Jihadists and other rebels launch new offensive in Aleppo

Al Qaeda’s rebranded guerrilla army in Syria and its jihadist allies are fighting alongside other rebels in an offensive intended to break the siege of Aleppo. The new effort is aimed at forces loyal to Bashar al Assad’s regime, as well as Assad’s Russian and Iranian-backed partners.

Shortly after Al Nusrah Front, a regional branch of al Qaeda, was renamed Jabhat Fath al Sham (“Conquest of the Levant Front”) in late July, the insurgents launched a massive operation to break through the Assad regime’s stranglehold on Aleppo. [See LWJ report, Jihadists and other rebels claim to have broken through siege of Aleppo.]

Despite some early victories by the insurgents, the Assad-Russia-Iran axis struck back, recapturing lost ground and squeezing the city. But the Sunni jihadists, Islamists and other rebels are attempting to break through once again.

The fighting is led by groups belonging to the same two coalitions that attempted to break the siege earlier this year: Jaysh al Fath (“Army of Conquest”) and Fatah Halab (“Aleppo Conquest”). Two dozen or more organizations belong to these coalitions, or are closely allied with them. Many of the constituent organizations in each alliance have streamed videos and released photos from the fighting on their social media pages.

Jaysh al Fath (“Army of Conquest”) and allied jihadist groups

Jaysh-al-Fath Logo

Jaysh al Fath was formed by Al Nusrah, Ahrar al Sham, and other organizations in early 2015. The coalition, which uses the logo seen on the right and variants of it, quickly swept through the city of Idlib and the surrounding areas in a matter of weeks. Jaysh al Fath has led multiple other battles throughout Syria, with Al Nusrah (now Jabhat Fath Al Sham, or “JFS”) and Ahrar al Sham always leading the charge. Ahrar al Sham models itself after the Taliban and has its own links to al Qaeda.

Suicide bombers dispatched by JFS and the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which is another al Qaeda-affiliated group, played a key role during the early fighting. JFS has tweeted photos and videos of two of its “martyrs,” one of whom was Egyptian and the other a Saudi. Both of them drove vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) into their enemies’ positions. JFS also used a small drone to record aerial footage of the massive explosions caused by its VBIEDs.

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The TIP, which is predominantly comprised of Uighur jhadists, has also released photos and a video from three of its “martyrdom” operations. Two of the three suicide bombers were Turks, while the third was apparently from western China. All three drove their VBIEDs into the 1070 apartment project in Aleppo. The apartment complex has witnessed intense fighting since the early hours of the offensive.

Ahrar al Sham and Ajnad al Sham, both of which belong to the Jaysh al Fath alliance, have released numerous images and infographics from Aleppo.

Other, smaller jihadist organizations tied to the al Qaeda network, such as Ansar al Din and Ansar al Islam, have contributed fighters and arms.

The Nur al-Din al-Zanki Movement (“Zanki”), an Islamist group, fought under Fatah Halab’s banner during the last battle for Aleppo. Zanki, one of the strongest opposition groups inside the city, was a key member of Fatah Halab and received international support in the past, including American-made anti-tank TOW missiles. But Zanki decided to formally join the Jaysh al Fath alliance after Al Nusrah Front was relaunched as JFS in late July. Indeed, Zanki endorsed Al Nusrah’s repositioning. This is not surprising, however, as Zanki and Nusrah have long cooperated with each other in Aleppo.

During the newly-launched offensive, Zanki is using Jaysh al Fath’s watermark on its official propaganda, thereby highlighting its role in the alliance.

In August, Jaysh al Fath named its offensive in Aleppo the “Battle of Ibrahim al Youssef.” On June 16, 1979, Youssef massacred Alawite cadets at an artillery school in the city. The slayings were blamed on the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, or an offshoot of the Islamist organization.

Jaysh al Fath says the current offensive is “The Battle of the Hero Martyr Abu Omar Saraqib.” Saraqib was the “general commander” of Jaysh al Fath prior to his demise in September. The jihadis blamed Saraqib’s death on the US-led coalition, claiming that warplanes had targeted the operations room responsible for breaking the siege of Aleppo.

Wealthy businessmen from throughout the region have contributed significant funds to the campaign, according to Dr. Abdullah Mohammed al Muhaysini, a pro-al Qaeda cleric who is the most senior ideologue in Jaysh al Fath. In a video released on one of his official Twitter feeds, Muhaysini mentioned businessmen in Syria, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia who had donated to the jihadis’ cause. At the end of the same video, Muhaysini oversaw the launching of 100 “Elephant Rockets,” which he says Jaysh al Fath’s wealthy benefactors made possible.

During the first hours of the battle, a Dutch member of JFS known as Abu Saeed al Halabi tweeted: “JFS and other factions prepared this assault in great detail and synchronized their forces in an unprecedented manner.” He added: “JFS played an instrumental role in preparing this offensive and will commit most of its resources and inghimasi fighters.” Inghimasi fighters are jihadists who are willing to die in battle. These well-trained guerrilla fighters have stormed several positions during the battle in Aleppo.

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In July, the emir of JFS, Abu Muhammad al Julani, showed his face for the first time as he announced that his organization would no longer be known as Al Nusrah Front. Julani was dressed like Osama bin Laden and sat next to one of Ayman al Zawahiri’s longtime lieutenants as he read the announcement. Now that Julani has shown his face, JFS is able to promote his role in the jihadists’ warfighting. Indeed, JFS released three photos taken during Julani’s meeting with military commanders overseeing the battle for Aleppo. One of them can be seen on the right.

Fatah Halab (“Aleppo Conquest”)

Fatah Halab

The Fatah Halab coalition in Aleppo was formed in 2015. It was established by more than two dozen rebel organizations, including the Nur al-Din al-Zanki Movement, the Levant Front, other Islamist groups and Free Syrian Army (FSA)-branded units. Faylaq al Sham (“Sham Legion”), which is an Islamist organization, fights as part of Fatah Halab, but has also joined Jaysh al Fath’s operations in both Idlib and Aleppo.

At its founding, Fatah Halab explicitly excluded Al Nusrah. But some of Fatah Halab’s founding groups, including Nur al-Din al-Zanki Movement, have long worked with Nusrah.

Several of Fatah Halab’s constituent groups have produced propaganda from the fighting in Aleppo. Some of these FSA-branded organizations have posted videos of their fighters firing American-made, anti-tank TOW missiles at the Assad regime’s forces. One of these organizations, the Sultan Murad Division, is fighting in the Zahraa neighborhood of western Aleppo. Sultan Murad’s official web site includes multiple videos of its men firing TOWs in the past two days.

Another group using the FSA brand and employing TOWs during the fight is the Fastaqem Union (FKO Union), which describes itself as “one of the most effective factions in Syria,” aiming “to topple Al-Assad Regime and build free and democratic state for all Syrians.” The Free Idlib Army has used TOWs as well.

The 3000 apartment project in Aleppo is one of the key battlegrounds. Members of both the Jaysh al Fath and Fatah Halab coalitions are fighting side-by-side in the area. Fatah Halab groups such as the Levant Front, the Authenticity and Development Front, and the FKO Union have contributed forces. Meanwhile, Jaysh al Fath has launched suicide bombings in the complex, while also firing rockets and sending fighters into the thick of the development.

Other Fatah Halab member groups fighting in Aleppo include: 1st Regiment, the Central Division, and Jaysh al Islam, an Islamist force that fights outside of Damascus as well.

The coming days and weeks will prove whether the offensive is successful, or if the insurgents’ efforts will fail once again.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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11 Comments

  • Eugene says:

    The al Qaeda rebranded guerrilla army,exactly who is supplying the arms & where do they originate from? Shouldn’t that be the quest of every so-called force against al Qaeda, to stop the arms flow?

  • irebukeu says:

    This is it. The big show down. If they fail as it looks like they will (3 days so far with no gains and with heavy losses) then what is the next move? Will they get up yet another wave of victim-children to try to get the west to intervene on behalf of al qaeda? Just how hated does al qaeda think Bashar is? The fighters of east Aleppo are doomed. The islamist/jihadi civilians (ansar) that shout at the cameras while holding their children saying “This is our home Why should we leave?” should get ready to lose both. As William Tecumseh Sherman once said- “people who will persevere in war beyond a certain limit ought to know the consequences”. The Jihadists of Aleppo are not giving in. They are casting their own children into the fire.
    To the east of Aleppo where the Islamic state is, they are already evacuating areas and shedding them to the Syrian army.
    The victory ahead is certain over IS. Back to the shadows they will go running like rats. The question is What shenanigans will be played using what contrivances and devices against Bashar and his hated Syrian regime and will he yet fall?
    How many IS fighters will suddenly appear as ANTI-IS fighters? we have seen that movie before.

  • Evan says:

    Regardless of who “wins,” in this battle, the important thing I see is that these Islamist groups are acquiring serious, legitimate experience towards these kinds of efforts.
    Fighting in built up areas, coordinating large groups of combatants to act in accord/unison, it’s not easy, and if you can pull it off in Syria, there’s no reason you can’t do it in Europe.

    • irebukeu says:

      @Evan This is why they must lose and lose big. No fooling around and riding the tiger. How many Jihadist resumes start with ” fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan”? We rode the tiger in the late 70’s- early 90’s and it paid off in deaths, debt and division for America and a loss of freedoms and confidence in government and each other in general. Terrible results for yet another costly and unneeded intervention. The Soviets are gone and the Russians are Christian and western like everyone else to these Jihadists. We are all now in the same boat. The Russians said just the other day that America had better figure out who it wants to fight-terrorists or Russians.
      I hope we decide to fight terrorists and not Russians.
      Bashar’s father rode the tiger against Turkey supporting Kurdish terrorists in Turkey. looks like those same terrorists are about to declare a federal army of the Rojava. In Kurdistan in Syria and not Turkey. Oops Bashar. Bad family move. Good for the Kurds. Good for the US. The right of self determination for people is an American value.
      Perhaps all this is about tearing down Syria to the point that they are so on the backfoot that they cannot stop a Kurdistan from just popping up. If so that might explain the back door from mosul to Deir Ezzor left open and the American airstrikes on long established Syrian army positions there in what Syria and Russia claim was direct support of IS fighters ( hard to just accept). It would be better for the Kurds to have IS overrun Deir Ezzor then be defeated there by the coalition.
      Your comments Evan, in my opinion, are spot on and should be a PRIMARY concern.

      • Evan says:

        Rebuke,
        Absolutely, no one should be riding that tiger, and I would much rather fight the jihadi scum, than the Russians.
        Far too many of those cockroaches have resumes that begin with just that, fought soviets in Af/Pak. No more. No more worthless, wasted interventions on behalf of multinational corporations. No more American lives and money and prestige and glory lost to this toilet bowl.
        Flush the damn thing already.

      • JusticeB4Order says:

        Disagree. Anyone that makes dead Russians is a friend of the World. When Jihadists are inside Russia proper laying waste to Russian cities I may have a change of heart, but until then Russia is just invading and occupying yet another country because Putin has a tiny dick.

  • harlodas says:

    Whats with the derogatory naming like “Al Qaeda’s rebranded guerrilla army in Syria” for Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and “Assad regime’s stranglehold on Aleppo” for official army, paramilitary and police forces? Should be more respectful towards everyone Thomas

  • Evan says:

    Harlodas, you should do your homework and have a basic understanding of the situation at hand BEFORE you try to correct or criticize the author, or any other contributor at LWJ.

    JFS is in FACT AQ’s renamed, rebranded guerilla army in Syria.
    Assads regime does in FACT have a stranglehold on Aleppo.
    You think that the SAA or the Syrian police deserve respect?
    You think AQ, or Al Nusrah, or any other child raping, murderous jihadi scum deserve respect?
    Do me a favor, do yourself a favor,
    don’t make ridiculous PC driven demands on here, don’t try and demand respect for thugs and murderers and savages, and don’t blame the LWJ for saying it like it is.
    If you don’t like it, there are plenty of main stream media outlets more than happy to put up with you.

  • Sadworld says:

    The war in Syria is a mess, there are no good guys after 5 years of war. IS is crazy butchers, Islamists are fanatics living in 8 century, Assad loves power and will try to stay no matter what, Iran is busy with backing up its proxy such as Hizbullah, Iran Shia militia and so on, US is confused and seems try to set a Kurdish proxy, Turkey wants to stop Kurdish and stay influential, Russia is just doing brutal bombing and killing to achieve its global power ambition.
    From a perspective, it is just a war. Russians invading other nations for centuries and must be stopped.
    If Assad wins the war, the ME be a battleground for Iran Vs Sunnies. To avoid that, Syria must be a democracy. For Iraq there is no cure already, US messed up and handed it over to Iran already.

    • Rojelio says:

      Re: “For Iraq there is no cure already, US messed up and handed it over to Iran already.”
      Are you certain that the current USG administration would consider this as “messed up”?

    • JusticeB4Order says:

      Good points all.

      Just to point out the obvious, and obvious implication that seems almost universally missed. If you go into a country (like the US into Iraq) that is run by a minority with a goal of establishing a Democracy then this MUST necessarily result in a sea-change in power in the country, as the ruling minority which great power and wealth will have to be stripped of both while the great unwashed masses must necessarily be lifted up, enriched, and placed in positions of power and authority.

      It’s ironic to me that G-Dub’s team could miss this, and most of the World is missing this visa-vie the Assad regime. It’s tragic that what passed as leadership in Iraq made the former rulers of that country the dispossessed. Ultimately I think the Sunni majority of Syria and the dispossessed Sunni if Iraq what a homeland that they control – irregardless of the delusions Russia and Iran have regarding Syria’s future.

Iraq

Islamic state

Syria

Aqap

Al shabaab

Boko Haram

Isis