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Op-Ed: Al-Qaeda is building another caliphate in Syria

Manish Rai explains why the US-led coalition that is fighting ISIS should also be targeting al-Qaeda in Syria. According to Rai, al-Qaeda has only benefited from the fight against the murderous terrorist organization and will soon pose a dangerous threat to the US and the West.
US-led coalition forces Photo Credit: Reuters/Channel 2 News

The United States and NATO are solely focusing on crushing the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. However, al-Qaeda in Syria is accumulating strength and territory at a rapid pace and in coming time will be the US and the West’s biggest challenge ever. Al-Qaeda has been a benefactor from the US-led coalition’s unifocal approach to eliminating ISIS. Moreover, it also manipulated the opposition against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to tighten its grip on the territory previously controlled by the moderate rebels.

While ISIS is under constant NATO airstrikes, al-Qaeda has been thriving and breeding and continues to forge alliances with local forces, re-establishing itself as the world’s leading jihadist group. Al-Qaeda has been successful in creating its strongest power base ever since it entered the conflict in north-west Syria. It has taken total control of Idlib Province and important Syrian-Turkish border crossings already in July of this year. “Idlib Province is the largest al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11,” said 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, has been the most dominant rebel faction in north-western Syria for a long time. But after the fall of east Aleppo last December, the Syrian moderate rebel groups were fragmented and al-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 gone uncontested so far.

HTS’ current strength is roughly 30,000 battle-hardened fighters and the number keeps increasing as it merges with various factions from defeated moderate rebel groups and recruits youngsters from the camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), who have come to Idlib to seek refuge from the government forces. Al-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 the Islamic State is wiped out or even rendered as a marginal player, those reluctant to surrender to 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, al-Qaeda 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 share 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 has always aimed 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. Al-Qaeda is transforming itself from a small outfit with a micro core of struggling local branches to a strong multinational network of affiliates that has acquired greater numbers and valuable fighting strength and now spans throughout the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Al-Qaeda as an organization invested its last few years in building durable, deep roots in the 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, the Islamic State has shallow roots and support base. The Islamic State has never given attention to acquiring popular or even local support- it just controls the population by terrorizing them. Al-Qaeda opted for downplaying its successes rather than publicizing them while mixing and embedding itself within 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 the US is not giving proper attention to the seriousness of this threat. With an available base in Syria, al-Qaeda can threaten American strategic interests in the entire Levant region and Europe. In addition, it poses a threat to US allies such as Jordan and Israel. A strong base in the heart of Middle East will not only give al-Qaeda a golden opportunity to destabilize the region, but it will also provide a launching pad for al-Qaeda to conduct strikes against Europe and West. Hence, the 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 the Islamic State. Even the large-scale land invasion in Idlib Province, like the Islamic State de-facto capital Raqqa, should be considered.

JOL Blogger | Manish Rai

Manish Rai is a geo-political analyst and columnist for the Middle East and Af-Pak region and the editor of geo-political news agency ViewsAround (VA). He has done reporting from Jordon, Iran and Afghanistan. His work has been quoted in House of Commons, British Parliament.

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