Al Qaeda Is Starting to Swallow the Syrian Opposition

On the sixth anniversary of the Syrian uprising, moderate rebels have never been weaker — and jihadis have never been stronger.

After six years of conflict, Syria and its people have been completely transformed. The effects of a crisis that has killed nearly a half-million people and forced nearly 11.5 million more from their homes are now etched into the many identities to which Syrians attach themselves. While a majority of Syrians vigorously resist the formal breakup of their country, it is impossible to ignore how the brutal and protracted war has instilled deep divisions in a once-cohesive society.

In many areas of the country, battle lines remain physically drawn among villages that once lived in harmony. And the sectarian dynamic that was once supported only by extremist fringes has started to decisively shape the mainstream opposition.

The origins of this dynamic lie with President Bashar al-Assad, who was quick to label the peaceful protest movement of early 2011 as a “foreign conspiracy.” This conspiracy, Assad claimed in mid-2011, was one being led by Sunni “terrorists” — many dozens if not hundreds of which he had released from prison in March, May, and June 2011. Assad’s sectarian framing of the crisis and his cynical positioning of himself as the protector of Syria’s minorities not only allowed him to bolster his base, but also guaranteed that extremists within the opposition would gradually see their sectarian narrative thrive.

And that is, more or less, what has happened. The Syrian opposition is at its weakest point since 2012, and international trends are moving against it. The United States has distanced itself from the “Assad must go” narrative and seen its attention diverted by its own election; Europe is distracted by refugees and Brexit; and Turkey has done an about-face and, in effect, sold Aleppo to Russia. Meanwhile, Moscow, Tehran, and Hezbollah have methodically enhanced their military commitments to the Assad regime, guaranteeing at minimum its survival.

Amid these challenges, Syria’s opposition has entered into a period of introspection and great internal strain. Placed under concerted pressure — whether by Jordan and Saudi Arabia in the south, or by Turkey and Qatar in the north — and faced with few other options, Syria’s non-al-Qaeda armed opposition demonstrated their pragmatism by agreeing to attend political talks in Kazakhstan and Switzerland, even though their popular base remained deeply opposed to such signals of “compromise,” and few of the attendees expected the talks to succeed.

But Syria’s armed opposition is also changing as a result of internal pressures. Al Qaeda’s Syrian representatives — rebranded as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) in July 2016 and then renamed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) after subsuming several other groups in January — have been relentless, and patient, in pursuing their long-term objective: a merger of all armed Syrian opposition groups under its broad transnational Islamic umbrella. Al Qaeda has commonly called this goal a “uniting of the ranks.”

Largely free of any government instruction, and spurred on by the gradual weakening of the opposition’s most moderate base, al Qaeda spent much of 2012 to 2015 building the trust of Syria’s opposition under the guise of Jabhat al-Nusra, which means literally “support front.” This was the first phase of al Qaeda’s attempt to embed itself in the opposition. The group positioned itself as merely one component of a broad Syrian revolutionary movement, using controlled pragmatism, a clearly defined military strategy, and an emphasis on localism to socialize Syrians into accepting, then supporting, its presence. By rebranding itself as JFS in mid-2016 and by telling Syrians that it had broken its external ties to al Qaeda, the group sought to overcome the only remaining hurdle to uniting the ranks by convincing enough of Syria’s opposition that it was a fundamentally Syrian movement, dedicated to a local cause and not to a transnational jihadi project.

This branding exercise has enabled al Qaeda to make some progress, but it has yet to achieve the desired goal. Three successive unity initiatives through late 2016 and early 2017 failed to result in a single meaningful merger. The powerful, nationally focused Salafist group Ahrar al-Sham, JFS’s most consistent and invaluable military ally, repeatedly refused to unite with it, arguing that the group had not sufficiently distanced itself from al Qaeda to justify such a move. That set off a vicious war of words and repeated clashes, and eventually sparked a spate of premeditated JFS attacks on opposition groups across northern Syria.

With Ahrar al-Sham threatening all-out retaliatory war against JFS, many of Syria’s largest groups merged into Ahrar al-Sham for self-protection, while JFS coerced others to fall under its new HTS umbrella. This “great sorting out” has effectively split Syria’s northern opposition into three competing factions. HTS and Ahrar al-Sham are the most militarily powerful, with the former likely commanding 12,000 to 14,000 fighters and the latter closer to 18,000 to 20,000. The Free Syrian Army, meanwhile, has come to represent a loose umbrella under which armed groups that identify with the original ideals of Syria’s nationalist revolution have gathered. Amid the hostilities with JFS and HTS and as a point of distinction from it, the Salafists of Ahrar al-Sham have embraced nationalist FSA-like rhetoric and imagery.

Although it now contains groups that are less extreme than al Qaeda, HTS retains that transnational group’s jihadi objectives for Syria — namely the proclamation of an Islamic emirate that would serve as a component of an eventual global al Qaeda caliphate. Ahrar al-Sham, meanwhile, remains deeply conservative in its Islamic identity but retains no objectives beyond its borders. In a recent interview, the group confirmed that it “believes in political participation,” did not oppose the adoption of “democracy,” and would participate “by popular referenda” and not oppose any future political “decisions [made by] the Syrian people.”

Notwithstanding these political and ideological differences, HTS, Ahrar al-Sham, and FSA factions continue to insist on the continuation of their armed struggle against the Assad regime. However, with regional and international states placing the FSA and Ahrar al-Sham under heavy pressure to abide by an ever-weakening cease-fire, HTS’s consistent approach to sustained warfare is lending it an advantage in winning credibility and loyalty on the ground. Its “no holds barred” approach to the fighting is gaining further traction every day.

Divergent Narratives

With the international community more determined than ever to “solve” the Syrian crisis, and with the fight against the Islamic State and other terrorist actors dominating policymaking in the United States and Europe, al Qaeda’s long-term jihadi project in Syria is under unprecedented challenge. But by continuing to insist upon its nationalist agenda, and at times attacking and destroying rival groups, al Qaeda has been able to mount an effective defense.

This is in no small part due to al Qaeda’s uncompromising attitude about fighting the Assad regime, which appeals to the base of the armed and civilian opposition inside Syria. Groups with international state connections are increasingly perceived on the ground as being compromised by the agendas of their patrons, who appear at least for now to be encouraging a possible negotiated peace with the regime. JFS and now HTS, on the other hand, have remained consistently dedicated to sustaining an effective fight against the regime, thereby gaining in credibility at the expense of those who are more pragmatic.

JFS’s and then HTS’s attacks on rival opposition groups have, however, proven deeply unpopular among pro-opposition Syrians, but the Islamists’ obvious enthusiasm for the armed struggle against Assad, Russia, and Iran appears to trump these concerns. Despite the international community’s claim that a cease-fire remains in place, deadly air and artillery strikes have continued to hit populated areas of opposition territory on a daily basis, fueling hatred of the regime. For the opposition to continue to engage in talks abroad has become an increasingly untenable position, despite the need to retain international support and credibility.

“Every meeting brings no results, except for humiliation for our revolution,” the leader of one such group active in Astana and Geneva, who requested anonymity, told me. “We cannot continue to attend these meetings forever, just as we will never forgo our fight with the regime.” And thus, faced by such pressure, the entirety of Syria’s armed opposition refused to attend the latest round of talks in Astana that began on March 14 and that would have continued into the sixth anniversary of the Syrian revolution, March 15.

Throughout this process, HTS has remained staunchly opposed to talks or any suggestion of concession or compromise. It has also conducted two complex suicide assaults deep within regime territory — against the military and intelligence headquarters in the city of Homs on Feb. 25, and against busloads of Iraqi Shiite pilgrims in Damascus on March 11. The two attacks killed a combined 116 people, with the latter sparking calls among Iraq’s Shiite community for the Iraqi Air Force to begin airstrikes against HTS in northwestern Syria. A third attack targeted Damascus’s Palace of Justice on the Syrian revolution’s six-year anniversary, March 15, and according to three separate sources was also the work of HTS.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

HTS continues to frame the conflict in Syria as one pitting Sunni versus Shiite. Amid deep opposition, frustration, and soul-searching, this extremist narrative of a centuries-old struggle of good versus evil is finding a more and more welcoming audience. Obadah al-Kaddri, a political activist who was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in 2014 and now runs a defiantly moderate radio station, told me that HTS’s narrative would find traction with Syrians:

“HTS is using a different language and logic than JFS, laying out reasonable reasons that all Syrians will agree with, especially regarding the bad position of the Americans towards the revolution. This new language is appealing … they were also logical in why they targeted the Shia — this is a sentiment held by many Sunni Syrians … they are now positioning themselves as the only strong faction that will defend all Syrians.”

Even establishment FSA figures like activist and legal consultant Osama Abu Zayd, who insists that “the revolution was never intended to be about sect,” admit that HTS’s effectiveness on the battlefield and behind enemy lines is something Syrians will inevitably admire.

“Any quality operation that results in deaths among regime forces and militias are to be supported, because these forces are perceived by Syrians as colonizers who aim to implement demographic changes in our areas … Assad forces are raising Shia flags on the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, which is a Sunni landmark … [but] any operation that causes casualties among civilians is never to be supported, especially if it is conducted by al-Nusra.”

With a majority of armed opposition groups holding back on the battlefield due to ongoing attempts to reach a political settlement, HTS’s insistence on remaining militarily active and in striking back hard at the heart of the regime is buying it invaluable popular credibility. Given the very real possibility that substantive international support for anti-Assad operations may soon be a thing of the past, HTS is presenting itself as the only sustainable model for continuing the fight that so many Syrians began in March 2011.

“Syrians trust [HTS] more than before,” influential Sunni cleric Rami al-Delati told me, “especially after the attacks on [Homs] intelligence and in Damascus. … The attacks [against opposition factions] were a big problem, but they have ended now. … The people are tired of having two or three groups; they are tired of disunity.”

America Gets Involved

Despite al Qaeda’s persistent efforts, it has failed to unite the Syria’s armed opposition under its leadership. Now devoid of its most extremist wing, which defected to HTS in January, Ahrar al-Sham has become more stridently combative against HTS’s “bullying.” A senior Ahrar al-Sham leader told me that a merger with HTS was “impossible” and could “never” happen, while leading military figure Hossam Salameh recently accused the group of “serving the enemies of the revolution.” Delati, who was deeply involved in the lobbying effort that secured the Nusra Front’s decision to rebrand to JFS, remains in close contact with HTS’s leadership. He suggested that HTS’s ultimate objective of full structural mergers remained unrealistic, but that “a political coming together is happening right now.”

The United States recently made a move that seemed designed to heighten the tensions between HTS and the other components of the Syrian opposition. In a statement on March 11 explaining why the United States saw HTS and all of its constituent groups as al Qaeda, U.S. Special Envoy Michael Ratney wrote in an unusually bold style that was hard to tell apart from any Syrian armed opposition group statement. “This was really extraordinary,” a senior Ahrar al-Sham leader told me. “It is like a revolutionary wrote it. Every word sounds like we wrote it ourselves. Is the author Syrian? Is he Muslim?”

One paragraph in particular grabbed Syrians’ attention:

“With every new façade, al Qaeda has become less dependent on the revolution that it seeks to destroy and now directs its attacks against the revolution’s symbols. We have seen this repeatedly, as demonstrated by their destructive actions against Ahrar al-Sham and other loyal defenders of the Syrian revolution.”

By suggesting that Ahrar al-Sham, a group that was once considered for U.S. designation as an international terrorist organization, was a “loyal defender of the Syrian revolution,” Ratney could only have been seeking to rub salt into an open wound. The tensions between HTS and Ahrar al-Sham in recent months have been in part due to HTS’s accusation that Ahrar al-Sham is loyal to external (specifically Turkish) instruction and that as long as that allegiance remained, Ahrar al-Sham would refuse to wholeheartedly pursue the revolution’s ultimate objective: the overthrow of the regime. Now, the United States was publicly telling al Qaeda in Syria that its longtime Salafist military ally was a “loyal defender” of the revolution, while HTS sought to “destroy” that revolution.

Speaking shortly after the statement’s release, an official in the U.S. special envoy’s office at the State Department confirmed that the text was indeed intended to stir the pot:

“We wanted to get the attention of the armed actors on the ground, stoke debate and commentary, show them that we follow what they write, understand their arguments, but also know when they are twisting the truth.”

Faced with this unprecedented new dynamic, HTS responded with a worryingly effective rejoinder. After several weeks of internal disagreement, HTS established a political office (the “Administration of Political Affairs”) and issued its first statement “clarifying” several points to Ratney.

“Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has clearly defined itself from the day of its inception. We have reaffirmed our commitment to the goals of our revolution, which are represented in the toppling of al-Assad’s criminal regime. We have stated that we are fully independent and do not represent any foreign body or organization. Further, we have clarified that the establishment of HTS symbolizes a new phase of the Syrian revolution. The members of HTS are members of this revolutionary nation.”

As the United States shifted toward revolutionary parlance, HTS’s response shifted to non-religious political rhetoric. It did away with an opening prayer from the Quran and delved solely into political language, emphasizing the Syrian nature of its identity and cause. HTS then laid out four accusations against the United States — relating to the Assad regime, Iran, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and Russia — and accused Washington of “ending the revolution.” No Syrian activist in Syria, Europe, or America would have been able to fault any of HTS’s four points.

What the Future Holds

Barring a major geopolitical shift, it is hard to see a future that does not give HTS more opportunities to exploit its advantages. It is clear that recent JFS and HTS attacks on opposition groups have generated an unprecedented level of suspicion and concern about the group’s intentions in Syria, but the armed struggle against the Assad regime will continue to take priority for the grassroots of the Syrian opposition.

The key determinant of the future will be the relationship between Ahrar al-Sham and HTS, and the extent to which Turkey is able to influence it. Since at least mid-2016, Ankara has viewed al Qaeda’s presence in northern Syria as a threat to Turkish policy. In August 2016, Turkish intelligence was engaged in detailed discussions with all northern opposition groups that revolved around providing security guarantees and protective measures in exchange for an oppositionwide de-coupling from and isolation of JFS.

Today, Turkey is pressuring the northern opposition to transfer heavy weaponry from the fronts it shares with HTS in northwestern Syria to northern Aleppo’s countryside, under Turkish proxy control. Such a move would go some way toward weakening HTS while strengthening Turkey’s objectives in northern Aleppo, where an alternative, nonextremist opposition model is fast becoming a reality. HTS has aggressively prevented several recent attempts by groups, including Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, to undertake these weapons transfers.

The tension between Syria’s broader opposition and HTS is very real. Lives have been lost, territory taken, weapons stolen, and reputations tarnished due to this fight. But ultimately, Syria’s opposition knows that turning against HTS by force without considerable international support and protection would spell an almost certain death knell to their revolutionary struggle against Assad — even if they succeeded in defeating the group.

Armed opposition groups are acutely aware of the continued need to retain their popular credibility on the ground. In order to do so, they will soon need to re-prioritize the military fight over political negotiations. If and when they do, HTS will completely regain the initiative, as military cooperation will be seen as a necessity not a choice. HTS may not find itself any closer to securing a full “uniting of the ranks,” but it will have secured its place as the unchallenged driver of Syria’s revolutionary narrative.

Photo credit: FADI AL-HALABI/AFP/Getty Images