Al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria has redoubled its efforts against Islamic State with its fighters pressing attacks on a militia in southern Syria that recently swore allegiance to its jihadist rival.
The clashes are being seen as part of a bid by al-Qaida’s Jabhat al-Nusra to revitalize its fortunes in Syria, a strategy that has seen it taking the lead in offensives elsewhere in the war-torn country against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
Analysts say al-Nusra is attempting to demonstrate its military leverage over mainstream rebel militias, making it the indispensable force to align with against the Assad regime and IS. And its increased military activity may foreshadow a formal declaration by al-Qaida affiliate of an emirate in Syria’s Idlib province, west of Aleppo.
In an audio tape released Sunday, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri appeared to authorize the establishment of a Syrian emirate. In the message - the first for several months - Zawahiri called on the jihad groups in Syria to unite. “Syria today is the hope of the Islamic nation, for [its revolution] is the only Arab Spring revolution that is taking the correct path – the path of da'wa (preaching) and jihad for the sake of strengthening the sharia and enacting [its laws], and for the sake of striving to establish a righteous caliphate, not the caliphate of Ibrahim Al-Badri (i.e., Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, IS leader),” he said.
“By re-escalating hostilities in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra is reacquiring the influence it lost during the dramatic reduction in fighting in February-March” when the cessation of hostilities mediated by the United States and Russia went into effect, according to Charles Lister, an analyst at the Middle East Institute.
Al-Qaida could be preparing to declare its own sovereign state in Syria after quietly gathering strength in the shadow of the international campaign against IS, says Lister, author of the book "The Syrian Jihad."
Last week, al-Qaida’s Syrian branch launched an offensive in Hama by attacking Assad forces headquarters in the southeastern suburbs of the city. Al-Nusra claimed to have killed 25 government fighters, including the local commander of the Iranian-trained National Defense Forces. The regime responded with airstrikes on the nearby jihadist-held towns of Aydoun, at-Tuloul al-Homer and ad-Dallak, according to Syrian government spokesmen.
Al-Nusra has also been in the vanguard of a rebel offensive in the southern Aleppo countryside that saw the jihadists last week overrun the village of Maarta just days after capturing the town of Khan Touman from pro-regime Shi’ite militias. Dramatic video footage was posted online by al-Nusra showing jihadist rockets striking government positions, sending out blast shock waves for several hundreds of meters.
And in Syria’s southwest province of Dara’a, al-Nusra fighters have been pressing hard attacks on IS allies, according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, a British-based pro-opposition group monitoring the conflict.
In fighting rebel factions that oppose it, the jihadist group is seemingly vying with IS to strike fear in its opponents. There was outrage among insurgent militias when al-Nusra fighters in a Damascus suburb last week killed a Sunni fighter from Jaysh al-Islam, a coalition of Islamist militias. The jihadists shot him and cut out his stomach before ripping out his heart.
The brutal execution of the fighter, Mohammad Amer Hawa, prompted a social media furor with even hardline Islamists accusing al-Nusra of being no different than IS.
Arrival of 'powerful' al-Qaida leaders
The increased tempo of al-Nusra operations follows the arrival of a “number of al-Qaida’s most powerful figures,” according to Lister, writing in Foreign Policy magazine. He says it is "the covert revitalization of al-Qaida's central leadership on Europe’s doorstep.”
Lister says there are differences of opinion within Jabhat al-Nusra about establishing an emirate, while influential Sunni clerics in Syria have flatly rejected the group's ambitions.
Consequently, highly influential jihadists have been invited into Syria to mediate and facilitate more productive discussions surrounding al-Qaida’s future in Syria,” he said.
This isn’t the first time there have been disputes within al-Nusra and among allied Sunni theologians about what path the group should pursue. In November 2014 the Daily Beast news site reported there were tentative merger discussions between al-Nusra and IS leaders.
At the same time there were reports from other rebel commanders the group’s leader, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, was considering alternatively announcing an al-Nusra emirate to rival the caliphate of the militants of IS. That would have reversed a policy of avoiding imposing sharia law on territory controlled in ad hoc alliances with other insurgent groups in order not to antagonize rebel allies or alienate local populations.
In April and May 2015, Qatari officials urged al-Nusra, behind-the-scenes, to break with al-Qaida, prompting debate within the group that spilled out on social media sites.
Muhamed Nabih Osman, who runs a charitable organization for former Assad prisoners, told VOA, "I think the split will happen soon. You have to understand that al-Nusra consists of two very different parts and that one part, mostly local fighters, [is] not interested in global jihad.”
Worried by the tendency of al-Nusra to get ensnared in internal debates, al-Qaida chiefs appear to have intervened, dispatching leading jihadists to drive the creation of an emirate and quash internal opposition, according to Lister.
“With the cessation of hostilities effectively over and the political process in Geneva falling apart, Jabhat al-Nusra’s leverage on the ground is increasing once again,” Lister warns.
He argued in an email to VOA, “The only way to effectively and durably counter Jabhat al-Nusra’s emirate ambitions, therefore, lies in efforts to significantly embolden and re-empower Syria’s moderate civil, political, judicial and military opposition.”
“Rather than support such bodies independently of each other, policymakers must... urgently empower the totality of Syria’s moderate opposition... aimed at establishing steadily expanding zones of representative Syrian moderate control that are confident and powerful enough to repel al-Qaida’s attempts to formalize influence,” he said.