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Damascus – from Elijah J. Magnier: @ejmalrai
Russia has decided to eliminate al-Qaeda in Syria by attacking the jihadist organisation and its allies on several fronts in the northern countryside of Hama, Idlib, Homs and Damascus, and with the intention of attacking other fronts soon in the south of Syria.
Russia has taken this step because of the group’s implosion: the splits and the infighting, not only between al-Qaeda (aka Jabhat al-Nusra, aka Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham) and the once allied forces hostile to the Syrian government, but also among the various core jihadists. Al-Qaeda fell in Syria like glass shattering on a hard floor, with pieces scattered all over the place.
Unhappy to stay under the flag of al-Qaeda in the Levant and its leadership, three different jihadist groups mushroomed: “Jaish al-Badiya” (the Steppe Army), “Jund al-Malahem” (Epic Soldiers) and “Jaish al-Sahel” (the Coastal Army). These later united under the name of “Tanzim Hurras al-Deen” (THD – the organisation of the Guardians of the Religion), led by Abu Hammam al-Suri and operating in eastern al-Ghouta (Sariyat al-Ghouta and Sariyat Duma declared loyalty to THD), rural Lattakia (Katibat al-Battar, Saryi’at al-Ghoraba’ and Saraya Kabul – all foreign fighters – declared loyalty to THD), the south of Idlib, the city of Homs, and in other parts of Syria.
Al-Qaeda was hit long ago in the heart following the killing of its leader, Osama bin Laden, who had enjoyed respect by all Jihadi groups hostile to American policy in the Middle East. Even the Secretary-General of the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, often referred to him publicly in his speeches as “Sheikh Osama”, a sign of respect despite the differences in religious affairs and approaches between Shia and Sunni.
But al-Qaeda’s crisis today – with its Middle East franchises – was not born following the death of Bin Laden. It dates from before that, when al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia was led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who never followed the recommendations of al-Qaeda leaders. He not only opposed them but imposed his own religious views and interpretations that led al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia to further extremism beyond any other known religious extremist group in the last decade. Zarqawi’s acts of insurgency spilt rivers of Muslim blood (not only that of the US occupation forces in 2003), with attempts at various religious justifications.
Al-Qaeda’s fragmentation increased in the Levant when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his “Islamic State” and – he who sent one of his commanders, Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, to Syria to build a base there – decided to dissolve Jabhat al-Nusra and recall Joulani under his command. Thus, the “Islamic State” (later known as Daesh or ISIS) commander rejected Baghdadi’s orders: Abu Muhammad al-Julani decided to split from his Emir and renounced his oath and alliance to Baghdadi (a forbidden Islamic act, in fact). He further declared loyalty – without previous warning – to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, to protect his own back and keep power and control under his command.
Al-Zawahiri’s hastiness to accept the allegiance of al-Julani was later considered a big mistake by Jihadists. It triggered infighting among those of the same faith which rendered it easy for their enemies to disperse them, and facilitated their elimination over time. This unintentional but determined split in fact protected Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and neighbouring countries from an army of militants who were capable, determined, and extremely numerous.
Zawaheri, who admitted his mistake when he addressed the ISIS leadership, said if there had been a previous direct contact and a clear request to reject the allegiance of al-Joulani, he would not have refused to do so, so as to maintain Joulani’s pledge of allegiance to Baghdadi and keep the organisation united. Zawaheri’s hasty and ill-starred decision reflected his eagerness to get his hands on the control of a powerful al-Qaeda in Syria- but it also highlights al-Qaeda’s central weakness and lack of wisdom, following the killing of Bin Laden.
The weak and far away al-Qaeda central leadership from the Levant, and the absence of a charismatic leader have allowed many groups to exploit al Qaeda’s name (as a “registered trademark”) with the aim of attracting local and foreign recruits without adhering to its teachings and objectives as Zarqawi and Baghdadi did.
Thus, changing the name of “al-Qaeda in the Levant” from “Jabhat al Nusra” to “Jabhat Fatah al-Sham”, then “Jaish al-Fath” and ending up with “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” didn’t succeed in camouflaging al-Qaeda’s real identity. The transfer of Joulani’s rifle from one shoulder to the other caused only confusion, particularly when contradictory information was leaked about Joulani holding on to his oath to Zawaheri in secrecy.
Foreign fighters who joined Joulani during the first years of the Syrian war were motivated by his pledge of alliance to “al-Qaeda” and because he managed to lead hundreds of very successful suicide attacks and military tactics against the Syrian Army, gaining ground and occupying cities in the early years of the Syrian war. Thousands of recruits, locals and foreigners, gained the disproportionate strength that pushed the same Zawaheri to call all Mujahedeen around the Middle East to join the Levant under one flag.
But al-Joulani changed his attitude and, over the years, dared to imprison al-Qaeda leaders and lawmakers (such as the Jordanian Sami al-‘Aridi and Abu Jelayleb al-Urdini), showing a distancing from al-Zawahiri’s authority. Joulani effectively contributed to overwhelming and destroying anti-government Syrian groups weaker than his, and confiscating their weapons.
However, AQ collided with strong groups, those who were yesterday’s allies, such as Ahrar al-Sham and the Nur al-Din al-Zanki movement (who established in the last week a new alliance under the title “ Syrian Liberation Front”), Suqur al-Sham (the hawks of Syria) and other groups in several areas, mainly in Ma’arat al-Nu’man and Jabal al-Zawiyya, triggering animosity and hostility towards him by the majority of Syrians living in this area away from the Syrian government’s control.
Joulani then released hundreds of ISIS members who had sought refuge in Idlib to escape the Syrian army, and annexed them to its ranks. He also adopted and protected Jund al-Aqsa, the Takfiri organisation close to ISIS, and fought against those “Syrian Liberation Fronts”.
Al-Qaeda’s leader in Syria moved from being “the icon of the Syrian front”, and “all of us are without exception Jabhat al-Nusra”, to “al-Joulani is an agent and a pagan, envious of power, and a malignant who revokes and betrays covenants”.
Russia’s decision to eliminate al-Qaeda or “al-Nusra” prompted Turkey to distance itself from Joulani and to instruct “Ahrar al-Sham” and the “Noureddine Zinki” to fight him and to lift the cover of al-Qaeda represented by Joulani because the jihad project in Syria had failed.
The repeated outbursts of Salafist jihadist ideologues such as Abu Qatada al Filistini and Abu Mohammad al Maqdisi (those believers in the theory of “the overpowering group” that all Mujahedeen must walk behind the stronger and most numerous Sunni organisation regardless of its faults) did not succeed in preventing infighting, thus narrowing options for all jihadists in the Syrian arena.
Even if all these movements orbit within the Salafist jihadi space and meet as the same creed and faith, they differ on tactics and goals. This prompted many groups to abandon al-Qaeda: they felt the time had come to get rid of it, particularly in Idlib and Damascus.
In Idlib, the Syrian government, backed by Russia, stopped the attacks in the rural areas because Turkey intervened at the request of the Russian President Vladimir Putin and sent detachments of forces to remove al-Qaeda, sources within the Damascus decision-makers group said.
In Damascus, and in the eastern Ghouta in particular, the elimination of al-Qaeda (Jabhat al Nusra, aka Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham) is believed to have helped to keep together other armed groups (such as the Army of Islam) in Duma, separated from the southern part of eastern Ghouta after being split in the middle by the Syrian army.
Abu Muhammad al-Julani tried to keep his head above water, clinging to any salvation, whatever it was. He is however today in a volatile position and is no longer part of the “Syrian revolution”. He has lost support for Al-Qaeda, and the Mujahedeen are divided into two groups: one wants to stay in the Levant and fight to death, and another section known as the “nomad jihadists” has begun to leave for other destinations, away from the curse of the Levant: it is no longer a jihadist incubator or a safe environment.
Those who have preferred to remain have no longer a future in the Levant because the jihadist “project” (ISIS and AQ) to change the non-religious Syrian governing system has failed: whoever remains is considered an aggressor: if killed “he was an aggressor” and if he kills, he is considered a murderer. Whoever survives from al-Qaeda will pay a heavy price because this is a time of compromises and deals awaiting a comprehensive political solution: be assimilated or adopted by the two superpowers, or used by different states of the Middle Eastern region as a hired gun.
Damascus and Moscow are sitting on the side-lines watching the battle between those of the same faith, waiting for Syria to “clean itself”: the regional supporters have almost pulled the rug from under the feet of these jihadists.
Russia is prepared to end al-Qaeda as it has ended ISIS and its most densely occupied strongholds and gatherings (except, of course, for those in the US-protected area of north-east of Syria, and two more pockets in Yarmouk camp and Yarmouk Basin).
Zawahiri is watching his dream of controlling the Levant through al-Nusra vanish before his very eyes. Jabhat al-Nusra operated under the banner of al-Qaeda for the years of the Syrian war because Zawaheri wanted to believe in Abu Muhammad al-Julani, a rider who does not care about the origin of the horse, and is ready to exhaust his horse to reach his own aims. Today, Joulani is ending his career in Syria by falling from the horse and killing it, without reaching his goal to sit at the summit of the Levant and wave the black banner of al-Qaeda.
Proof read by: Maurice Brasher
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Al-Qaeda has been defeated in Blad al-Sham… https://ejmagnier.com/2017/12/02/al-qaeda-has-been-defeated-in-bilad-al-sham-and-hezbollah-is-the-only-consistent-organisation-left-in-the-middle-east/