The Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, and allied organizations have formed a new coalition for the battle of Aleppo. The alliance calls itself Ansar al Sharia, a name used by other al Qaeda groups in the Middle East and North Africa. Along with a founding statement, the new grouping has released a short video announcing its establishment. A screen shot from the video can be seen above.
In addition to Al Nusrah, Ansar al Sharia includes one dozen other named groups. Ahrar al Sham and Ansar al Din, both of which are tied to al Qaeda’s international network, are members of the coalition.
A group called Ansar al Khilafah (“Supporters of the Caliphate”) has joined Ansar al Sharia as well. An organization by the same name was founded in December 2012, when five brigades, including one named the Ansar al Sharia Brigade, merged. At the time, The Long War Journal’s sources identified Ansar al Khilafah’s five constituent groups as being local units of the Al Nusrah front. Ansar al Khilafah and Al Nusrah jointly overran a town in the Aleppo province in July 2013.
The other named members of Ansar al Sharia include the Mujahideen al Islam Movement and the Al Tawhid Wal Jihad Brigade (which has fought alongside Al Nusrah and its allies in the past), as well as other brigades.
Ansar al Sharia’s initial focus is the Jamiyat al Zahra neighborhood of Aleppo, which is key to the anti-Assad effort as it contains some of the regime’s most important military assets in the area. Al Nusrah and Ansar al Sharia have posted a map of the battle online. It can be seen on the right.
In March, the Al Nusrah Front reportedly detonated a massive amount of explosives under a building belonging to the Syrian Air Force’s intelligence division in Jamiyat al Zahra. The building did not collapse, however, because the regime’s facilities are heavily fortified in the neighborhood.
Should Ansar al Sharia be successful in Jamiyat al Zahra now, it would be a major blow to the regime. Assad’s forces have fought off numerous attempts to breach its defenses in the city of Aleppo. The two sides have been at a stalemate for months.
The creation of the Ansar al Sharia joint operations room came just weeks after rebels in the area announced that another coalition, known as “Fatah Halab,” had been formed. While Fatah Halab included more than two dozen organizations, including the al Qaeda-linked Ahrar al Sham, it did not include the Al Nusrah Front.
Ansar al Sharia in Aleppo is the latest in a series of coalitions formed this year that include Al Nusrah and Ahrar al Sham. Each alliance has adopted an independent watermark for its propaganda. This brand is used alongside the individual logos of each member group. Ansar al Sharia’s logo can be seen on the right, and it is already being used by its constituents.
Below is a brief overview of the other joint ventures led by Al Nusrah and Ahrar al Sham inside Syria this year. By pooling their resources, along with those of other organizations, the jihadists have achieved noteworthy battlefield successes, especially in Idlib. However, the jihadists’ strategy has met resistance from other insurgents in some areas, especially in southern Syria. And in other areas the efforts have thus far failed to unseat the Assad regime.
Coalitions including the Al Nusrah Front and Ahrar al Sham
Jaysh al Fateh (“Army of Conquest”) in the Idlib province was the first such coalition formed this year. It took just several days for its member groups to route Bashar al Assad’s forces from the city of Idlib in late March. And the Al Nusrah Front showcased its use of American-made TOW missiles early on in the battle as the jihadists destroyed Syrian regime tanks on the city’s perimeter.
In addition to Al Nusrah and Ahrar al Sham, the original founding organizations of Jaysh al Fateh included Jund al Aqsa, Liwa al Haqq, Jaysh al Sunna, Ajnad al Sham, and Faylaq al Sham. The Long War Journal has identified Jund al Aqsa as as front organization for al Qaeda. Other groups joined Jaysh al Fateh in Idlib as well.
Jaysh al Fateh’s successes continued in the weeks that followed the fall of Idlib, as the insurgents captured the Al Mastoumah military camp and the town of Ariha, as well as other formerly regime-controlled areas.
Maarakat an-Nasr (“Battle of Victory”) was the name given to the joint venture that overran Jisr Al Shughur, a key city in the Idlib province, in April. The alliance was modeled after Jaysh al Fateh, but included a different configuration of member groups.
The Al Nusrah Front and Ahrar al Sham were joined by Jaysh al Islam, Ansar al Din, and Ansar al Sham as founding members of the alliance. Other groups participated in the battle for Jisr Al Shughur as well. And the city quickly fell to the jihadist-led forces.
Jaysh al Fateh (“Army of Conquest”) Qalamoun was formed in early May to fight Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terrorist group that supports Bashar al Assad’s regime, and the Islamic State. The Al Nusrah Front has long battled Hezbollah in the strategically situated Qalamoun mountains, which straddle the border between Syria and Lebanon. Control of mountain range is key for Hezbollah, which needs to move back and forth between its bases in Lebanon and Damascus.
In a post on its official Twitter feed shortly after its founding, Jaysh al Fateh wrote that the “faithful” from among “most factions” in the area had joined its cause. In addition to Al Nusrah and Ahrar al Sham, the Qalamoun branch of Jaysh al Fateh reportedly includes some groups from the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The alliance likely cooperates with other prominent rebel groups in the region, including Jaysh al Islam.
Jaysh al Haramun (“Army of Haramun”) was formed in mid-June and is named for Mount Haramun, which is part of a mountain range sandwiched between Syria, Lebanon and the Israeli-controlled portion of the Golan Heights. It is located in Syria’s southwestern province of Quneitra. Ajnad al Sham is a member of the alliance, as are several smaller groups.
One of Jaysh al Haramun’s first statements was addressed to the residents in Druze villages. The coalition seeks to keep the Druze on the sidelines and not force them into an open alliance with the Assad regime. This was especially important after Al Nusrah Front fighters in northern Syria massacred 20 Druze civilians. The alliance’s social media includes images of the “booty” captured by its fighters, including a shoulder-fired missile.
Jaysh al Fateh (“Army of the Conquest”) in the South was founded on June 20 as an alternative to the Southern Front, which is comprised of various FSA factions. The First Army, an FSA group in Southern Front, has rejected cooperation with Jaysh al Fateh, preferring to fight the Assad regime without entering into a formal alliance with al Qaeda’s official branch in the country. Both Jaysh al Fateh and the Southern Front have been fighting regime forces in the southern province of Daraa. The insurgents have complained in the press and online about a lack of coordination between the two main coalitions fighting Assad in the south, blaming a lack of cohesion for their inability to deal a decisive blow to the regime.
As with the other coalitions, Al Nusrah and Ahrar al Sham are founding members. Fatah al Sham (itself an alliance of groups) and various other groups have joined as well. Some of the organizations that have signed on include organizations that belonged to the FSA.