A year ago, Jabhat Al Nusra rebranded itself as a Syria-first local organisation, having previously been recognised as an official branch of Al Qaeda. The disengagement was framed as a break-up with the global extremist group, but the real reason for the change has remained a subject of debate among observers. Recent events in Idlib provide much-needed clarity about what the jihadist group aimed to achieve with such a move.
After the rebranding, the group shifted strategy. Jabhat Fateh Al Sham, as it was renamed, moved towards a consolidation of its influence in rebel-held areas in the north west. It sought to do so by leading a consortium of rebel factions to break the siege in Aleppo, which it briefly managed to do. The momentum was short-lived and the regime reimposed the siege and, in December, expelled the rebels from eastern Aleppo.
The focus of the group then shifted to Idlib, which it helped capture along with Ahrar Al Sham in spring 2015. A month after the fall of eastern Aleppo, the group changed its name again, and began a more forceful campaign to tighten its grip in that area. For the first time, Ahrar Al Sham, with which it had long had a special relationship, was a target of its campaign.
Tension had risen between the two groups over another jihadist faction — the now-defunct Jund Al Aqsa — that rebels accused of serving as a front for ISIL. After brief clashes between Ahrar Al Sham and Jund Al Aqsa in Hama in October, the latter pledged allegiance to Jabhat Fateh Al Sham. In January, Ahrar Al Sham renewed its calls to bring leaders of Jund Al Aqsa to justice for past acts of murder, which went unheeded.
The biggest friction then took place in late January, when hundreds of Ahrar Al Sham’s members defected to the group, now rebranded for the second time under Hayat Tahrir Al Sham. The group under the new name then demanded that other militias join it or face eradication. Some small factions in Idlib sought protection from Ahrar Al Sham. But, by the end of the campaign in February, Hayat Tahrir Al Sham had deeply fragmented its rivals and further increased its dominance in the north west.
A second round of consolidation in Idlib began a week ago. Hayat Tahrir Al Sham cracked down on Ahrar Al Sham, the group that contributed most to its normalisation and integration in the Syrian insurgency. The latest operation followed weeks of reports about a prospective Turkish troop deployment to Idlib as part of a ceasefire monitoring mission, something that Hayat Tahrir Al Sham saw as a threat to its dominance there. The clashes were directly triggered by differences over the control of the Bab Al Hawa border crossing and the raising of the Syrian uprising’s “green flag”, a byword for moderation in the insurgency today.
The series of events since Jabhat Fateh Al Sham’s rebranding a year ago highlight a key aspect of the group’s strategy in Syria.
The purpose of disengagement from Al Qaeda was forceful consolidation. After the failure to grab control of the Syrian insurgency through integration, the group shifted its attempts to a campaign that intended to degrade its rivals and absorb some of their disaffected individuals. Although Hayat Tahrir Al Sham differs from ISIL in how it seeks to reach its final objective of establishing an Islamic state, the two groups share a critical strategy: to establish themselves as the only conduit of Sunni militarism. Any viable rivals must be weakened and ultimately eradicated. ISIL did that in Iraq, and Hayat Tahrir Al Sham seeks to do the same in Syria.
According to the announcement made by the group and a representative of Al Qaeda, the rebranding was an “advanced phase” in its operation in Syria. The idea of an advanced phase was once mentioned by Ayman Al Zawahiri, the current leader of Al Qaeda, in a letter to Abu Musab Al Zarqawi in Iraq in 2006. The letter followed a decision by Al Qaeda in Iraq to dissolve itself and form the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC). After Jabhat Al Nusra’s rebranding, I compared the move to the establishment of the MSC in Iraq.
Even though the methods are different, the two groups recognise that the single greatest setback to their dominance is the rise of groups or structures that appeal to the same popular base they claim to represent. After the recent campaign, Hayat Tahrir Al Sham has emerged even more dominant than six months ago, and its attempts to dominate are far from over. It will continue to pursue its goal of ensuring no internal rebellion emerges from the areas it currently controls.