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