Al Nusrah Front launches joint assaults with numerous Syrian rebel groups

The Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, has claimed that it launched three separate operations in recent months with various other Syrian rebel groups, including Islamist units and the Free Syrian Army. In one of the attacks in Idlib, more than 2,000 fighters from seven different units participated in a two-week siege that resulted in the overrunning of several military camps.

The claims were made in a series of statements that were released on jihadist Internet forums on July 21 and July 29. The statements were obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.

The largest joint operation took place in the countryside in Idlib province between May 8 and May 22. The Al Nusrah Front claimed that “2,000 fully-equipped mujahideen” from eight different “brigades” fielded “8 tanks, a BMP armored vehicle,” and an assortment of mortars, rockets, machine guns, and other heavy weapons.

In addition to the Al Nusrah Front, the other seven Syrian rebel units that participated in the attack were: Liwa al Tawhid, or Unity Brigade, a large Free Syrian Army unit; Ahrar al Shimal, a unit within the Liwa al Tawhid; Ahrar al Sham, a large Islamist unit that often fights alongside the Al Nusrah Front; Suqur al Sham; a Free Syrian Army unit in Idlib; Liwa al Hurriya, another Free Syrian Army formation; Liwa al Haq; Deraa al Thawra; and Deraa al Jabal.

The Al Nusrah Front explained that it decided to assist the Syrian rebel units after they failed to take control of the camps despite laying siege to the area for more than three months. The Syrian military units and government-backed irregular forces were defeated on May 22, the Al Nusrah Front claimed.

The al Qaeda-linked terror group also said that in another attack, on June 14, it worked with four other rebel groups to overrun “the Military Housing Foundation” in Idlib. During that operation, the Al Nusrah Front partnered with the Ahrar al Sham, Liwa al Tawhid, Ahrar al Shimal, and Liwa al Haq.

And in yet another attack, the Al Nusrah Front claimed it partnered with four other groups against “the brigades of transportation and armament in northern Deraa on the outskirtsof the city of Basra al Harir.” The fighting began on July 27 and ended on July 29 after they gained “full control over the two brigades” and seized “all the weapons and equipment inside, such as anti-aircraft, armored vehicles, light weapons, ammunition” and other items.

Also fighting against the Syrian military during the recent operation in Basra al Harir were: Liwa’ al Haramein, a unit in the Ahrar al Sham; al Qadisiyya Islamic Battalion, a Free Syrian Army unit; a group called Ansar al Sunnah, which is known to operate in Deraa; and the Islamic Jerusalem Brigade.

Previous joint operations by the Al Nusrah Front

The Al Nusrah Front, which this spring publicly joined al Qaeda and swore allegiance to its emir, Ayman al Zawahiri, often conducts joint operations with Free Syrian Army units and other Islamist brigades fighting in Syria. Currently, in northern Syria, the Al Nusrah Front has teamed up with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, another al Qaeda affiliate; Ahrar al Sham; the Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigade, which is backed by the government of Qatar; and the Islamic Kurdish Front, to battle Kurdish forces allied with the PKK.

There have been numerous other instances in which the Al Nusrah Front has aligned itself with other Syrian groups in both military and non-military operations. A year ago, in August 2012, the Al Nusrah Front said it launched a joint operation with the Battalion of the Mujahideen of the Companions [Al Sahaba Battalion] against a police station in Jadida Artouz in the countryside of Damascus.

Additionally, in August 2012, the Al Nusrah Front imposed sharia, or Islamic Law, in conjunction with the Tawhid Brigade and the Ahrar al Sham Brigade in Aleppo.

In October 2012, the Al Nusrah Front claimed it commanded elements of the Al Fajr [Dawn] Islamic Brigade, a known Free Syrian Army unit, as well as “Chechens,” likely from the Muhajireen Brigade, during an assault on a Syrian air defense and Scud missile base in Aleppo.

In November 2012, the Al Nusrah Front entered into an alliance with the Al Fajr Islamic Brigade and 12 other groups in Aleppo to establish an Islamic state.

More recently, in March, the Al Nusrah Front fought alongside the Ahrar al Sham Brigade to take control of the city of Raqqah, and then formed the “Sharia Committee for the Eastern Region” to impose and enforce Islamic law in the city and in other towns.

And in April, the Al Nusrah Front said it conducted a suicide assault with the help of the Nasser Salahuddin Brigade, and conventional attacks with the help of Dera’ al Assima, Liwa al Habib al Mustafa, and Liwa’ al Tawhid brigades, three Free Syrian Army units in Damascus.

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

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  • Will Fenwick says:

    Any idea what type of tanks ISIL deployed? I would imagine that they’re mostly T-55’s or other obsolete types. So long as the government maintains air superiority, they should be able to make short work of any Salafist tanks as AQAP’s endevour into armoured warfare showed during the Abyan campaign.

  • mike merlo says:

    “8 tanks, a BMP armored vehicle,” interesting. I guess when these ‘people’ commandeer a fighter jet it should come as no surprise. Especially if they go kamikaze with it

  • Will Fenwick says:

    Mike, Salafist elements took over an airbase with some intact L-39 light attack / trainer jets. There absence from the battlefield indicates that none of the rebel groups have the logistical capability to operate jet aircraft or maintain them.

  • panzerfaust says:

    Dear Will,
    During two and a half years of civil war rebels have overrun several military academies and tank yards, especially in the north. In these assaults much armoury was captured. As a result, rebel brigades operate tanks (T55, T62, T72) APC’s (BMP 1s mostly), Shilka’s and heavy artillery pieces.
    In addition, your assumption that the SyAAF ‘air superiority’ would hinder the usage of this heavy equipment is flawed for several reasons.
    1. The rebels have access to MANPADs, and they have shown to be capable of using them. More worrisome, few days ago a Su 24 was downed in Reef Dimasqh – with rebels claiming to have used Gecko.
    As a result, Syria’s planes have to fly on a higher altitude when they execute their bombing campaigns. This causes their sorties to be less accurate, especially when bombing moving targets.
    2. The SyAAF faces serious attrition. During the two and a half years of war many choppers and planes have been downed, making an already old-fashioned airforce less productive.
    3. The SyAAFs ordnance and tactics.
    SyAAFs usage of ‘dumb bombs’, makes their sorties less productive (Syria’s airforce has no access to guided ordnance or heat seaking bombs).
    Moreover, their sorties are one-time raids. A plane comes, drops its ordnance, and leaves. There seems to be little coordination or synchronization.
    A few weeks back a former Jordanian air force colonel was killed in Syria, and eulogized on jihadi-supportive twitter accounts.
    This shows there are individuals present in Syria that can operate these planes. However, I do question the rebels ability to maintain these planes technically, as do I question their logistical capabilities regarding fuel etc.

  • mike merlo says:

    @Will Fenwick
    While I’m sure your observation ‘carries weight’ one would be remiss not to take into account defections on the part of the Syrian Military.
    It should noted that the nascent Taliban Air Force during their rise & heyday was comprised almost exclusively of defectors who had received their training from the Soviets & Warsaw Pact ‘personnel.’
    One could also make the argument that the reason the 9 11 Pilots cum Terrorists who trained on US soil were over looked is that they were part of a broader clandestine effort that sought to organize & expand Taliban Air Combat capabilities. Such a Force could then be used as a 3rd Party to target Iran. Or a host of ‘others’ whose interests are deemed contraire to US interests.
    The US Intelligence Community long ago learned from the Bay Of Pigs debacle that there is no substitute for lack of ‘Air’ Asset’s.
    It appears though that the ‘Peanut Brains’ & Fumblelina’s in the US Intelligence Community thought that they could succeed where their counterparts in Pakistan failed which is ‘determine’ & contour the various ways AQ & liked minded organizations sought to express themselves.

  • Will Fenwick says:

    While the rebels may have had various pilots defect to them, actually getting a plane into the air is a much more difficult endeavor than flying one. There has been no indication of what i have seen of any rebel faction maintaining the proper facilities and equipment for the operation of the L-39’s they have captured. I don’t doubt they could operate some light nuisance bombers like the LTTE did in the Sri-Lankan Civil War, but there has been no indication that the rebels have acquired and operated any of those types of aircraft in a combat capacity yet either.
    Panzerfaust, I suppose the operation of manpads by the rebels in Syria is a very important difference between the abyan campaign that may indeed allow rebel armored assets a chance to survive an anti-tank hunt from the air as which occurred in Abyan.


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