• Monthly
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $other
  • use PayPal

ONE WEEK TO DOUBLE YOUR DONATION!

A generous CounterPuncher has offered a $25,000 matching grant. So for this week only, whatever you can donate will be doubled up to $25,000! If you have the means, please donate! If you already have done so, thank you for your support. All contributions are tax-deductible.
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

As ISIS Shrinks, Al Qaeda Expands

Photo by thierry ehrmann | CC BY 2.0

Al-Qaeda is creating its most powerful stronghold ever in north-west Syria at a time when world attention is almost entirely focused on the impending defeat of Isis in the east of the country. It has established full control of Idlib province and of a vital Syrian-Turkish border crossing since July. “Idlib Province is the largest al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11,” says Brett McGurk, the senior US envoy to the international coalition fighting Isis.

The al-Qaeda-linked movement, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which used to be called Jabhat al-Nusra, has long been the most powerful rebel group in western Syria. After the capture of east Aleppo by the Syrian army last December, it moved to eliminate its rivals in Idlib, including its powerful former Turkish-backed ally Ahrar al-Sham. HTS is estimated to have 30,000 experienced fighters whose numbers will grow as it integrates brigades from other defeated rebel groups and recruits young men from the camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who have sought refuge in Idlib from President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

Al-Qaeda is growing in strength in and around Idlib province just as Isis is suffering defeat after defeat in eastern Syria and Iraq. Its latest setback was its failure on Tuesday to stop the Syrian army linking up with its enclave at Deir Ezzor, where Isis has been besieging the government held part of the city for three years. Divided by the Euphrates, the city is the largest in eastern Syria and its complete recapture opens the way to the al-Omar oilfields that once provided half of Syria’s crude production.

The end of the siege, supposing encircling Isis forces are permanently driven back, frees up a Syrian army garrison of 5,000 to 10,000 soldiers as well as the 93,000 civilians trapped in the government-held zone who had been supplied with food by airdrops. Deir Ezzor is only the latest Isis urban centre to be lost on the Syrian portion of the Euphrates valley which was the heartland of its territories in Syria. Isis is everywhere on the retreat. Upriver from Deir Ezzor at Raqqa, the American-backed and Kurdish-run Syrian Democratic Forces are fighting their way into the city and has captured its old city quarter in the last few days.

Despite its proven fighting prowess, Isis is collapsing under the impact of ground attacks launched by different parties on multiple fronts in Iraq and Syria. What tips the balance against it in all cases is the massive firepower of the Russian and US air forces in support of ground assaults. Isis’s defeat in eastern Syria will accelerate as local tribes, previously won over or intimidated by Isis, join the winning side. The US and the Syrian Kurds may not like the return of Syrian government authority in eastern Syria, south of Raqqa, but they do not look as if they are prepared to fight hard to stop it. President Trump’s priority is to eradicate Isis and al-Qaeda, regardless of who rules Syria in future.

Bad news for Isis is good news for HTS and al-Qaeda. Its defeat preoccupies its myriad enemies and largely monopolises their military efforts. Short of combat troops, the Syrian army is only really capable of making a maximum effort on one front at a time. The Syrian Kurds have an interest in fighting Isis but not necessarily defeating it so decisively that the US would no longer need a Kurdish alliance and could return to the embrace of its old Nato ally Turkey.

HTS stands to benefit politically and militarily from the decline of Isis, the original creator and mentor of Jabhat al-Nusra, as the earliest of al-Qaeda’s incarnations in Syria was known. Under the name of al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of the movement split off in 2013 and the two sides fought a bloody inter-jihadi civil war. If Isis is destroyed or rendered a marginal force, Sunni Arab jihadis refusing to surrender to Mr Assad’s army and intelligence service will have no alternative but to join HTS. Moreover, Sunni Arabs in eastern Syria may soon be looking for any effective vehicle for resistance, if Syrian government armed forces behave with their traditional mix of brutality and corruption.

HTS will expect the many states now attacking Isis, and battering to pieces its three-year-old caliphate, to turn on them next. But they will hope to delay the confrontation for as long as possible while they strengthen their movement. Ideologically similar but politically more astute than Isis, they will seek to avoid provoking a final territorial battle which they are bound to lose. Some Syrian specialists warn against waiting too long. “The international community must seek urgently to counter-attack HTS, which grows stronger by the day, without waiting for the complete destruction of the Islamic State,” writes Fabrice Balanche in a study published by the Washington Institute for Near East Studies called Preventing a Jihadist Factory in Idlib. He says that HTS wants to dominate the whole Syrian rebellion and is close to succeeding.

The open dominance of an extreme Islamic jihadi movement like HTS creates a problem for foreign powers, notably the US, UK, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, previous funders and suppliers of the Syrian rebels. HTS, whose attempt to distinguish itself from al-Qaeda has convinced few, is listed in many countries as a terrorist organisation, unlike its former ally, the Ahrar al-Sham. It will be difficult for foreign powers to do business with it, though the armed opposition to Mr Assad has long been dominated by extreme Islamist jihadi groups. The difference is that today there are no longer any nominally independent groups through which anti-Assad states and private donors can channel arms, money and aid while still pretending that they were not supporting terrorism.

Isis declared war against the whole world in 2014 and inevitably paid the price of creating a multitude of enemies who are now crushing it in Syria and Iraq. Many of the members of this de facto alliance always disliked each other almost as much as they hated Isis. It was only fear of the latter that forced them to cooperate, or at least not fight each other. It may not be possible to recreate the same unity of purpose against al-Qaeda.

More articles by:

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
October 16, 2019
Patrick Cockburn
How Turkey’s Invasion of Syria Backfired on Erdogan
Chitrangada Choudhury – Aniket Aga
How Cotton Became a Headache in the Age of Climate Chaos
Jack Rasmus
US-China Mini-Trade Deal: Trump Takes the Money and Runs
Michael Welton
Communist Dictatorship in Our Midst
Robert Hunziker
Extinction Rebellion Sweeps the World
Peter A. Coclanis
Donald Trump as Artist
Chris Floyd
Byzantium Now: Time-Warping From Justinian to Trump
Steve Klinger
In For a Dime, in For a Dollar
Gary Leupp
The Maria Ramirez Story
Kim C. Domenico
It Serves Us Right To Suffer: Breaking Down Neoliberal Complacency
Kiley Blackman
Wildlife Killing Contests are Unethical
Colin Todhunter
Bayer Shareholders: Put Health and Nature First and Stop Funding This Company!
Andrés Castro
Looking Normal in Kew Gardens
October 15, 2019
Victor Grossman
The Berlin Wall, Thirty Years Later
Raouf Halaby
Kurdish Massacres: One of Britain’s Many Original Sins
Robert Fisk
Trump and Erdogan have Much in Common – and the Kurds will be the Tragic Victims of Their Idiocy
Ron Jacobs
Betrayal in the Levant
Wilma Salgado
Ecuador: Lenin Moreno’s Government Sacrifices the Poor to Satisfy the IMF
Ralph Nader
The Congress Has to Draw the Line
William A. Cohn
The Don Fought the Law…
John W. Whitehead
One Man Against the Monster: John Lennon vs. the Deep State
Lara Merling – Leo Baunach
Sovereign Debt Restructuring: Not Falling Prey to Vultures
Norman Solomon
The More Joe Biden Stumbles, the More Corporate Democrats Freak Out
Jim Britell
The Problem With Partnerships and Roundtables
Howard Lisnoff
More Incitement to Violence by Trump’s Fellow Travelers
Binoy Kampmark
University Woes: the Managerial Class Gets Uppity
Joe Emersberger
Media Smears, Political Persecution Set the Stage for Austerity and the Backlash Against It in Ecuador
Thomas Mountain
Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed Wins Nobel Peace Prize, But It Takes Two to Make Peace
Wim Laven
Citizens Must Remove Trump From Office
October 14, 2019
Ann Robertson - Bill Leumer
Class Struggle is Still the Issue
Mike Miller
Global Climate Strike: From Protest To Power?
Patrick Cockburn
As Turkey Prepares to Slice Through Syria, the US has Cleared a New Breeding Ground for Isis
John Feffer
Trump’s Undeclared State of Emergency
Dean Baker
The Economics and Politics of Financial Transactions Taxes and Wealth Taxes
Jonah Raskin
What Evil Empire?
Nino Pagliccia
The Apotheosis of Emperors
Evaggelos Vallianatos
A Passion for Writing
Basav Sen
The Oil Despots
Brett Wilkins
‘No Friend But the Mountains’: A History of US Betrayal of the Kurds
John Kendall Hawkins
Assange: Enema of the State
Scott Owen
Truth, Justice and Life
Thomas Knapp
“The Grid” is the Problem, Not the Solution
Rob Kall
Republicans Are Going to Remove Trump Soon
Cesar Chelala
Lebanon, Dreamland
Weekend Edition
October 11, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Becky Grant
CounterPunch in Peril?
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail