A series of clashes broke out on 19 January between al-Qaeda’s rebranded Syrian branch, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), and its heretofore close ally and portal into the Syrian rebellion, Ahrar al-Sham. By 23 January, JFS had expanded its targets, engaging in hostilities with mainstream rebel groups in the “Greater Idlib” area, and specifically trying—and succeeding—in dismantling the positions of Jaysh al-Mujahideen, a moderate group, west of Aleppo. The crisis continued to escalate, forcing many groups to merge with Ahrar al-Sham for protection, until 28 January, when a JFS-led merger was announced under the banner of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), or the Syrian Liberation Committee. HTS announced a ceasefire, and since then individuals and groups—including a significant number from Ahrar—have given allegiance to HTS. This radical reshaping of revolutionary dynamics in northern Syria has undoubtedly created antibodies going forward against al-Qaeda that could be capitalized on by the international community, but the present situation is highly favourable to al-Qaeda. Continue reading
After an insurgent offensive began on March 24, Idlib City fell on March 29, making it only the second—of Syria’s fourteen—provincial capitals to slip from the control of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the last one being Raqqa City on March 4, 2013. The regime has been on borrowed time in Idlib City since Wadi al-Deif to the south, near Maarat an-Numan, fell in mid-December.
In a scene reminiscent of Raqqa—and indeed the fall of Baghdad—a statue of Hafez al-Assad was destroyed. The insurgents broke open some secret prisons, while finding that in a final act of needless cruelty the regime had murdered other prisoners in the cells before retreating.
An operations room, Jaysh al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), organised this offensive, and is composed of: Faylaq a-Sham (Sham Legion), Liwa al-Haq, Ajnad a-Sham, Jaysh al-Sunna, Ahrar a-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa (JAA), and al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat an-Nusra. Continue reading
Ahrar a-Sham “merged with“—in reality annexed—Suqour a-Sham on March 22. Ahrar’s leader, Hashem al-Sheikh (a.k.a. Abu Jabbar), is the leader of the Ahrar-Suqour formation, and Suqour’s leader, Ahmed Issa al-Sheikh (a.k.a. Abu Issa) is his deputy. Ahrar is the largest and most hardline Syrian insurgent group in Syria, and Suqour has a fairly stern Salafi-nationalist ideology—at least at its leadership level—and was once the largest rebel group in Idlib Province.
The first thing this brought to mind was Sam Heller’s witticism late last year: “the most successful, lasting approach to rebel unification so far has basically been ‘Ahrar al-Sham absorbs you’.” Continue reading
There has long been speculation in Syrian oppositionist circles that the regime was colluding with the Qaeda-type forces in the insurgency, to shore-up its own base by frightening the minorities and to ward off external help to the rebellion from the West. Continue reading