Former al-Qaeda affiliate has struck out at 'conspiracy' to undermine it, but analysts say infighting will further undermine Syrian opposition
Al-Qaeda's former affiliate in Syria has thrown itself into a violent, desperate attempt to impose its will on other rebel groups, but its actions can only polarise and damage the hopes of the Syrian revolution, according to analysts.
Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the group formerly known as the Nusra Front, this week unleashed its fury on other groups it said were "conspiring" to undermine it by co-operating with the government of President Bashar al-Assad in peace talks in Astana.
It comes as JFS has in the past few weeks failed in a bid to create a new rebel coalition, and found itself isolated and facing a multi-front offensive: Russian, US and Syrian attacks on its positions, exclusion from ceasefire deals - and local JFS commanders are reported to believe that local rebels are now providing coordinates for the strikes.
'There wasn't really rebel unity in Idlib to begin with' - Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, Middle East Forum
Its response has been severe: in one day of fighting on Wednesday on the fringes of Aleppo province, JFS attacked with sufficient force to destroy Jaish al-Mujahideen, a group allied with the Free Syrian Army and armed by the US, which had withstood months of bombardment by Assad during the battle for the provincial capital.
But analysts say while JFS had proved its unquestioned military prowess, such action has fractured an already weak rebel front with no guarantee of boosting its own position.
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, Jihad-Intel Research Fellow at the Middle East Forum, said JFS has grown steadily aware that some rebel groups were actively opposed to its presence in Idlib, the last bastion of rebel power after the fall of Aleppo.
“I think part of this is rooted in JFS' perception of a conspiracy against it with the broader attempts to isolate the group,” he told Middle East Eye. "There wasn't really rebel unity in Idlib to begin with."
The retreat of some groups from Aleppo into Idlib had hardened that perception, he said.
“I have no doubt about the broader attempts to isolate JFS as being a US strategy. And to an extent, you can perceive the effect in the wider [rebel] reluctance to offer JFS condolences for casualties in air strikes.”
The presence of al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in the Syrian opposition has long been the most contentious factor in the country’s six-year civil war.
Reactions to the militant group have ranged from outright opposition to sometimes reluctant cooperation with many other rebels recognising Nusra, or JFS, as one of the most potent and experienced fighting forces in the country.
JFS began its assault on Tuesday, primarily targeting a base belonging to Jaish al-Mujahideen, a Free Syrian Army group which has previously received CIA support. Clashes then spread to numerous other sites in Syria, including opposition strongholds such as Maraat al-Numan, Kafranbel, Saraqeb and Ariha.
Clashes broke out last week between JFS and their erstwhile allies Ahrar al-Sham and other rebel groups and, unlike previous disputes, appear to have escalated. On Thursday, Ahrar al-Sham, one of the larger forces in the region, said six groups were involved in the fighting.
On Tuesday, Ahrar al-Sham released a statement criticising JFS for their attacks on other groups "without any justification or legitimate reason” and said it would help their “enemies” in isolating JFS from the other rebel groups.
“We will join our brothers in the rest of the factions... to prevent JFS (or others) columns to go and attack Muslims and harass them and wrongfully take their blood and money,” read the statement.
Though the statement appeared largely defensive, Syria analyst Charles Lister said on Twitter that Ahrar al-Sham were threatening a “full declaration of war”.
Labib al-Nahhas, a media representative for the group, later warned JFS on Twitter that it “either completely joins the revolution or it is a new Islamic State”.
'The message from this is clear: we were first sidelined, and then targeted, while other rebel groups were building close relations with the US' - JFS statement
In turn, JFS released a statement accusing other rebels of involvement in "conspiracies" and being backed by "foreign projects".
"We attempted to make a coalition, with the open hearts of friendship... even though writers and fatwas said it would be 'suicide' to form a coalition with us," read the statement, released on Tuesday.
"After the coalition failed, bombing by the international coalition began, and we were targeted in several locations. Leaders were also targeted. The message from this is clear: we were first sidelined, and then targeted, while other rebel groups were building close relations with the US.
"We call for the establishment of a single, united Sunni force, both political and military... We stress the importance of working fast and cooperatively to achieve this goal."
By midday on Wednesday Jaish al-Mujahideen had been effectively destroyed, and their bases and weapons confiscated by JFS.
The roots of the fighting
The current round of fighting appears to have been triggered by an ongoing dispute over the presence of another militant group, Jund al-Aqsa, who were absorbed into JFS’s ranks in October.
While Jund al-Aqsa had historically been linked to al-Qaeda, many other rebel groups accused them of being a front for IS and questioned the decision by JFS to allow them to join. This eventually escalated to the point where, after alleging numerous violation by Jund al-Aqsa, Ahrar al-Sham launched an operation to “annihilate” the group at the weekend.
Though JFS announced on Monday that they had expelled Jund al-Aqsa, the damage appears to have been done, and violence continued unabated between JFS and other rebel groups, particularly those with representatives currently participating in the Astana negotiations.
Another Ahrar al-Sham spokesperson suggested that JFS attacks on rebels indicated JFS's “external agenda” while prominent JFS leadership figures Abu Hassan al-Kuwaiti and Abu Sayyaf al-Jawfi reportedly quit the organisation over the violence.
These incidents do not mark the first time that JFS has attacked other rebel groups - previously, it had effectively crushed both the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and the US-trained Hazm Movement in northern Syria, while in March 2016 mass protests erupted against JFS after it attacked and kidnapped members of the FSA’s 13th Division.
However, while SRF and Hazm were unpopular organisations with heavy links to the US, Jaish al-Mujahideen are much more popular and therefore its demise, according to Lister, could have a much bigger impact.
Following the clashes, rebel groups appear to have started setting out their alliances in different camps. Jaish al-Mujahideen are reportedly in negotiations to join the more powerful Ahrar al-Sham, while the Sham Front, Faylaq al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam also fell on side with the group.
Conversely Nour al-Din al-Zenki appears to have thrown its lot in with JFS.
What then, does this mean for the future of Syria's rebels?
Hassan Hassan, an associate fellow at Chatham House, said the infighting was not a rerun of 2014, where rebel factions including what was then Nusra united to turn on Islamic State fighters and kick them out of Idlib and Aleppo.
JFS' actions meant rebels were in fact heading for further fragmentation while JFS consolidated its power: "JFS as an overlord."
So, this is not ISIS in January 2014 in Idlib+Aleppo. Heading to further rebel fragmentation & more JFS consolidation. JFS as an overlord.
— Hassan Hassan (@hxhassan) January 25, 2017
Haid Haid, also an associate fellow at Chatham House, added that JFS was undoubtedly powerful and no one, at this stage, was prepared to directly oppose them.
"JFS has been able to prove once again that they are able to eliminate any threat they might want to and no one will stop them," he told Middle East Eye.
And any counter plan to eliminate the group, was a long way off.
“Jaish al-Mujahideen and others don’t want to have this fight because they don’t want to do this alone - they know that others were not ready to fight alongside them against JFS.
Haid added that JFS had specifically blamed Jaish al-Mujahideen for providing the US coalition with their location for air strikes and "that’s why they’re being targeted".
He said that despite the threats against JFS from and other rebel groups, they had largely stood by while JFS eliminated Jaish al-Mujahideen - many groups wanted to see JFS gone, but there was no united front against them.
'They will hope the international community will have a clear strategy to eliminate JFS, but at this point it’s quite difficult to imagine what that would be' - Haid Haid, Chatham House
“Many groups want to see that, but the problem is how to do that - they are not able to start fighting JFS until they see a political solution to the conflict in Syria," he said.
“They will hope that the international community will have a clear strategy to weaken and eliminate JFS, but at this point it’s quite difficult to imagine what kind of strategy that would be."
For now, rebels opposed to JFS need to bide their time and re-assess their options.
Tamimi said that there were effectively two paths open to the rebels at this stage: get closer to Turkey, which is prosecuting a campaign in northern Syria and considers JFS a "terrorist group", or get closer to JFS themselves.
"Each option has its pitfalls," he said. "Neither can achieve the original goal of the revolution at this point, but Turkey is more likely to ensure the survival of more mainstream factions."
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.