from roughly one-third of the group that they would splinter off unless the move was undertaken.
After a divisive set of consultations within al-Nusra’s leadership, the decision was made to rebrand and claim a breaking of external ties to al Qaeda, but almost half of the shura council refused to assume positions of authority within the new group, JFS. This was not part of some elaborate ruse, but a genuine ideological and strategic disagreement. Determined hardliners within the council saw the rebrand as an unnecessary concession and public expression of weakness that – they feared – represented a slippery slope that would force the group to undertake further compromises in the future and thus would weaken the purity of their jihadist project. Several of these individuals publicly broke away from JFS, including veteran al Qaeda militant Iyad Tubasi (Abu Julaybib), who specifically cited the “disengagement from al Qaeda” as his reason, but still retained ties to Julani.
These splintering jihadists may not have joined JFS, but they did then go on to operate covertly under a secretive umbrella of core al Qaeda figures who had steadily emigrated to Syria since late 2012. Led by al Qaeda’s global deputy leader Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, this al Qaeda core movement in northwestern Syria did two things: (1) it gave al Qaeda an opportunity to re-energize its central leadership in a presumed safe haven with close proximity to the West; and (2) it gave Julani a loophole through which he could outwardly claim to Syrians that he had severed his “external” ties to al Qaeda, while of course maintaining them “inside” the country.
This relationship was not an altogether easy one, however. As part of the decision to rebrand as JFS, Julani had assured not only his fellow leadership council members but also al Qaeda’s central leadership that a rebrand was now the only way of guaranteeing a broad “uniting of the ranks.” That grand unity was never achieved though. Three successive unity negotiation processes resolutely failed when al-Nusra and JFS’ long-time military ally Ahrar al-Sham repeatedly refused to agree to a merger, citing JFS’ continued al Qaeda links and the lack of any discernible change in the group’s behavior since the rebrand. For a time at least, this put great strain on Julani’s relationship with some of this core al Qaeda contingent in Idlib, although those tensions appear to have subsided in recent months, as JFS sought to force the unity issue through more aggressive means.
TCB: What was the purpose of JFS’ recent rebranding to Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) in January? Did it serve that purpose?
CL: HTS was formed by JFS as a protective measure amid a concerted move by Ahrar al-Sham to present itself as the protector of opposition groups facing attack by JFS. Ahrar al-Sham’s continued, very strong connections to Turkey, involvement in Euphrates Shield, consistent refusal to unite with al-Nusra and JFS, and recent gain of approximately 8,000 fighters was perceived as a serious threat to JFS’ prominence. At that moment, Julani forced through a series of rapid mergers with groups that had previously agreed to unite under its umbrella. Combined, those mergers probably lent it approximately 5,000 extra members.
So in a sense, HTS’ creation was in the immediate term, a counter to Ahrar al-Sham’s rising stature, but in the long-term strategic sense, it was also a step towards al Qaeda’s “uniting the ranks” objective. If unity with Ahrar al-Sham was impossible, then unity with other smaller groups was at least a step in the right direction. Amid those mergers, HTS also gained pledges of allegiance from approximately 1,000 hardline Ahrar al-Sham members (about ten percent of its original membership), including several of its leadership council who had consistently advocated for al-Nusra and a full-scale merger. In that sense, Ahrar al-Sham’s majority wing (the remaining 90 percent) now see themselves more empowered than before, not having to debate every decision at length due to the intransigent hardliner wing that had been there before.
TCB: How has the competition progressed between HTS and Ahrar al-Sham? Has this affected Turkish influence in the Idlib region?
CL: HTS launched a series of seemingly coordinated attacks on Ahrar al-Sham positions in northern Syria earlier this month, seemingly attempting to take control of valuable weapons depots, border crossing checkpoints, and electricity sub-stations. I’m told most of these attacks were led by Ahrar al-Sham defectors who resented their former group’s refusal to unite and sought to weaken its influence for what is now becoming a new phase of the Syrian war. Those HTS attacks sparked widespread condemnation across the rest of Syria’s opposition and people began taking to the streets demanding the withdrawal of HTS from their local areas. This popular pressure appeared to catalyze an agreed end to infighting and a new HTS-led “reconciliation” effort, which in reality looks like an attempt merely to consolidate gains made in preceding weeks.
Anyway, things are now at least calm. However, the tensions have not gone away. Ahrar al-Sham leaders continue to insist behind the scenes that a merger with HTS is “impossible,” with some publicly accusing HTS of “betraying” the revolution. I don’t expect those suspicions and accusations to go away anytime soon, although people seem to be increasingly determined to see a resumption of hostilities with the regime. That would mean placing the advantage back into HTS’s court, but as we’ve seen at other times since 2012, when push comes to shove, the military struggle against Assad always trumps other concerns.
Turkey continues to pursue a hedging strategy with regards to the Syria situation, prioritizing its own urgent national security interests over and above other opposition concerns. Although it has paused its supply of weapons support to armed opposition groups, Turkey continues to provide financial and political support to groups in northern Syria with which it enjoys particularly close relations. Ahrar al-Sham is arguably top of this list, and Turkey is unlikely to ever cut off this relationship. Turkey also perceives HTS and al Qaeda more broadly as a competitive threat to Turkish interests in northern Syria and as such, retaining a strong relationship with Ahrar al-Sham will remain an invaluable asset for Ankara.
TCB: How concerned should the U.S. be with HTS?
CL: HTS presents a number of different challenges and threats to the U.S. First, HTS’ explicit objective right now is to co-opt as much of Syria’s armed opposition as possible under its umbrella of influence and to military weaken and ultimately defeat anyone else who refuses to join its project. That in and of itself is a threat to the United States’ ability to have any influence over dynamics on the ground, or in shaping a political process in which any portion of the armed opposition is involved.
HTS presents a threat because it provides a structure through which thousands of armed men can continue their fight against the Assad regime, while providing potential cover for truly committed al Qaeda jihadists to build the necessary networks and infrastructure for a future campaign of external attack plotting. HTS’ existence gives al Qaeda’s independent or at least semi-independent clique of core leadership figures in Syria cover to operate covertly beyond the realms of “opposition” activity.
Finally, HTS may end up going one step further in a process of seeking to mainstream al Qaeda’s more politically savvy and long-game image amongst certain portions of regional populations and even potentially circles within regional governments. The perception that Jabhat al-Nusra did not represent your typical al Qaeda terrorist group has been widespread in the Middle East since late-2012, and the fact that HTS now represents a broader armed group structure and that it now contains and manages an active political office that speaks in very conventional, irreligious political terms will aid in this mainstreaming process.
Interestingly, the U.S. State Department has embraced a more confrontational and in my view, a more effective approach, to challenging HTS’ attempts to convince Syrians of its less extreme nature. In a recent public statement, Special Envoy Michael Ratney made clear that the U.S. government still views HTS as al Qaeda and that all groups that had joined HTS were now perceived as part of al Qaeda. In one particularly significant paragraph, Special Envoy Ratney accused HTS of “destructive actions” against “Ahrar al-Sham and other loyal defenders of the Syrian revolution.” In the not too distant past, the U.S. government had considered a possible designation of Ahrar al-Sham as a terrorist organization. Now the U.S. government was describing that same group as a “loyal defender” of the revolutionary effort in Syria. That was, as clear as day, an attempt to provoke further HTS paranoia about those around it and to encourage the idea that it was surrounded by potential threats. This was a smart move in my opinion, and one that sparked an extraordinary debate and reaction on the ground.
TCB: Has the U.S. worked to counter al Qaeda in Syria? If so, how? What more can be done?
CL: The U.S has practiced a containment strategy with regards to al Qaeda in Syria, targeting core (or “legacy”) al Qaeda figures and targeting individuals and cells suspected of involvement in external attack plotting. Drone and fixed-wing air strikes have had a discernible impact upon the ability of al Qaeda leadership figures to operate in the open. They have also imposed a sense of paranoia within the group’s top ranks over how intelligence about their locations was being leaked. Some strikes, like a recent one on a newly built mosque complex, however, have served to directly empower al Qaeda’s narrative and credibility on the ground. Such examples of targeting misjudgment are extremely concerning, when it’s clear for all to see that al Qaeda has built a resilient narrative within the Syrian revolutionary space already.
The U.S. has not sought to counter al Qaeda’s broader efforts to operate as part of the broader armed opposition, however. It could have done this earlier in the conflict. When the armed opposition was in its formative stages, the U.S had the opportunity to ensure that a strong-enough and well-enough protected moderate opposition capable of deterring fellow Syrians from joining a fringe jihadist group was fostered and put into place. As it happened, there was no centralized and determined effort to build such a unified moderate opposition until late-2012 and by then, Jabhat al-Nusra had already had 18 months to become a fairly formidable armed group.
The U.S. has also periodically sought to designate members of al Qaeda in Syria and to impose sanctions on them, when their identities and whereabouts were confirmed. Financial donors and facilitators allegedly active in supporting al Qaeda in Syria have faced the same targeted measures. Whether this effort has any major effect on the terrorist group is difficult to measure, but such steps are certainly worth taking nevertheless.
In terms of what else can be done, I’m afraid the U.S. has very few options today, except for a large-scale land intervention in Idlib, which would be a terrible idea. Our best option right now is to encourage and support Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to reactivate channels of support to their proxies in the armed opposition and to negotiate a gradual isolation of HTS from broader opposition frontlines. That may eventually provide the space for Turkey to replicate a Euphrates Shield-type intervention in northern Idlib, in which a non-al Qaeda territorial reality is established on the ground, a development that forces HTS to act against the rest of the opposition and to further isolate itself. That all sounds rather far-fetched at this point though, so I’m not particularly hopeful, I’m afraid. Although HTS’ aggressions against the opposition in recent months have undoubtedly damaged its reputation, the desire to resume hostilities with the regime is increasing every day, and that specific trajectory will empower HTS more than ever.