By Manish Rai
United States and NATO are solely focusing on crushing Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. On the other hand, al-Qaeda in Syria is accumulating strength and territory at a rapid pace and definitely in coming time will pose the major challenge to the US and the West that they have ever faced. Qaeda has been a benefactor from the US led coalition’s unifocal approach of eliminating ISIS. Moreover, it also manipulated the opposition against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to tighten its grip on the territory earlier controlled by the moderate rebels. While ISIS is under constant NATO airstrikes al-Qaeda has been thriving, and breeding and continues to forge alliance with local forces, and re-establishing itself as the world’s leading jihadist group. Al-Qaeda has been successful in creating its strongest power base ever since it enters the conflict in north-west Syria. It has taken total control of Idlib province and important Syrian-Turkish border crossings since July this year. “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 Syrian affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which was formerly called Jabhat al-Nusra, since long has been the most dominant rebel faction in north-western Syria. But after the fall of east Aleppo last December the Syrian moderate rebel groups were fragmented and Qaeda moved to eliminate its rivals in Idlib, including once its former Turkish-backed ally Ahrar al-Sham. Now HTS has a firm control over the province and that’s being uncontested.
HTS roughly current estimated strength is about 30 thousand battle hardened fighters whose number is increasing as it’s merging various factions from other defeated moderate rebel groups and recruit’s youngsters from the camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who have come to Idlib to seek refuge from government forces. Qaeda is gaining strength in and around Idlib province just as ISIS is going through series of defeats in eastern Syria and Iraq. There is a high possibility that if Islamic State is wiped out or even rendered as a marginal player, those reluctant to surrender to Syrian President Assad’s forces and intelligence service will have no option left but to join al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda has quietly organized its largest guerrilla fighter’s army in its history. At this point in time AQ has established itself as the mascot of the resistance against the Assad regime and as a result of this many Sunnis who do not necessarily shares Al-Qaeda’s Salafi ideology are also flocking to join the group as it is the only credible option for fighting Syrian regime. Al-Qaeda’s always aims to take control of the Syrian uprising since it began and gradually turns it into a global jihad against Iran, Russia, United States and West in which it has succeeded partially.
Many counterterrorism experts share the view that the group’s Syrian wing is the biggest and mightiest Al-Qaeda branch in the world. Qaeda is transforming itself from a small outfit with a micro core with struggling local branches to a strong multinational network of affiliates that has acquired greater numbers and valuable fighting strength and now spans vast region of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Al-Qaeda as an organization invested it’s last few years in building durable, deep roots in Syrian opposition and revolutionary society by approaching tribal leaders, power brokers and occasionally wider local communities, rather than outright fear and violence. On the contrary Islamic State has shallow roots and support base. IS never gave attention on acquiring popular or even local support it just controls the population by terrorizing them. Al-Qaeda opted for low profile downplayed its successes rather than publicizing them, and mixed and embedded itself with local populations. It will be true to say that Al-Qaeda is building its own Caliphate quietly in a corner which is spared from any coalition or Syrian regime attacks.
It’s unfortunate that US is not giving proper attention to the seriousness of this threat. With an available base in Syria AQ can threaten American strategic interests in the entire Levant region, Europe, and to US allies Jordan and Israel. Strong base in the heart of Middle East will not only allow Al-Qaeda with a golden opportunity to destabilize the region, but it will also provide a launching pad for AQ to conduct strikes into Europe and West. Hence US led coalition must seek urgently to attack Al-Qaeda Syrian affiliate HTS, which is growing day by day, without waiting for the completion of operations against Islamic State. Even the large-scale land invasion in Idlib province like IS de-facto capital Raqqa should be considered.
(Manish Rai is a columnist for Middle East and Af-Pak region and editor of geo-political news agency ViewsAround (VA). Done reporting from Jordon, Iran and Afghanistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)