The Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, teamed up with a Free Syrian Army unit known as the Liwa al Ummah to overrun a military outpost in Idlib province last week. Free Syrian Army units continue to ally themselves with the Al Nusrah Front on the battlefield despite Al Nusrah’s public affiliation with al Qaeda.
The latest joint operations between the Al Nusrah Front and the Free Syrian Army took place on March 6, when the two groups attacked a Syrian Army outpost in the city of Khan Sheikhun in Idlib province. The Al Nusrah Front announced the joint operation in a statement that was released yesterday; the statement was translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
The statement said that “a small group from the mujahideen of the Al Nusrah Front and Liwa al Ummah attacked the Tariq ‘Ajeeb barrier” and overran it, killing six Syrian soldiers and wounding 30 more. The Al Nusrah Front said that a tank was used by the group during the assault.
“The mujahideen took as spoils a BMP vehicle, 3 RPG launchers, a collection of light weapons, and various ammunition,” the Al Nusrah Front claimed. The two group then proceed to attack “the neighboring Ma’arzafi barrier.”
Heavy fighting has been reported in Khan Sheikhun over the past week as the Al Nusrah Front and Free Syrian Army groups have been attacking Syrian forces in the city [see video above, which shows Free Syrian Army fighters attacking Syrian troops].
The emir of the Al Nusrah Front, which was formed by al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, publicly reaffirmed his allegiance to al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, in a statement released in April 2013. The group was added to the US’ list of Specially Designated Global Terrorist groups in December 2012. Several Free Syrian Army groups have openly joined the Al Nusrah Front over the past year.
The Liwa al Ummah, or Brigade of the Muslim Nation, was formed by Abd al Mahdi al Harati, a deputy of Abdul Hakim Belhaj, the former emir of the al Qaeda-linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Al Harati, who headed a rebel group during the Libyan revolution, led Liwa al Ummah for six months in 2012 before merging with the Free Syrian Army. Liwa al Ummah is estimated to have around 6,000 fighters, and is comprised primarily of Syrians, but also includes a large contingent of Libyans, Sudanese, Palestinians, Egyptians, and Arabs.
Hundreds of Libyan fighters are thought to have traveled to Syria to fight with rebel groups. Many of these Libyans are believed to be fighting alongside the ISIS or the Al Nusrah Front. Ansar al Sharia Libya, a Libyan jihadist group with ties to al Qaeda, helps recruit Libyan fighters to travel to Syria. Ansar al Sharia Libya is also reported to run training camps for recruits destined for Syria.
Free Syrian Army units as well as the Islamic Front, which is viewed by some analysts as “moderate” despite its close ties to al Qaeda, continue to fight alongside the Al Nusrah Front against regime forces. And even though hundreds of fighters have been killed in internecine clashes between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham on one side, and Al Nusrah, the Islamic Front, and Free Syrian Army units on the other, the groups occasionally fight alongside each other against Syrian government forces. For instance, the Islamic Front, Al Nusrah, and the ISIS have joined forces to fight the Syrian military in Yabroud.