A militant Islamist/jihadi nexus is emerging in northern & eastern #Syria. Some thoughts on an increasingly cooperative militant alliance:
A slick, 10-minute high-definition video released by Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya earlier today showing footage from a 15 March assault (Operation Ibshari) on a complex of Syrian military arms depots in Khan Touman on the southern outskirts of Aleppo city underlined the continued potent threat the group poses to government control in northern Syria. In addition to it's numerical supremacy and, by all appearances, fairly audacious militant force, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya's consistent use of armour - in this video, consisting of a T-62 main battle tank, a 2S1 Gvozdika 122mm self-propelled howitzer - as well as other heavy weaponry - this video featured a B-10 recoilless rifle and several old Soviet-era anti-aircraft guns - has seen it capable of inflicting considerable damage to fixed targets prior to their seizure. In this case, the capturing of several large arms depots in Khan Touman saw it, and several other militant Islamist/jihadi groups it fought alongside - including Jabhat al-Nusra, Liwa al-Haq, and Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen - take possession of a very large quantity of weaponry. Among that shown in videos uploaded by the groups shortly after the attack, this new supply of militant arms included several dozen Kolomna KBM 9K11 Malyutka (or AT-3 Sagger) anti-tank guided weapons (ATGMs), a large number of what appeared to be 122mm Grad rockets and 82mm tank shells, and dozens of crates of small-arms and anti-aircraft ammunition. Today's video showed only a portion of this being driven away in a truck bearing Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya's logo. The potential impact that such weapons - especially the AT-3s - could have on the fight for Aleppo city cannot be underestimated.
This brings me onto my wider point, that of an emerging militant Islamist nexus in northern (and eastern) Syria. Led by Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya and Jabhat al-Nusra, this nexus is having a significant strategic impact on the northern Syrian insurgency. Recent examples of this jihadi operational alliance include the seizure of Al-Raqqah city on 4 March (Operation al-Jabaar); the seizure of Brigade 113 air-defence base in Deir ez Zour on 10 March; and the 15 March Khan Touman operation. In many respects, the capture of Al-Raqqah on 4 March was critical. Situated as a mid-point between Deir ez Zour to the SE and Aleppo to the NW - along Highway 4 - the city essentially served to link up 2 militant Islamist/jihadi fronts in the N and in the E. While Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya had focused its attention on the N front (largely in western Al-Raqqah, Aleppo, Idlib, and Hama), Jabhat al-Nusra and several smaller jihadi groups, including Ahrar's Syrian Islamic Front ally Jaish al-Tawhid, had formed the basis of the eastern front. Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya's key involvement in seizing the Brigade 113 base in Deir ez Zour underlined the qualitative effect that linking these two fronts had upon the ability of jihadi groups to disperse their fighters in the region according to where they were needed at the time.
As I mentioned, this nexus is currently dominated by Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya and Jabhat al-Nusra, although interestingly, the relatively small, largely Aleppo-based Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen has been appearing more and more often too). It's possible the group is an unofficial front group of Jabhat al-Nusra, although there is yet no definitive proof of this. In any case, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya and Jabhat al-Nusra have clearly formed somewhat of a mutually interdependent relationship, whereby the former appears consistently as the public face of a jihadi offensive campaign, announcing operations, updating followers on their progress, and then (more often than not), declaring victory, while the latter acts as a group more akin to a special force playing an elite frontline role. Acting together, the two groups have been incredibly decisive in their publicised operations. Targets appear to have been chosen with particular strategic objectives in mind, whether that be linking fronts, asserting local insurgent dominance, acquiring weaponry for likely planned major attacks, or simply seizing more territory.
Appearance-wise, Jabhat al-Nusra has consistently been the main jihadi group to have adopted the stereotypical "mujahid look", typified by Af-Pak-style shalwar khameez, while most other militant Islamist/jihadi groups have projected a more typical military image, with camouflage fatigues. However, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya fighters have been undergoing an interesting image shift recently (as pointed out earlier today by @ElSaltador), with many of its fighters now appearing dressed in all-black shalwar khameez with black head coverings or bandanas bearing the shahada. While this might mean little strategically, I suspect this is a conscious initiative by the group's fighters to emulate this traditional "mujahid look". Syria has played a major role in Islamic history and the importance of the anti-government uprising there, and the sheer brutality of the government crackdown, has provided "the world's mujahideen" with an opportunity to establish a solid base not seen since Iraq between 2003-5, and in the heart of Bilad ash-Sham no less. This time however, lessons have been learned. Jihadis have - with a few purported exceptions - not adopted local tactics of harsh sharia governance like that seen enforced by Zarqawi-era AQI in Iraq or other groups elsewhere in south Asia, Africa, or the Arabian Peninsula. Instead, such groups, again, most prominently Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya and Jabhat al-Nusra, have focused on providing food, gas, fuel, and other structural aid to the civilian populations in and surrounding their areas of operation. While AQI enforced its rule, these groups appear to have been more easily accepted after taking a soft approach. It would be misleading to suggest Jabhat al-Nusra hasn't faced some examples of popular discontent (such as in Al-Mayadin in Deir ez Zour last week), but so far, these have either petered off or been so isolated as to disappear as quickly as they arose. While Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya and its wider Syrian Islamic Front do perhaps have to be more accountable for their actions, Jabhat al-Nusra is less so, largely due its lighter footprint in populated centres. In many respects, Jabhat al-Nusra's refusal to join the Syrian Islamic Front during formation negotiations in the latter months of 2012 were likely, at least in part, due to this very concern, that being part of a coalition with an extensive geographical presence, could potentially lead to popular resentment and knock-on effects on its ability to operate.
While this piece has been a bit of a stream of thought, the essential point to take from this should be that through a militarily and politically smart strategy, an emerging cooperative alliance of militant Islamist/jihadi groups has emerged and put its stamp on the Syrian conflict. Having learned the lessons of past, failed jihadi insurgencies, this growing one in the north and east of Syria shows no sign of dissolving or being outmanoeuvred by the currently amorphous and discombobulated moderate one, made up of countless groups claiming some extent of allegiance to the Syrian National Council, the "Free Syrian Army" (if indeed it exists at all), and the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. The million dollar question is, what will this future bring? For now, I have no answer…