Jabhat al-Nusra's return to Aleppo worries activists

A year and half after withdrawing from Aleppo, Jabhat al-Nusra returned, raising speculation about its intentions going forward.

al-monitor A member of Jabhat al-Nusra sits in a tank decorated with the Nusra flag north of Aleppo city, Nov. 25, 2014.  Photo by REUTERS/Hosam Katan.

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syrian army, jabhat al-nusra, is, civil war, aleppo, ahrar al-sham, abu mohammed al-golani

Feb 3, 2016

Jabhat al-Nusra is back in the city of Aleppo, a year and a half after its big pullout, in mid-2014, in the wake of its resounding defeat by the Islamic State (IS) in the eastern region. This defeat forced Jabhat al-Nusra to regroup its forces to embark on the project of its leader, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, with the aim of establishing an Islamic emirate, which is what happened in Idlib province.

Jabhat al-Nusra returns to Aleppo under complex political and military conditions affecting the Syrian arena in general and Aleppo in particular, especially in light of increasing talk of a major military campaign by Syrian forces to restore the city. This coincides with the escalation in violence in Aleppo, which days ago saw its first blast in two years, when a truck suicide bomb targeted Ahrar al-Sham headquarters

There is no doubt that this return will reshuffle the cards of the armed groups in Aleppo, who are not pleased to see Jabhat al-Nusra regaining control over the city.

In this context, a full military, political and administrative integration was announced yesterday between al-Sham Front and Thuwar al-Sham.

Large convoys were successively dispatched by Jabhat al-Nusra toward Aleppo a few days ago. This was documented on the Twitter account @jnhallab, with posted video footage showing the entry of the convoys. This action revealed the mystery behind the checkpoints that Jabhat al-Nusra had deployed during the previous two weeks in some districts of the city and that had stirred broad waves of criticism and protests among the city's activists. The checkpoints were not the ultimate objective. The facts reveal that the deployment was a preliminary step in preparation for the incoming convoys. The checkpoints were to protect the convoys and ensure the security of the headquarters and warehouses where they would be stationed.

Jabhat al-Nusra had established several checkpoints, the largest of which was set up on the only road linking Aleppo to its northern countryside (Alcastelo Road). The second checkpoint was located on al-Sinaa roundabout in Bab al-Nairab and the third in front of al-Kanj gas station in al-Kallasa. Jabhat al-Nusra also expropriated a number of buildings and warehouses in some districts of Aleppo, such as al-Mashhad and al-Firdaws, to use them as headquarters and offices for its leaders and expected fighters.

The posted video footage showed huge convoys of trucks, loaded with fighters and heavily equipped with all kinds of medium and heavy weapons, making their way toward the city of Aleppo and entering its districts in what looks like a military parade. The largest of these convoys consisted of hundreds of vehicles and trucks with mounted machine guns. However, a number of residents in the stormed districts told As-Safir that the footage did not show the military tanks, armored vehicles and artillery systems included in the convoys.

Jabhat al-Nusra officially indicated that the convoys had been dispatched in light of the need to reinforce the Aleppo front and protect it from the military operation being prepared by the Syrian army. According to talk by sources close to the Syrian regime, the Syrian army has mobilized troops on several fronts around the city, which clearly indicates that it is preparing for a military operation.

However, this explanation did not convince any of the city’s activists and faction leaders, especially since reinforcing the fighting front requires mobilization of forces on the demarcation lines experiencing clashes with the Syrian army, in areas of the Aleppo countryside, not inside the city.

The first from among Aleppo’s factions to voice his objection was Mustafa Berro, leader of the Fastaqim Kama Umirta Gathering (which takes its name from a Quranic verse), who described Jabhat al-Nusra’s move as futile, because it aims to liberate areas that were already liberated, referencing the accusation that has always been leveled at IS. Berro asked, “What did they come here for?” describing the masterminds behind the move as senseless persons.

For their part, many activists expressed fears of Jabhat al-Nusra’s return and sudden activity inside Aleppo. The activists became even more anxious when Jabhat al-Nusra rejected an initiative put forward by some faction leaders to establish a unified police apparatus fully devoted to ensuring security within the city if all fighters head toward the confrontation lines against the Syrian army. This rejection implies that Jabhat al-Nusra has other intentions that it does not want to disclose.

According to information obtained by As-Safir from a private source, the entry of Jabhat al-Nusra’s convoys was planned several months ago, even before the Russian intervention at the end of September 2015. The source told As-Safir that according to the plan, the convoys were supposed to enter Aleppo shortly after the appointment of Abu Hajar al-Homsi as the emir of Jabhat al-Nusra in Aleppo in August 2015, but accelerating events, the Russian Sukhoi storm and the Syrian army attack on the southern countryside of Aleppo, forced Jabhat al-Nusra to postpone the move.

Some activists did not rule out the possibility that Jabhat al-Nusra’s return to Aleppo’s districts might involve several objectives at this stage. These could include gaining a foothold in the economic capital of the country as a prelude to mastering the game and imposing new facts on the ground to disrupt the political process.

Golani, Jabhat al-Nusra’s leader, had described participation in the political process as a “great betrayal of the blood of those who sacrificed their blood” and has not hidden his intention to undermine it. The developments on the field and the major progress achieved by the Syrian army on a number of fronts, in Latakia, Aleppo and Daraa, pushed Jabhat al-Nusra’s leadership to accelerate the execution of the scheme it had sought to implement since it controlled Idlib. Jabhat al-Nusra had always wanted to add Aleppo to its emirate and it now worries it might see its strongholds in Idlib surrounded and under siege in light of the Syrian army’s military operations and progress toward the western countryside of Aleppo.

Activists fear Jabhat al-Nusra’s entry into Aleppo will exacerbate the security situation and turn disputes with factions into armed clashes, as has happened in more than one place. Moreover, the chances of this happening increased when Jabhat al-Nusra’s general Shariah official, Sami al-Aridi, a Jordanian national, posted on his official account on Twitter that some factions in the liberated areas are providing safe haven for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi-affiliated cells and the remnants of those who wreak havoc on Earth (al-Mufsideen).

This further raised the concerns of the activists, who worry the real objective is to launch a new campaign against the Mufsideen, as happened in the countryside of Idlib last year.

The accusations made by Jabhat al-Nusra’s followers against factions they did not name seemingly fall within the scope of this campaign. Jabhat al-Nusra accuses these factions of cooperating with the Syrian regime and setting the ground in Aleppo to hand it to regime forces.

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