Two small jihadist groups based in the Syrian capital of Damascus – Ansar al Sharia and Al Muntasir Billah – have sworn allegiance to Abu Muhammad al Julani, the head of Al Nusrah Front.
A spokesman for the two factions announced their fealty in a short video posted yesterday on one of Al Nusrah’s official Twitter feeds. The fighters appear to be located in the neighborhood of Qabun in northeastern Damascus, where a truce has reportedly kept the rebels from clashing with Bashar al Assad’s forces.
The spokesman (seen above) says the fighters from these two brigades have been fully incorporated into Al Nusrah’s ranks and will fight the Russians, the Rafidhi (or rejectionists, a derogatory term used for Shiites) and the Nusayris (a pejorative used to describe the Alawites in Assad’s regime). Similar to the allegiance videos produced by Al Nusrah’s jihadist rivals in the Islamic State, the fighters swear their loyalty to Julani as they stand in a circle, stacking their hands in a show of unity.
Julani has repeatedly denounced the rebels’ truces with Assad’s government in and around Damascus. In an interview that aired in December, for example, he said the truces are the “first step toward surrender,” because they only serve “the regime at a time when people still have the ability to fight.” Julani claimed the rebels were “still achieving victories and making significant gains,” so they should not compromise with Assad and his allies. He specifically rejected a truce that had been agreed to in the Al Ghouta region on the outskirts of Damascus.
One of the journalists who attended Julani’s small press conference asked him why Al Nusrah was willing to abide by ceasefires elsewhere, including in the predominately Shiite town of Al Fua in the northwestern Idlib province. Julani answered by saying he wouldn’t engage in a discussion of when such truces are religiously acceptable, but he claimed there is a difference between locations far away from Damascus and territory near the capital. He specifically referred to Zabadani in southwestern Syria, near the border with Lebanon. Sunnis, including extremists, have been under siege in Zabadani. And Al Nusrah’s ally, Ahrar al Sham, helped negotiate temporary ceasefires in Zabadani that were linked to the fighting in Al Fua and elsewhere.
In Oct. 2015, Al Nusrah, Ahrar al Sham and a third group, Ajnad al Sham, created a joint operations room named Jund al Malahim (“Soldiers of the Epics”) to combine their military efforts in the countryside of Damascus.
Al Nusrah has earned the loyalty of a number of groups since late last year. In Sept. and Oct. 2015, the following organizations all officially joined Al Nusrah: Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar (JMWA, or “the Army of the Emigrants and Helpers”), Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (a predominately Uzbek organization), and Crimean Jamaat (comprised mainly of Crimean Tartars and other Russian-speaking militants).
Earlier this month, one dozen religious and military officials in Jund al Aqsa, another al Qaeda-linked group, also decided to join Al Nusrah.
The allegiances offered by Ansar al Sharia and Al Muntasir Billah are the latest garnered by Al Nusrah. And they may signal that the al Qaeda branch plans on launching a new wave of operations in Damascus. Such attacks would be consistent with Julani’s rejection of any truces in or near the capital.