As the U.S. focuses its attention on defeating ISIS in Syria and Iraq, al Qaeda has managed to expand its presence in Syria and now controls Syria’s northwestern Idlib province with a population of two million people. In Idlib, al Qaeda has emerged as the head of an umbrella coalition of several jihadist groups battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and has presented itself as a group that is fighting on behalf of the Syrian people. The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel sat down with Emile Nakhleh, Cipher Brief expert and a former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service, to discuss al Qaeda in Syria’s evolution, the group’s objectives, and how much of a threat it poses both in the region and abroad.
The Cipher Brief: Al Qaeda linked militants in Syria formed an umbrella group known Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which has incorporated several Syrian rebel factions, has taken hold of Idlib province in northwestern Syria, and now represents the strongest opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. How has the group managed to consolidate power? Does it represent a formidable rebel force?
Emile Nakhleh: Hayat Tahrir al-Sham managed to consolidate power while operating almost under the radar. While the U.S. has focused on defeating the Islamic State (ISIS), the leadership of al Qaeda Central convinced several jihadist groups in Syria, some of whom had declared allegiance to al Qaeda in the past, to unify in their efforts to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and establish an Islamic emirate in Syria. Their long-term strategy has paid off. As HTS adjusts more effectively to changing conditions in Syria, and as it is able to portray itself as an indigenous Syrian fighting force against the Assad regime, its threat to American interests, presence, and personnel in the region will grow exponentially. Such a threat will be more ominous in the short-run against American regional interests and less so against the homeland.
HTS is emerging as the most formidable fighting force in Syria and is attracting more and more jihadists – foot soldiers and leaders – from other groups inside the country. HTS’ three-pronged strategy of appearing more Syrian, more focused on Assad, and more anti-Shia is enhancing its credibility and legitimacy, and propelling it to the forefront of the anti-Assad jihad in Syria.
TCB: Who are HTS’ main supporters outside of Syria?
Nakhleh: HTS’ outside support comes from al Qaeda Central, al Qaeda affiliated regional organizations, especially in the Arabian Peninsula, the Maghreb, Somalia, and South Asia, and from committed Salafi-Wahhabi financiers in the Gulf. HTS also gets external support from those who previously funded the activities of Jabhat al Nusra (Nusra Front), a significant partner in HTS, and which recently rebranded itself as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham or JFS. Much of this support comes from the Gulf and other Sunni advocates of anti-Western jihad.
For years, Nusra received funding and weapons from Saudi Arabia, other GCC states, and Turkey in their initial efforts to end the Assad regime. In the past couple of years, HTS and other al Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere have been allowed more space to operate in because of those states’ focus on fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and Iran and the Houthis in Yemen. United States’ military operations in recent years primarily have also been directed against the Islamic State, and thereby giving HTS and other al Qaeda groups more breathing room. It’s naive to think that just because we are obsessed with fighting the Islamic State that the threat from al Qaeda and its ideological affiliates, including HTS, has faded.
TCB: What are HTS’ objectives? Does it prioritize ousting Assad from power or attacking regional and international adversaries such as Turkey, the EU, and the U.S.?
Nakhleh: HTS’ short-term objective is to cement its hold on the anti-Assad jihadist campaign in Syria and to emerge as the only credible and legitimate Sunni jihadist group in the area. The second immediate objective is to topple the Assad regime and establish a radical Sunni emirate on a part or all of Syria. Its long-term objective is to create a global jihadist front directed against Western Christianity and Zionism.
Unlike al-Qaeda Central, the new HTS jihadist “Internationale” will be based on a confederative arrangement of local and mostly indigenous groups. HTS’ immediate targets would include Iran, Hezbollah and other Shia groups and militias, perhaps the Kurds, but not necessarily Turkey. HTS needs a path through Turkey for their envisioned global resurgence.
HTS’ tactical strategy is based on two assumptions: First, the U.S. and its friendly regional states are preoccupied with fighting the Islamic State and have no appetite, resources, or inclination to open up another front against HTS, at least not in the near future. Second, HTS’ aspiration to create a Sunni emirate would be welcome by many Wahhabi-Salafis who might view such an emirate as quintessentially Arab – and therefore more authentic – than the Taliban emirate that was founded and headed by Mulla Omar in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
TCB: HTS publicly severed ties with the al Qaeda network while under its previous name, Jabhat Fateh el-Sham. Does the group still maintain ties to al Qaeda?
Nakhleh: HTS’ decision to sever relations with al-Qaeda Central is a dubious strategy designed to present the group as a “native” or indigenous group whose primary goal is to remove the “apostate” Assad regime and replace him with a “Syrian” Sunni emirate. It is possible to assess with moderate confidence that such a decision was probably taken with the prior knowledge, and perhaps approval, of al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and the rising young leader Hamza bin Ladin.
The other reason behind the decision to sever relations is to show the United States that the new group is no longer associated with al-Qaeda’s global jihad and that its immediate focus on the Syrian regime, not the United States. This was the initial approach that several jihadist groups in the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, the Maghreb, Somalia, Indonesia, and elsewhere took in their early years of existence in order to convince their countrymen that jihad has moved from the global to the local, and also to signal Washington that these local groups are no longer partners in global jihad against the United States.
TCB: How much of a threat does HTS pose to the U.S. and its allies in the region?
Nakhleh: In the short-term, HTS is not expected to pose a serious threat to the U.S. and its allies. However, if HTS believes that American forces and military operations in Syria aims at thwarting HTS’ goal of toppling the Assad regime and establishing a Sunni emirate, the group will begin to engage American troops in Syria. Once it achieves its short-and medium-term objectives, the threat to the U.S. becomes more real.
TCB: What more should the U.S. be doing to beat back the threat from al Qaeda in Syria? How can it navigate the complexities of the Syrian power balance? Should we work with the Syrians, Russians, Iranians to conduct air strikes there?
Nakheh: If the Obama administration back in 2012 used its soft and hard power to remove Assad from power, no vacuum would have been created for terrorist organizations to fill. But that’s water over the dam!
Defeating the Islamic State and removing the Assad regime should be the focus of American policy in the short-term. The more the U.S. and its allies demonize the Islamic State, the more al Qaeda’s (and HTS) credibility among Sunni Muslim youth will grow. HTS is showing some success in convincing some jihadists from the Islamic State and affiliated groups to leave those groups and join HTS on the ground that it is not as radical or extremist as the Islamic State. HTS is telling some foot soldiers and aspiring leaders in the jihadist world, with some success, that they could do jihad through a “moderate” group like HTS! Coordinating airstrikes with the Syrian regime, the Russians, and the Iranians against al Qaeda in Syria will be ineffective and misguided. Syrian and other jihadists would coalesce around HTS if such coordinated strikes occur because of their dislike for Shia Iran and hatred for the Assad regime.