Al Qaeda in Syria has resumed offensive operations against the Syrian regime in northern Syria after the fall of Aleppo City. The recapture of Aleppo City by Syrian president Bashar al Assad and his external backers was a turning point in the Syrian civil war, but it did not seal Assad’s victory. It was instead a victory for Al Qaeda because it defeated Al Qaeda’s main competitors in northern Syria. Al Qaeda consolidated its strength and resumed offensive operations against pro-Assad forces in February 2017. Pro-Assad forces could begin to lose terrain to Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda will increasingly pose a threat to the West as its strength in northern Syria grows. The contest between Al Qaeda and pro-Assad forces, which include Iran and Russia, will increasingly challenge U.S. policy options in Syria.
Al Qaeda won a victory in Aleppo in two important ways. First, it won favor with opposition groups in August and October 2016 by launching two offensives to break the regime’s siege of opposition held neighborhoods of the city, the first of which temporarily succeeded. Al Qaeda’s effort – and temporary success – demonstrated its value to the Syrian opposition and its commitment to defending populations in opposition-held areas. Al Qaeda did not test whether it was strong enough to prevent Aleppo from falling after failing to keep the siege broken. Assad and his external backers used horrifying tactics to recapture Aleppo City, which Al Qaeda exploited to recruit. The fall of Aleppo City also neutralized opposition groups that had constrained Al Qaeda’s influence in northern Syria. Al Qaeda meanwhile preserved its own military strength and resources for future operations.
Al Qaeda took steps to advance its goal of merging all northern opposition groups under its leadership after the battle for Aleppo. Al Qaeda attacked numerous U.S.-backed groups in Idlib in January and February 2017 and forced them and other independent groups to merge under Ahrar al Sham on January 26. Prior to the merger, Ahrar al Sham’s leader reaffirmed the group's ideology and goals, which align with Al Qaeda. The statement served as a guarantee that the absorption of moderates would not dilute Ahrar al Sham. Al Qaeda’s formal affiliate in Syria, Jabhat Fatah al Sham (JFS), then absorbed four smaller, allied opposition groups and siphoned off hundreds of fighters from Ahrar al Sham on January 28 and rebranded itself into Hayyat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS). The creation of HTS involved a full merger of all military forces into a single fighting force, according to the statement announcing the formation. Al Qaeda intends to demonstrate how a full merger can increase the combat effectiveness of the whole. HTS will now lead a major offensive campaign in order to revive the opposition’s war effort after the fall of Aleppo City.
Al Qaeda obfuscated the success of its merger by appointing a veteran Al Qaeda commander formerly within Ahrar al Sham named Hashim Al-Sheikh to command HTS. Al Qaeda likely chose to elevate Hashim Al Sheikh because of his reputation as an effective military commander and because the U.S. has not listed him as a specially designated terrorist. Al Qaeda continues to prioritize staying below the threshold of American policy as it proceeds with its program to transform the Syrian opposition in Syria into a global Salafi-Jihadi base. Hashim al Sheikh is also likely viewed more favorably by Syrian opposition elements that remain hesitant to merge fully with Al Qaeda. Former JFS leader Abu Mohammad al Joulani meanwhile took control of HTS military forces in order to build his reputation as an effective anti-Assad commander.
HTS resumed offensive operations against pro-Assad forces in late February 2017. HTS launched a complex, coordinated attack against two regime military installations in Homs City on February 25. Five HTS sleeper cell members detonated Suicide Vests (SVESTs) outside the State Security and Military Intelligence Offices in the al-Mahatta and al-Ghouta Districts of Homs City. The attack killed dozens of regime soldiers including two high-ranking generals. It set conditions for follow-on military operations by disrupting the regime’s command and control and possibly fixing pro-regime forces in Homs City. HTS’ most likely operational objective is to attack Hama City, which has symbolic resonance for the Salafi Jihadi movement because of the 1982 massacre conducted by former Syrian president Hafez Al Assad against the Muslim Brotherhood and its alleged supporters. HTS may alternately launch an offensive against the regime’s coastal stronghold in order to shake the regime’s confidence and possibly to threaten Russia’s military bases in Latakia and Tartous.
A major HTS-led campaign against pro-Assad forces would require Assad and his external backers to dedicate significant resources to defense. It would likely deny them the ability to launch clearing operations in Idlib Province after consolidating in Aleppo City. It may force Russia and Iran to dedicate more resources to the Syrian theater in order to defend key regime-held terrain. HTS could degrade the regime’s defenses enough to create opportunities for ISIS to advance after the regime’s recapture of Palmyra. ISIS has conducted regular attacks deep into Homs City, indicating that it is positioned to exploit regime vulnerabilities that HTS may inflict and vice versa. It is also possible, although less likely, that HTS and ISIS will coordinate tactically against the regime in the Homs-Hama corridor. Most dangerous possibilities include simultaneous and possibly coordinated Al Qaeda and ISIS offensives that overmatch the Syrian regime’s defenses north of Damascus. Russia and Iran are taking steps to bolster the regime’s ability to defend terrain against major offensives, but it is unclear how rapidly they can respond or how many positions they can defend at once.
President Trump will face a decision point on how to respond to the resumption of large-scale violence in western Syria. Russia will attempt to draw the U.S. into a counterterrorism partnership in Syria in reaction to HTS’ upcoming offensive. President Trump must avoid ceding more power to Russia in Syria in return for a counterterrorism partnership that would only radicalize Syria’s population further. Al Qaeda’s continued rise demonstrates that a counterterrorism strategy is inappropriate, furthermore. The U.S. will not destroy Al Qaeda’s army in Syria through precision airstrikes against individual high profile Al Qaeda operatives. President Trump must instead adopt a new long-term strategy that integrates American efforts against Al Qaeda and ISIS to destroy both armies while depriving them of local support.