A short while ago As-Sahab Media, Al-Qaeda’s main media outlet, released a six-minute-long audio message purportedly from Ayman Al-Zawahiri who is the leader of the group. The message was titled: “Shaam will submit to none except Allah.” This was part six of the group’s “Brief messages to a victorious nation” series. In it we saw that the group follows Syria closely and it is not indifferent to the battlefields there. Instead, it has different projects there.
In the audio message, Al-Zawahiri begins his speech by emphasising that the wounds and pains of the people of the Levant are the wounds and pains of the entire ummah. Some of the points he raises imply the probable return of the group to Syria under a new format.
Abu Mohammad Al-Jawlani, who was the leader of Jabhat Al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, stated that the group had cut its ties with the group and declared the formation of Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham in July 2016 in an attempt to protect itself against airstrikes by the US-led international coalition. The group denounced ties with any external organisation.
Al-Jawlani’s move was not simply a name change; the group had considered the dynamics of the battle in Syria and made its decision. Despite this, the US-led international coalition considered this a simple name change and it targeted the new group in the same manner that it had targeted Al-Qaeda. The group lost hundreds of its fighters.
After a short while upon the formation of Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham, the Syrian regime, with the help of Russian airstrikes and Iran-backed militias, took over opposition-held Aleppo. One of the biggest reasons for the fall of Aleppo was the lack of unity between opposition groups on the battlefield. Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham was aware of the situation, it claiming that moderate groups sold the revolution to the enemies during the negotiations.
The clashes between the two sides resulted in an umbrella entity. Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham abolished itself and merged with several other groups under the name of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham in the wake of fierce clashes in the beginning of 2017. Some other groups that were fighting against Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham joined to Ahrar Al-Sham in order to protect themselves. Thus, the battlefield which was much divided became a little more organised.
Syrians have not taken to the helm of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and a large number of its fighters are countrymen. The leaders called it a “national project” saying its remit is limited to Syria. This situation was considered the “Syrianisation” of the group despite its leaders also discussing the existential war of Sunnis in the Levant. The group benefited from this situation. It gained power and conducted deadly attacks in Syria after the unification. Meanwhile, the distance between Al-Qaeda and the group broadened with the death of Abu Al-Khayr Al-Masri who was considered the second most important person in Al-Qaeda. Al-Masri was important because he communicated with leaders of the former Al-Qaeda branch in Syria.
Since his death, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham has become a more nationalist organization, focused on holding territories such as Idlib in Syria.
However, in his message, Al-Zawahiri focused on a different strategy and objective to Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham. He said the war in Syria must not be limited to a national war. This, he added, would only serve the enemies.
This can be seen as indirect criticism of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham. Moreover, Al-Zawahiri emphasised the necessity of ranks and a new long war against the enemies of the ummah; the “crusaders” and their Shia fellows.
He also suggested fighters in Syria adopt “guerilla warfare” instead of holding territories in an attempt to demoralise and weaken the Syrian regime and its backers. With this, he aims to bleed the Syrian regime and its backers to death. Al-Qaeda and its branches use this tactic efficiently.
Highlighting the strategy that areas of land should not be held under a group’s control can be seen as a further criticism of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s operations, as the latter wants to act as a de facto state.
There appears to be a disconnect between Al-Qaeda and Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham. The groups are now operating independently and often in opposite directions. This allows Al-Qaeda to return to Syria with a new group and format. In doing so, it will not face difficulties in finding fighters willing to join its ranks.
With its army ready, the group can take advantage of the chaotic atmosphere in Syria and carry out deadly attacks across the country.
This article was first published by the Middle East Monitor in May 17, 2017