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A ‘confused and confusing situation’

Jul 26,2017 - Last updated at Jul 26,2017

Al Qaeda has won the post-Daesh power struggle in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province. 

Hay’et Tahrir Al Sham, a takfiri coalition dominated by Al Qaeda’s Jabhat Fatah Al Sham (formerly Nusra), routed Ahrar Al Sham, a sometime partner on Syria’s battlefields.

Following Daesh’s diminution due to ongoing military campaigns in Syria and Iraq, Tahrir has become the most powerful takfiri group in Syria while Ahrar Al Sham, which has been funded and armed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, and tolerated by the US, had been second.

Fighting between the two factions was the heaviest between insurgents since the Syrian  war began in 2011.

Ahrar’s defeat is a strategic loss for its backers, particularly Turkey, which seeks allies as well as surrogates in the battle for Syria.

Furthermore, Tahrir’s victory has given it control of the Bab Al Hawa border crossing with Turkey where its fighters can prevent Turkish troops and rival groups from entering Idlib.

The crossing is also a key source of revenue from tariffs imposed on the entry into Idlib of goods from Turkey.

Tahrir has also captured the Kherbet Al Jouz border crossing funnelling humanitarian aid into Idlib. This asset gives Tahrir considerable leverage with both aid providers and populace.

An estimated 2 million people live in Idlib, several thousand of them fighters driven from areas recaptured by the government.

Ahrar fighters defected to Tahrir or surrendered and handed over their weapons while other Tahrir rivals disbanded and surrendered their arsenals.

Among fighters belonging to three other groups who have defected are members of Khalid Ibn Walid, a former Daesh ally.

Once again battlefield success is succeeded by shifts of allegiances rather than loyalty to a faction or an ideology.

Hay’et Tahrir Al Sham is the latest rebranding of Al Qaeda’s Jabhat Al Nusra, an offshoot of Daesh deployed in Syria in late 2011-early 2012.

Nusra broke with Daesh in the spring of 2013 when its chief Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi called for a merger, a subjugation rejected by Nusra head Abu Muhammad Al Julani.

In mid-2016, he declared that Nusra had changed its name to Jabhat Fatah Al Sham and had “no affiliation to any external entity”, suggesting it had cut ties with Al Qaeda central based on the Afghan-Pakistan border.

However, before this announcement, Al Qaeda sent senior strategists to Nusra and the group has never renounced its oath of fealty to Al Qaeda’s leader Ayman Al Zawahiri.

Although certain US-sponsored Syrian insurgent groups cooperated with Nusra/Jabhat in battle, Washington did not cease its aid to “vetted” groups meant to act independently of Daesh and Nusra/Jabhat. 

In January this year, the group merged with other taqfiri factions and changed its name, once again, to Hay’et Tahrir Al Sham.

Western powers have, so far, failed to react to Tahrir’s take-over of northern Idlib.

Following the seizure of Mosul in Iraq in June 2014, their governments appear to have soft-pedalled the branding of this group as a “terrorist” organisation in the expectation that it could be used against both Daesh and Damascus, although this means tolerating Al Qaeda’s presence.

Unchecked, Tahrir is on the route to becoming the main taqfiri organisation in Syria. This possibility should worry unthinking Washington and its allies.

Across the border, in Lebanon, Tahrir is still called “Nusra”, seen as a dangerous enemy of the state and branded a “terrorist” organisation.

A week ago, Hizbollah launched a full-scale offensive to oust Nusra fighters from the mountainous region between the town of Arsal and the Syrian border.

Hizbollah fighters have launched a multi-pronged operation in both Lebanon and Syria where they intend to drive Nusra from the Qalamoun mountains on that side of the border.

Now that the anti-Nusra offensive is winding down, Hizbollah is ready to take on Daesh, which has also set up a base in the Arsal area.

In Lebanon, the Lebanese army has backed Hizbollah to the extent of arresting Nusra fighters seeking to escape the Hizbollah offensive.

The army is evacuating Syrian refugees from the battlefield and dealing with kidnappings and attacks on troops by “sleeper cells” left behind by withdrawing Nusra fighters.

The army has a bitter feud with Daesh and Nusra, which stormed Arsal, abducted 28 Lebanese soldiers and police in 2014 and killed three.

Nusra released 16 in a prisoner swap in late 2015 while nine continue to be held by Daesh.

In Syria, Hizbollah has the full support of units of the regular army and allied militia, as well as the Syrian air force, which is bombing Nusra concentrations and positions in both countries.

The difference in approach to the presence of Nusra and Daesh in Arsal is dictated by politics.

The Sunni-Christian March 14th bloc, headed by Saad Hariri, has backed Sunni insurgents in Syria to the extent of risking Lebanon’s own security.

Saudi Arabia’s intervention in the conflict through proxies has made it impossible for Saudi-sponsored Hariri, now Lebanon’s prime minister, to commit the army to the Arsal operation.

In response, the Shiite-Christian bloc, dominated by Hizbollah but chaired by current President Michel Aoun, has supported the Syrian government, Hizbollah’s role in the Syrian war, and its ongoing drive to uproot Al Qaeda and Daesh from the Arsal region. 

Hizbollah also seeks to secure the release of the Lebanese soldiers still held by Daesh.

Qatar mediated the release of the men held by Nusra, but cannot repeat the effort as it is blacklisted and blockaded by Saudi Arabia and its allies.

Minimising the involvement of the Lebanese army in the battle for Arsal is at odds with Washington’s efforts to build up the army, boost its capabilities and encourage it to take on Nusra and Daesh rather than leave this task to Hizbollah, which the US and its domineering partner, Israel, consider a “terrorist” organisation.

They do not want to give Hizbollah a victory in the war against the takfiris.

The most contradictory aspect of this confused and confusing situation is Washington’s apparent readiness to accept the conquest of Idlib by Tahrir, in spite of its Al Qaeda lineage, while attempting to bolster the Lebanese army so it can take on Tahrir. 

The US is playing a very dangerous game here because this ill-advised policy could result in the rooting of Al Qaeda, the parent and sponsor of this group, in Idlib and, perhaps, along the Lebanese-Syrian border if the army is encouraged to tackle the group without Hizbollah’s aid.

 

Al Qaeda is, after all, the author of the attacks on New York and Washington, on September 11, 2001, and an inveterate antagonist of the US.

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