Haid Haid

How jihadists are exploiting rebel gains in Aleppo

The group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra has used the recent offensive to increase its communal and material support within the city

Fighters from the former Al-Nusra Front –renamed Fatah al-Sham Front after breaking from Al-Qaeda—drive a tank as they seized key positions south of Aleppo on August 6, 2016 in a major offensive to break the government siege of the city. (AFP/Omar Haj Kadour)

Syrian rebels broke through to besieged opposition-held areas in eastern Aleppo on August 6 after a major offensive against the government's Ramouseh military complex. The significant military gains achieved by the rebels allow them to reconnect opposition controlled areas and threaten the isolation of government-held western Aleppo by cutting its southern supply route toward the capital Damascus. The offensive involved almost all opposition factions and groups in northern Syria. However, the battle was widely perceived to be led by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the rebranded name of former Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. As a result of the Aleppo offensive, the group’s military coordination with other rebel groups has strengthened and its support amongst the local community has significantly increased. Thus, experts are starting to question the convenient timing of the battle to break the siege on Aleppo, which began two weeks after Al-Nusra publicly severed ties with Al-Qaeda, a move seen as an attempt to soften domestic and foreign opposition to the group.  


The recent Aleppo military campaign is made of two main collations: Fatah Halab (Aleppo Conquest), which brings together most armed rebel groups fighting in the city, including Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam and several factions aligned with the Free Syrian Army; and Jaysh al-Fatah (The Army of Conquest), which includes Islamist militant groups like Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham and other smaller groups. The major rebel offensive launched on July 29, with the goal of breaking the one-month government-imposed siege on opposition-held areas of the city, came days after pro-Syrian government forces were able to cut off the Castello Road, the only route in and out of rebel-held areas of Aleppo. An estimated 300,000 citizens in Aleppo were placed under siege, which led to a rapid rise in food prices due to shortages in opposition neighborhoods.


There has been speculation that the timing of the ongoing fight in Aleppo can be directly linked to the group former known as Jabhat al-Nusra’s decision to rebrand itself. Hassan Hassan, a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, wrote that the timing of the assault in Aleppo and Jabhat al-Nusra’s announcement was not coincidental. Hassan believes that the Aleppo offensive was partly designed to employ Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in a leading role as a way of increasing public support for the new group. It is worth mentioning that Al-Nusra had a long history of using military gains to divert attention away from its problems or wrongdoings. “Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is trying to prove itself again after the extensive criticism that it faced following the split with Al-Qaeda. It has continued its policy of looking for military gains to overcome its crises. It launched a big offensive to capture Wadi al-Daief [in Idlib province] after it eliminated the Syrian Revolutionaries Front. It also launched the battle to capture Idlib after eliminating Hazem movement,” wrote Syrian journalist Manhal Barish on the activist website Al-Modon. Furthermore, some experts think that it is too big of a coincidence that the Aleppo offensive just happened to take place quickly after Al-Nusra’s public split from Al-Qaeda. “It is naive to think that the counterattack to break the siege on Aleppo accidentally coincided with Al-Nusra’s break with Al-Qaeda and that the high military coordination among all groups just happened because it is the right thing to do,” Bissan al-Shiekh argued in London-based Al-Hayat newspaper. However, Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, disagrees with this theory and does not think that the two events were linked: “No doubt, breaking Aleppo’s siege will further empower ‘Jabhat Fatah al-Sham,’ but rebranding was *not* timed to coincide with the operation.”


While it is difficult to be certain whether Al-Nusra timed the Aleppo counteroffensive with its split from Al-Qaeda, the newly christened Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is clearly using the battle to its advantage. One tactic the group has employed in an effort to portray itself as the leader of the offensive is leaking information about the fighting before anyone else. “Jabhat Fatah al-Sham was focusing in its media coverage of the Aleppo offensive on the suicidal attacks of its members in order to highlight the significance of its role. The group was also leaking information about the developments of the battle so people associate these victories with the group. This happened despite clear instructions that the media coverage should be handled exclusively by Jaysh al-Fatah’s official media room,” said Mustafa al-Abdullah, a media activist in Aleppo. Moreover, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham’s leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, spoke in an audio message on August 5 about the progress of the Aleppo assault, which is a clear indication of how significant this battle is for the group and how invested they are in it. Jolani also highlighted the recent military gains in Aleppo as an argument for the importance of rebel unity against the Syrian regime. “Jolani’s statement focused on the significant role the group’s suicide bombers have played in the fight in order to take credit for the military gains. He also aims to mobilize local communities to put pressure on rebel groups to unite with [his group] in order to achieve more gains,” said Raed Issa, a Syrian researcher in Aleppo.


Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has thus far succeeded in its plan to use the Aleppo battle to gain more communal and material support. Although the ongoing battle raised concerns among activists about the future of the city under the control of jihadist-linked organizations, the majority of people in Aleppo were cheering for the groups trying to break the siege, despite their ideology. “No one inside besieged Aleppo was concerned with the ideology of those who are trying to break the siege. We have no choice but to cheer for anyone who is willing to die so we can live. We are grateful to Al-Nusra (Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) and to the rest of the groups,” said Hani Naiem, a local resident in eastern Aleppo. Similarly, other activists in Aleppo have confirmed that the support for Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has risen in the city. “It is more common to hear people openly talking about the courage of Al-Nusra and their strong support for it. Many people started talking about joining the group to liberate the rest of the city,” said Mohammed al-Hassan, a local resident in eastern Aleppo. Furthermore, the group did not solely increase its support within the local community, but also reportedly captured a large cache of weapons and artillery. “It is still unclear how much weaponry Jabhat Fatah al-Sham may have seized in this battle. However, there was reportedly a sizable amount of weaponry stored in the regime’s Ramouseh military complex. Thus, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is expected to gain a big chunk of it, which will further increase its influence and capacity,” said Ahmed Rashid, a fighter with Fatah Haleb operational room.


Whether Jabhat al-Nusra timed the battle of Aleppo to coincide with its split with Al-Qaeda or not, the group has used the occasion to increase its communal support and military power. The new phase of the battle, in which rebels announced their intention recapture all of Aleppo, will likely empower the group even more. Allowing Aleppo to come under government siege gave Al-Nusra a golden opportunity to expand its influence amongst opposition supporters. The continued indifference of the international community toward atrocities that are taking place in Syria (starvation, airstrikes, etc.) will likely allow the group to increase its military might and force other rebels groups to increase their cooperation with it.  


Haid Haid is a Syrian researcher who focuses on foreign and security policy, conflict resolution, and Kurdish and Islamist movements. He tweets @HaidHaid22 

Fighters from the former Al-Nusra Front –renamed Fatah al-Sham Front after breaking from Al-Qaeda—drive a tank as they seized key positions south of Aleppo on August 6, 2016 in a major offensive to break the government siege of the city. (AFP/Omar Haj Kadour)

'Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has continued its policy of looking for military gains to overcome its crises.'