Rise and decline of Al-Qaida in Syria
During 2014-18 my research team repeatedly contacted members of organisations linked to Al-Qaida in Syria for interviews about recent developments. In total 15 full interviews were carried out, mostly with members of Al Nusra and successor organizations. Two more interviews were carried out with members of Syrian intelligence services, who discussed their views of the state of the armed opposition.
On the basis of these interviews and of public domain sources I set out below to discuss the causes of the fast rise of groups linked to AQ in Syria, especially Al Nusra, their even quicker decline in 2018 and their attempted recovery in 2019.
A land of opportunity
The Syrian opposition to the regime of President Assad started off in 2011 as a widespread insurrectional movement, driven to violence by a violent but poorly organized repression. Typically in the early years of the civil war the bulk of the opposition armed groups were local militias, which defended local communities. The establishment of the Free Syrian Army did not change that significantly: it was an army in name only, remaining instead a heterogeneous coalition of small local groups. Gradually these groups started federating or merging in to larger organizations, a process driven by foreign donors to the armed opposition, who supported various political ‘leaderships’ that were emerging out of the conflict. Tens such organisations emerged, with sizes ranging from a few thousand armed men to a few tens of thousands. Mostly these organisations looked like ‘leaderships’ with access to money and supplies from abroad setting up some logistics to deliver to armed groups, in exchange for their ‘loyalty’. But these ‘leaderships’ had little or no capacity (or will) to restructure the way the opposition armed groups were operating. They were essentially gathering the groups into loose federative structures, with central structures serving essentially to distribute services. The more armed groups each leadership could gather around itself on this basis, the more weight it would gain vis á vis donors when negotiating more funding.
This seemed to work as long as the military effort of the Syrian regime was in disarray. The intervention of Iranians, Hezbollah and assorted militias of international volunteers on Assad’s side from 2013 onwards changed things, however. The opposition was now confronting a reinvigorated enemy, whose forces were displaying much greater aggressiveness. As Assad went on the offensive, the disorganised opposition started losing ground. Most of the leaderships of the opposition did not have the know-how to re-organize their forces, and started losing ground.
There were exceptions, however. One was that of the Al Qaeda in Iraq, an Iraqi organisation that in 2011 moved into Syria and started recruiting locally, eventually becoming the Islamic State. The other exception was a rival branch of Al-Qaida, which was sending into Syria cadres and recruiting promising opposition commanders inside Syria. Al-Qaida’s advisers were bringing the organizational and technical know-how that the average Syrian opposition leadership was sorely missing. From AQ’s perspective, Syria was offering the opportunity to re-launch the global jihadist groups and re-legitimise them. The Syrian civil war was turning into the new ‘cause celebre’ of the Muslim world, attracting plenty of funding from both state and private donors. If AQ could take the lead, its prestige and status across the Muslim world would be immensely enhanced.
Drivers of AQ’s growth
As it usually does, AQ did not establish a large, direct presence on the ground in Syria, but established a number of fronts, whose leaders in their majority or even entirety were members of AQ. While there might be a number of reasons for this choice, for sure one of the purposes of having fronts that did not openly acknowledged their relationship with AQ was to facilitate fund raising. Many institutional and private donors, including in the Arab Gulf, would have found difficult to channel funds and weapons (including sophisticated ones) to AQ itself. Not that most donors were not aware of the relationship between the AQ fronts and AQ itself, but at least they needed ‘plausible deniability’.
AQ and its fronts were quite successful in raising funds and this became one of the drivers of their growth. But the reason why donors were flocking to them was their superior organization. Organizations like Al-Nusra, the largest of the AQ fronts in Syria, invested large resource in governance structure, becoming the main competitor of IS in administering the territory taken from the Assad regime. Around Damascus Al-Nusra even managed to organise an underground network, that was able to carry out highly successful terrorist attacks against regime members and interests. Its military units were more mobile and better integrated than the loose armed groups that still made up most of the opposition’s forces. AQ was also contributing funds directly to its fronts, mainly in order to gain leverage that it used to control these organizations. AQ’s intent was to staff the leadership of these groups with capable and loyal figures, whereas the majority of the Syrian opposition had little meritocracy in the way leaders were selected – what mattered was largely the relationship with the donors.
As Assad’s forces started going on the offensive from 2013 onwards, the loosely organised and poorly discipline opposition groups suffered heavily. They were sitting ducks, waiting for the government forces and their internal allies to gather overwhelming superiority and march on them. These groups were either eliminated, or forced to reconcile, or forced to align with better organised groups, like Al Nusra and Islamic State.
In late 2013, before IS emerged as such, Al Nusra had less than 10,000 men, again according to its own claims. At the peak of its military power, in autumn 2017, Jabha Hayat as Sham, the organization into which Al-Nusra had by then mutated, had almost 42,000 members according to its own claims. Even if we take these claims with a pinch of salt, the change is likely to reflect real growth. That Al Nusra in its various incarnations was growing is also confirmed by both regime sources and external observers. An intelligence source of the Syrian regime put the strength of Hayat Tahrir as Sham at 40,000 at the end of 2017, or about a third of the entire opposition’s strength (including the then rapidly declining Islamic State).
Factors in AQ’s decline
Al-Nusra faced a first period of strong decline during 2014-15, when the stunning successes of ISIL/IS drew many donors away from AQ. The perception was that ISIL/IS would have been a more efficient vehicle for overthrowing the Assad regime. From the nearly 10,000 men that Al Nusra claimed just before ISIL stroke in northern Iraq, it fell to less than 6,000 by the end of the year.
Other organizations linked to AQ suffered to various degrees. Al-Nusra however managed to recover well from this first crisis. It reacted by forming alliances and organizing mergers with other groups. It re-positioned as more cooperative opposition group, ready to work with various other opposition forces against Assad and even against ISIL/IS. In March 2015 it formed a coalition called Jaysh al Fatah, which already in July 2016 was replaced by Jabha Fatah as Sham and eventually in January 2017 by Hayat Tahrir as Sham. Gradually the organization managed to reclaim funding and to start growing again. New donors turned up, who saw Al-Nusra and its successor organizations as the only alternative to the (increasingly unpresentable) IS, which could still deliver victory against Assad.
Jabha Fatah as Sham in particular was marketed as a group that had distanced itself from AQ, even replacing Al Nusra historical leader and senior AQ member Al Julani. Critics at that time (July 2016) questioned whether Jabha Fatah as Sham had really cut links with AQ. In fact it appears that Jabha Fatah as Sham did distance itself from AQ to some extent at least, judging form the turmoil that it caused within the organization. Jabha Fatah as Sham was actually not as successful in raising funds as it had been expected, so already in January 2017 a new organization was launched, that sanctioned some rapprochement to AQ: Hayat Tahrir as Sham. Although Al Julani still did not appear among the leaders, sources within the organization acknowledged that it played a major role behind the scenes.
As already mentioned, during 2017 Hayat Tahrir as Sham, which included a few small AQ fronts on top of Jabha Fatah as Sham/Al Nusra, reached its absolute peak claimed strength of over 40,000 men. This made it the strong anti-Assad group, as the Free Syrian Army had disintegrated. Even the Islamic State never had more then 30,000 men inside Syria (according to claims of its members), and even that only after the pulled most of its forces out of Iraq in the latter part of 2017.
But the seeds of crisis had already been planted. First of all in order to attract sufficient funding to develop into a force large enough to threaten the Assad regime (that is, hundreds of million of US$), Al-Nusra and the other AQ fronts had to dilute the presence at its top level of AQ loyalists. This caused discontent and friction within the organisation. One manifestation of this friction was the split of a group of loyalist in early 2018. They formed Hurras ad Din, which attracted about 7,000 AQ loyalists from Hayat Tahrir as Sham and other AQ fronts. In order to stop the haemorrhage of members, Hayat and other AQ fronts had to be cautious in distancing from AQ. They derived their organizational strength from the many ideologically motivated cadres who had joined these fronts, and from the know-how AQ had transferred. They however struggled to reconcile this with large scale fund raising, involving regimes that AQ had condemned in the past (such as the Saudi one).
In the meanwhile, the military threat posed by the Assad regime and its allies had got much greater. From late 2015, Assad could count on the support of a Russian Air Force contingent, which inflicted devastating blows on opposition groups. The advanced targeting techniques deployed by the Russians proved a challenge not only for the disorganized old opposition groups, but also for the AQ fronts. In addition, from 2016 onwards the advising and training effort carried out by Russian army advisers started bearing fruits, and the performance of the Syrian army improved markedly.
During 2018 new factors came into play, that contributed to deprive AQ’s fronts of most of the funding they had been receiving. The Turkish authorities severed all external links of AQ through its territory, and so did Jordan. Supplies were also almost entirely cut.
By spring 2018 internal sources acknowledged that Hayat Tahrir as Sham was down to 27,000 members, almost 15,000 lower than its peak strength. By August, the number had declined further to under 25,000, always according to internal sources. Sources within Hayat Tahrir as Sham acknowledged that morale within the organization was very low by the summer of 2018, and there was a wide expectation of final defeat in the coming months. Hayat Tahrir as Sham’s foreign fighters were literally scrambling for a passage out of Syria, expecting to be betrayed by their Syrian comrades as soon as Assad’s forces would eventually enter the last strongholds of the organization in northern Syria.
The causes of the decline of AQ’s fronts were ultimately the same of its success. Its radical ideology provided a major boost, but as the influence of AQ inside Syria grew, some key donors to the opposition (even in the Gulf) started becoming worried. Their interference and the constant ups and downs in funding disrupted the development of AQ’s most promising front, Al-Nusra. Eventually one of the main sponsors of the opposition turned against AQ: during 2018 Turkey re-organized parts of the Free Syrian Army and pushed it and other groups supported by Turkey to move against Hayat Tahrir as Sham in northern Syria. Hayat Tahrir as Sham was cornered in the region of Idlib and its leaders were divided between those arguing that the organization should bow to Turkey, those who advocated surrendering to Assad, and those who argued for fighting on till the bitter end.
Remarkably by 2019 the leadership of Hayat Tahrir as Sham had managed to get a grip on the situation and restore morale within the ranks. Most importantly, it managed to combine at least for some time a new flow of cash from the Gulf monarchies and Turkish support, helping the rank-and-file feel that not all was lost. HTS units proved a tougher enemy for the revitalised Syrian army and the militias, but after the defeat of Khan Shaykhun in August 2019 morale suffered a new blow. It remains to be demonstrated that HTS can evolve tactically to the point of becoming capable of resisting the Syrian army ion open field.