Al-Qaeda, on the rise again, hits Assad where it hurts
Syrian rebel forces led by a swelling jihadist alliance built around al-Qaeda’s increasingly powerful affiliate, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, are pressing the Damascus regime in an offensive that triggered fierce fighting in the capital and in strategic Hama province.
The high-profile assaults by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, an alliance stitched together by al-Qaeda, began in Damascus on March 11th, took the government by surprise and demonstrated to President Bashar Assad that even though his Russian and Iranian allies have saved his 45-year-old dynasty from collapse, the rebels can still strike at the heart of his regime.
Some analysts, most prominently Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute, believe that a reconstituted al-Qaeda is now stronger than it has ever been. This is largely due to the upheaval wrought by the Syrian war, which allowed the organisation to recover from the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 and from being usurped by the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014 and then embed itself with the anti-Assad opposition.
“Al-Qaeda’s Syrian representatives… have been relentless and patient in pursuing their long-term objective: A merger of all armed Syrian opposition groups under its broad transnational Islamic umbrella,” Lister observed in a March analysis published by Foreign Policy.
“With a majority of armed opposition groups holding back on the battlefield due to ongoing attempts to reach a political settlement, HTS’s insistence on remaining militarily active and in striking back hard at the heart of the regime is buying it invaluable popular credibility…
“Given the very real possibility that substantive international support for anti-Assad operations may soon be a thing of the past, HTS is presenting itself as the only sustainable model for continuing the fight that so many Syrians began in March 2011…
“Barring a major geopolitical shift, it is hard to see a future that does not give HTS more opportunities to exploit its advantages,” Lister noted.
The offensive by HTS, which was put together by al-Qaeda in January to challenge the regime after its battlefield success courtesy of Russia and Iran, began on February 25th with an assault in war-devastated Homs, Syria’s third largest city.
Teams of attackers burst into two security buildings where suicide bombers detonated their explosive belts – one of them killing Major- General Hassan Daabul, a senior security chief close to Assad. Independent press reports said more than 40 people were killed and 50 wounded.
On March 11th, two bombings in a Shia district of the Old City of Damascus killed another 74 people and wounded 120 more, one of the bloodiest attacks inside the heart of the capital.
Four days later, as the Syrian war entered its seventh year, 31 people were killed in a suicide bombing of the Palace of Justice, the main courthouse in the capital. Another 28 people, mostly women and children, were wounded when a bomber struck a popular restaurant.
The jihadists struck again in east Damascus on March 19th, when two suicide bombers driving explosive-packed vehicles led an assault on the Jobar district in what was seen as the rebels’ boldest assault on the city for several years. The attackers used tunnels under the city to infiltrate into government-held districts and advance into the neighbouring Abbasid Square in the heart of a city where Assad has striven to maintain a veneer of normality.
The rebels were driven back under a ferocious aerial bombardment. They responded on March 22nd by attacking in Hama province in central Syria, a critical sector for Assad because it separates rebel forces in jihadist-controlled Idlib province from Damascus to the south.
HTS was joined by other groups, including the powerful Islamist Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Rahman, part of the western-backed Free Syrian Army whose affiliates have been increasingly allying themselves with al-Qaeda.
These assaults were a far cry from an all-out offensive aimed at securing territory. But the attacks concentrated on targets that symbolise the regime’s authority and presumably intended to show that al-Qaeda, in whatever guise it cloaks itself, is still a power to be reckoned with and can mount major operations to exploit the inherent weakness of Assad’s military.
By attacking high-profile targets, such as state security facilities in Homs and the Palace of Justice in the capital, HTS, with its emphasis on Syrian nationalism rather than jihadist ideology, is also seeking to appeal to ordinary citizens to join it in toppling a long-discredited regime.
The recent attacks spearheaded by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham have badly jolted the minority regime just as it was starting to feel secure after its foreign allies reconquered Syria’s major population centres and other strategic territory. Ed Blanche has covered Middle East affairs since 1967. He is the Arab Weekly analyses section editor.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.