There a concerted international and regional counterterrorism effort that will only exacerbate the crisis of the Syrian armed opposition and cause it to decline further.
The concerted effort to fight terrorism is objectively bringing together, for the first time, the allies and enemies of the Syrian regime on two sides of a difficult equation to eliminate the jihadist enemy. However, the goals diverge about directing guns against Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Ahrar al-Sham, Suqur al-Sham and the jihadist groups that are in the shadow of al-Qaeda and its many Syrian branches.
Eliminating the extremists is the objective of the Baathist regime and its allies because the extremists are the nucleus of the combat power of the opposition and the spearhead of a regional war waged by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the United States against Syria. Eliminating the extremists now intersects with the policies of Saudi Arabia, the United States, Turkey and Qatar because of the de facto situation and the predominance of the Saudi choice regarding Syria. That choice is to weaken the extremists in the framework of restructuring the armed opposition, to revive the image of a moderate fighting force and establish a “Secular Free Army,” which will work for the regional war bloc to strike al-Qaeda’s extensions in Syria and overthrow the regime.
The United States and European countries no longer share that goal of overthrowing the Syrian regime with their Gulf allies after the jihadist boom and the decline of the “moderate” opposition. The Americans were extremely clear in expressing their Syrian priorities when Secretary of State John Kerry asked the National Coalition delegation headed by Ahmed al-Jarba, whom he met in Washington yesterday [May 9], to promote counterterrorism.
It seems the meeting about the Syrian jihadists in Brussels was an important milestone in shifting the course of the Syrian war toward its starting point and to assign the responsibilities for containing the jihadists. In the scope of this restructuring, major jihadist-exporting countries, such as Tunisia and Morocco, were invited to the meeting. Saudi Arabia, the primary source for jihadists, was absent. Jihadist gateway countries, such as Jordan and Turkey, were also invited. It was noteworthy that Lebanon was absent, given that the Qalamoun battle had just ended. That battle closed one of the jihadist crossings to the Syrian interior and temporarily relieved the Lebanese from having to sit at US and European interior [homeland security] ministries’ tables. Those ministries are especially pressuring their ally Turkey to ease its suicidal push to turn northern Syria into a jihadist center that threatens Europe.
The security conference in Brussels was preceded by Turkish messages about a possible turning point. This underlines the objective collaboration against the jihadists in Syria. In recent days, Turkish intelligence conducted operations to assassinate and kidnap jihadist emirs, especially in the Latakia countryside.
The Turks went even further. According to a Syrian opposition source, Turkish intelligence started rationing supplies to the armed opposition in the countryside north of Latakia and pushing the fighters to Aleppo fronts. The source said that the Turks had set up a battalion specializing in pursuing some jihadist leaders and were carrying out assassination operations against a list of names that European countries didn’t wish to see return to Europe when the Syrian jihadist center lashed back. The Turkish battalion was liquidating groups of Saudi and Moroccan jihadists that Saudi intelligence asked to be rid of.
In the past few weeks, the Turks handed over the commander of the Millat Ibrahim battalion, Abu Osama al-Gharib, to German intelligence because he had recruited a large group of German jihadists, including rapper Abu Talha, who was killed.
Turkish intelligence has resumed a selective war against some jihadist leaders that were being hunted by Saudi intelligence. That war started last year when the Turks arrested the mufti of Jaish al-Muhajirin wal Ansar, Rakan al-Rumaihi, and handed him over to Saudi intelligence. Turkey also handed Riyadh the Sharia emir of Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Munther al-Khalidi.
There are doubts about Turkish penetration of jihadist groups and the Turks’ responsibility for assassination operations against senior al-Qaeda leaders, such as Abu Khaled al-Suri, the de facto leader of Ahrar al-Sham, Abu Abdul Aziz al-Qatari, and his successor, Abu Musab al-Jaabur, who was killed 10 days ago. The operation to assassinate Haji Bakir, the military adviser of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is still a mystery that is attributed to intelligence work in northern Syria. At the end of last year, the Turks arrested the Saudis Omar and Khaled al-Harbi and handed them over to Saudi security.
Turkish intelligence coordinated the Anfal battle in Kassab, which Turkey started, with the Moroccan Sham al-Islam groups, Ansar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, and Liwa al-Qadisiyah. More than 2,500 fighters crossed the Turkish border and entered an area about 63 kilometers [39 miles] from the city of Latakia, which they threatened. The operation was aimed at forcing the Syrian army, which suffers from a personnel shortage, to deploy on several fighting fronts and so disperse its troops, as well as to control the heights that overlook the entire rural north and the high observatories that make up the first lines of defense of the Syrian army to protect coastal cities and towns.
Turkish artillery provided extensive coverage for the first waves of the attack, which surprised the small Syrian units stationed on the Kassab crossing and on the hills of Jabal al-Nisr, Chalma and Observatory 45.
In the last few days, the Turks surprised the jihadist groups that they forced into Kassab, according to a source who was following operations, by refusing a pressing request from the Anfal leadership to send reinforcements to northern Jabal al-Turkmen to launch a counterattack on the village of Samra and Observatory 45, after the attack carried out in the past few weeks by the operations room stumbled. The operations room was being managed from Antakya, in the disputed Iskenderun province.
According to opposition sources, Anfal fighters suffered heavy losses, which hampered the momentum of the attack on Kassab and its surrounding hills. The opposition in the area documented the names of 480 jihadists killed. The names were based on lists in Turkish hospitals and by declarations by the jihadist groups mourning their losses. It should be noted that this list was not necessarily complete. Also, the Turks transported nearly 1,500 wounded to hospitals in Iskenderun.
The Saudis have started withholding their aid for Ahrar al-Sham and Suqur al-Sham in recent months to encourage the sorting out between them and the “moderates.” However, the new Saudi policy has limits and it has dangerous bets on the combat performance of the Syrian opposition. This is because it will weaken the jihadist groups in the near term without resulting in the emergence of a moderate armed group. Nor will it give the groups that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are working with to establish a chance to test their abilities to confront the Syrian army and to demonstrate their ability to replace battle-hardened jihadist groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, some wings of Ahrar al-Sham, the Islamic Front and Jaish al-Muhajirin wal Ansar.
As a result of this policy, over the past few weeks the ability of Ahrar al-Sham, the largest group in the Islamic Front, to fight on multiple fronts has declined. The reducing Qatari support and the sagging Saudi assistance has forced it to withdraw battalions of fighters on the fronts of rural Hama and Aleppo. Ahrar al-Sham and Suqur al-Sham inflate their strength through alliances with local groups, who give their support in return for funding. Therefore, reducing the funding causes structural damage to the biggest jihadist group.
In Aleppo, Liwa al-Tawhid gave way to another brigade after it used to share power with Jabhat al-Nusra in east Aleppo and its countryside. Liwa al-Tawhid’s former leader, Abdul Aziz Salama, is trying to create a battalion in his hometown of Andan and fund it locally.
The focus is on Faylaq al-Sham, which was formed from Liwa Dawud. The latter withdrew from Jaish al-Mujahideen to accelerate its restructuring. Jaish al-Mujahideen and Ittihad Ajnad al-Sham have pledged allegiance to the Islamic Council of Syria, which the Saudis worked to form in Istanbul a month ago.
An international expert who returned from the region said that Saudi Arabia’s policy of weakening the jihadists in Syria and the continued support of the Qataris for the jihadists will ultimately lead to the weakening of all groups that depend on external financing, especially Ahrar al-Sham, Suqur al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam and Liwa al-Taqhid, which are the largest armed opposition groups, without that necessarily leading to the rise of the desired moderate opposition. In the end, the moderate axis will only be composed of warlords, who can later be relied upon and armed qualitatively. The groups led by warlords will float to the surface because they cannot be completely controlled. They fund themselves from internal war spoils and from little external financing and supplies that cross from Turkey.
During the past few weeks, Jamal Maarouf, the commander of Jabhat Thuwar Suria, was being put forward to head the moderate axis. He is a contractor from Jabal al-Zawiya and one of the warlords who have relatively succeeded in funding their battalions from the spoils of war. The fronts which are most inflamed in Syria are those that provide the warlords with quick and direct spoils to pay the fighters’ salaries and recruit new ones. Some battalions are not doing particular operations because they won’t produce direct returns, especially in rural areas.
The leader of Nur al-Din al-Zanki battalion, Tawfiq Shahabuddin, succeeded in forming a “war emirate” that is semi-autonomous from external funding. He oversees 33 combat battalions in al-Atareb and in the Aleppo countryside. His command as warlord got solidified by controlling a wide network of 40 schools that host 40,000 students in the areas he controls. Shahabuddin depends on the spoils of war and on interrelated local militias, that became so independent that they recently left Suqur al-Sham.
Jabhat al-Nusra has also succeeded in overcoming reduced external financing. However, it collided with the restructuring aimed at forming a moderate axis and was forced to come out in Daraa and it arrested the president of the Daraa Military Council, Col. Ahmed al-Nehme. This shows the limits of searching for moderates in the armed opposition. Jabhat al-Nusra controls over 60% of the battlefronts with the Syrian army, according to estimates by an expert on the conflict.
Jabhat al-Nusra succeeded in leading operation war rooms on the Syrian army by putting together intersecting alliances that don’t give Jabhat al-Nusra more than one-third of the combat effort, but the effort is enough to put it at the forefront of the forces that are fighting on all fronts. This shows that the moderate Syrian fighter will not see the light soon.
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