Syrian war enters a new phase as factions realign

O n Friday, the Syrian rebels made their most significant gains in 14 months. Nearly 30 armed groups took part in a successful counterattack to break the siege around Aleppo, which the regime of Bashar Al Assad had briefly imposed on Syria’s second largest city.

The effort was widely celebrated not just because of the breakthrough but because of the remarkable unity shown by various strands of the anti-regime forces in northern Syria. The way the coalition co-operated is reminiscent of the formation of the defunct Liwa Al Tawhid around this time in 2012. Liwa Al Tawhid was an early model of rebel collaboration that rapidly helped expel regime forces from the eastern parts of Aleppo, which the rebels continue to control.

As Liwa Al Tawhid marked a defining moment for the Syrian conflict, the offensive last week may be the beginning of a new dynamic. This is mostly because of the birth of Jabhat Fateh Al Sham (JFS), the new name for Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al Nusra after it rebranded itself two weeks ago as a Syrian group with “no relationship to any external ­entity”.

According to Free Syrian Army commanders in Aleppo, the counterattack last week was in the works since June. The timing of the assault, on the iconic artillery academy in south-western Aleppo, with the announcement by Jabhat Al Nusra was not a coincidence.

Notwithstanding what happens next in Aleppo, JFS has already made its entrance. Inside and outside Syria, support for the group appears to have risen. Many seem to be comfortable with showing support for a group that is supposedly no longer part of Al Qaeda, while others support it for its lead role in the continuing counterattack. This normalisation and show of support are at the heart of the group’s reconfiguration – and the Aleppo offensive was partly designed to achieve that.

The social goodwill that the group has gained over the past two weeks should not be taken lightly. The way the situation looks for anti-regime Syrians is that, while the world stood by as nearly 300,000 civilians were under siege by the regime, and in violation of an understanding between Moscow and Washington not to support such a siege, it was extremists who again won the day. Also, despite the involvement of Russia, Iran and foreign Shia militias fighting under their command in Syria, those forces could overrun a well-secured regime base and break a siege within a few days.

This is a new phase in the conflict. The rebranding of Jabhat Al Nusra was not a compromise in any sense. It is part of a familiar and stated strategy by Al Qaeda’s current leader, Ayman Al Zawahiri, who in 2006 spoke of four phases of jihad that involved the expulsion of American troops from Iraq; the formation of an Islamic authority there, which could evolve into a caliphate; the spreading of the “jihadi wave” into neighbouring countries; and confrontation with Israel.

His strategy, which was stated in a letter he sent to Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, then the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, was echoed two weeks ago when the group announced the formation of JFS. Al Qaeda’s current deputy, Ahmad Hassan Abu Al Khayr, spoke of the move as an “advanced phase”. The new phase will involve an effort to implement Sharia and create the infrastructure for the envisioned Islamic authority.

Paradoxically, the move both brings JFS closer to and sets it apart from ISIL. JFS follows a similar road map for the establishment of an Islamic state, but it significantly distinguishes itself in approach. On one hand, the formation of JFS proves that the two groups are not getting closer to each other, as some suspect. They have inverse directions, meaning that their divergence increases every time each group needs to adapt to new circumstances.