An Al Nusrah Front convoy streams into Aleppo province in late January.
Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, sent a massive convoy of fighters to the Aleppo province in late January. The jihadists’ redeployment was promoted in a short video posted on Twitter. More than 100 vehicles filled with fighters streamed into the province.
It was a harbinger of the heavy fighting to come.
Bashar al Assad’s regime, backed by Russian airstrikes, Iranian-sponsored Shiite militias and Hezbollah, launched a major offensive in Aleppo earlier this month. The fight for the province is likely the most important battle in Syria since early last year, when the Jaysh al Fateh coalition, led by Al Nusrah and Ahrar al Sham (an al Qaeda-linked jihadist group) swept through the neighboring Idlib province.
If Assad and his allies are successful it will not only allow them to lay siege to the city of Aleppo, parts of which have been controlled by the insurgents since 2012, but also to cut off Idlib. Assad wants to secure the northern part of the province, which borders Turkey and houses vital supply routes for the insurgency.
The Syrian government claims to have made gains in pursuit of this objective in recent days.
The Syrian Army, “in cooperation with” paramilitary groups, “restored security and stability to Rityan and Mair towns in the northern countryside of Aleppo province,” Assad’s propaganda arm, SANA, claimed yesterday.
The purported gains came two days after SANA reported that the Syrian Army and its allies “broke the siege imposed on Nubbul and al-Zahra towns by terrorist organizations.” SANA claimed that “[s]cores of terrorists were killed, most of them from [Al Nusrah Front] during the operations.” Nubbul and al-Zahra are both Shiite-majority towns in the northern part of Aleppo.
There is an ebb and flow to the fighting in Aleppo, as elsewhere, making it difficult to tell if the government’s gains are lasting, or just temporary. For example, although SANA says Rityan has been retaken from the insurgents, Al Nusrah continues to post images from the fighting there.
And although SANA says all of the opposition to the government in Aleppo comes from “terrorist organizations,” the reality is more complex. Jihadist groups such as Al Nusrah are partnering with other rebel organizations, including Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Islamist factions, in an attempt to thwart the Syrian government’s advances.
The opposition in Aleppo
One of the strongest rebel groups in Aleppo is the Nur al-Din al-Zanki Movement. Members of Zanki and Al Nusrah clashed at a checkpoint in late September and early October, 2015. Zanki’s “political bureau” then denounced Al Nusrah in tweets that were published in both English and Arabic. However, the infighting did not lead to a permanent rift between the two. Instead, Zanki complied with Al Nusrah’s demands and quickly apologized.
In a statement written in Arabic and released on social media, Zanki said its criticism of Al Nusrah did “not represent the [Zanki] movement’s official position…and we owe [an] exoneration of our brothers from what was attributed to them – accusations, insinuations, and slander [libel] – to God Almighty, and we only think properly of them.”
The “relationship between us and our [Nusrah] brothers is proceeding on even better terms than what it was in the past, and this incident which occurred between us and our [Nusrah] brothers will not deter us from vigorously continuing to strengthen the bond of Islamic brotherhood between us and them, and which obligates us – religiously – to cooperate and combine efforts and fight off the aggressor enemy,” Zanki’s apology continued.
The statement ended with a call for both Zanki and Al Nusrah “to [ensure] that the only judgment in any dispute between us should be based on religious law.”
Zanki is not al Qaeda. But as the skirmish with Al Nusrah demonstrated, Zanki does not want to offend al Qaeda’s men, cooperates with them on the battlefield and believes in a version of “religious law” (sharia) that is at least similar to Al Nusrah’s.
Another Islamist organization in Aleppo is Faylaq al Sham (Sham Legion), which fought as part of the Jaysh al Fateh coalition in Idlib. In early January, however, Faylaq al Sham announced that it was leaving Jaysh al Fateh to concentrate on the fighting in Aleppo. The group subsequently merged with others to form the “North Brigade” in Aleppo.
In late December, Sheikh Umar Huzaifa, a senior Faylaq al Sham official, was one of 38 ideologues who signed a statement proclaiming that jihad is an “individual obligation” for all Muslims “in situations like this.” The statement’s signatories, who belong to the “Association of Scholars in Sham,” portrayed the war in Syria as one pitting a “Crusader-Zionist-Safawi [Shiites and Iranians]” alliance against Sunni Muslims.
The association’s scholars claimed it “is no longer hidden from our Beloved Ummah [community of worldwide Muslims] what has reached the land of Sham with the rushing forward of the entire nations of Kufr [disbelief] against it,” because it “has become manifest in the Crusader-Zionist-Safawi coalition rushing to eliminate the revolution of the people of Sham and their blessed jihad.” The “battle of Sham has become a decisive battle against the nations of Kufr,” the statement continued, as the rebels’ enemies “gather to establish the Rafidhi [rejectionist] Shia to fulfill their drawn up plans for their (Shia) crescent (on the map) and to eliminate” Sunni belief in Syria and elsewhere.
Other signatories on the statement issued by the “Association of Scholars in Sham” included Sheikh Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini (an al Qaeda-affiliated cleric and “judge” in Jaysh al Fateh), members of Al Nusrah Front and Ahrar al Sham, Sheikh Sirajuddin Zurayqat (emir of the al Qaeda-linked and Lebanon-based Abdullah Azzam Brigades), as well as a number of other officials.
The battle for Aleppo is a complex, multi-sided affair. The organizations discussed above are just some of those fighting on the ground. The Islamic State, the Kurds, and the Western-backed Syrian Democratic Forces all have a presence.
Another group is Liwa Suqour al Jabal, which has reportedly received assistance from the CIA. Liwa Suqour al Jabal fights in Aleppo and has been targeted in Russian airstrikes.
“The Russian (air) cover continues night and day, there were more than 250 air strikes on this area in one day,” Hassan Haj Ali, the leader of Liwa Suqour al Jabal, told Reuters in an interview. “The regime is now trying to expand the area it has taken control of,” Ali explained. “Now the northern countryside (of Aleppo) is totally encircled, and the humanitarian situation is very difficult.”
The fight for Aleppo may very well shape the course of the war. And as the battle has raged on, jihadists have called for even more reinforcements. Sheikh Muhaysini, a popular jihadist cleric, has repeatedly urged Muslims to join the rebel ranks and for the existing insurgent organizations to unite under a common banner.
It remains to be seen if the jihadists, Islamists and other rebels can thwart the Assad regime’s advances.
Note: David Daoud, an Arabic-Language Analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, contributed to this article.