Al Qaeda’s affiliates continue joint operations in Syria

Although there is no indication that a leadership dispute between the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been settled, the two al Qaeda affiliates continue to fight alongside one another against their common enemies in Syria.

The argument between Al Nusrah emir Abu Mohammad al Julani and ISIL emir Abu Bakr al Baghdadi became public in April. But reporting since then shows that the two emirs’ fighters are still frequently allied despite their differences and reported rivalry.

Reports from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) throughout September and into early October point to the al Qaeda affiliates’ ongoing collusion against Assad’s forces, Kurdish foes, and other mutual enemies. SOHR reporting also confirms that the two al Qaeda affiliates operate throughout Syria, including in provinces that are not controlled by rebel forces.

Assad’s forces launched an offensive outside of Khanaser town in the Aleppo province on Oct. 1. The town is situated along a key road needed to transport essential supplies. Assad’s fighters were reportedly met by jihadists from both the ISIL and the Al Nusrah Front.

The following day, Oct. 2, SOHR reported that the two al Qaeda affiliates were accompanied by fighters from “several rebel battalions,” including Ahrar al Sham, Jeish Mohammad, and Nour al Deen al Zanki. In August, videos of Ahrar al Sham fighters occupying Khanaser were posted online.

Ahrar al Sham is closely allied with the Al Nusrah Front. For example, the SOHR reported on Sept. 10 that the Al Nusrah Front and Ahrar al Sham bombarded Alawite-inhabited areas in the Homs province. Al Nusrah and its ally also fought together against regular Syrian forces in Homs, and have consistently fought side-by-side elsewhere.

In late September, the SOHR continued to report on clashes between al Qaeda’s two affiliates on one side and the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) on the other. The YPG is a branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a US-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization.

SOHR’s reporting says that al Qaeda’s affiliates have battled YPG units in the Raqqah and Hasaka provinces in recent days. The fighting between al Qaeda’s affiliates and the Kurds intensified during the summer. [See LWJ report, Analysis: Al Qaeda’s Iraqi, Syrian affiliates jointly battle Kurds.]

In mid-September, the SOHR reported that fighters loyal to a local sharia council in Deir Izzor city in eastern Syria “confiscated trucks loaded with oil pipelines which were being transported by the [ISIL] to Aleppo.”

The ISIL responded “by marching alongside the [Al Nusrah Front] to the council’s headquarters in Deir Izzor.” The sharia council backed down in the dispute, deciding it was best “to return the pipelines to the [ISIL], to spare clashes and losses.”

The episode in Deir Izzor was yet another example of collusion between the Al Nusrah Front and ISIL. Their differences have not precluded them from jointly fighting al Qaeda’s enemies.

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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