A jihadist group linked to al-Qaeda has capitalized on the international troops’ near single-minded focus to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) to consolidate its power in northwestern Syria and surface as the last major terrorist group standing in the war-ravaged country.
Citing several experts, Breitbart News has reported that the al-Qaeda-linked group in Syria has been long taking advantage of the efforts against its rival ISIS by the U.S.-led coalition, the Kurdish troops, and the Russian- and Iranian-backed Bashar al-Assad forces to become the international organization’s “strongest” branch in the world.
A map from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) depicting control of territory in Syria as of April 2018 now shows that al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate controls more terrain than any other terrorist organization in Syria.
The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) also reports:
Since surfacing as the country’s most potent militant group, [al-Qaeda-linked] Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has battled Western-backed rebel groups to extend its control across Idlib province, enforcing its version of Shariah and raising funds by taxing flows of people and goods.
The group’s leader, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, a former al Qaeda fighter, has vowed to conquer Damascus and impose Islamic rule across Syria. in a January speech, he exhorted followers to engage in “a war of ideas, a war of minds, a war of wills, a war of perseverance,” according to the SITE Intel Group.
In areas under its control, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has set up a religious police force similar to that of Islamic State, residents say. It initially rewarded children with sweets for memorizing the Quran, but soon moved to breaking hookah pipes as part of a smoking ban and ordering clothes shops to cover heads of mannequins. Beauty salons were told to ditch makeup, Idlib residents say.
According to the Journal, the al-Qaeda affiliate counts with the support “thousands of fighters.”
The al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria changed its name from the Nusra Front to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) in 2016 after claiming to have broken ties with the international terrorist organization, an allegation that various analysts have dismissed.
Currently, JFS is spearheading a jihadist coalition in Syria known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
The al-Qaeda-linked group’s territory is concentrated in northwestern Idlib province in Syria but has also expanded to small areas in the southern part of the country along the border of Israel and Jordan as well as areas north of Bashar al-Assad’s seat of power in Damascus, the ISW map shows.
In August 2017, Michael Ratney, the top U.S. Department of State official in charge of Syria policy, warned of “grave consequences” if Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) were allowed to control Idlib province as it does now.
“Everyone should know that [Julani] and his gang are the ones who bear responsibility for the grave consequences that will befall Idlib,” Ratney said, referring to group’s chief.
In July 2017, Katherine Zimmerman from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) Al-Qaeda warned that al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch had become the organizations “strongest” affiliate, adding that it had set the conditions to establish an Islamic emirate in Syria.
“ISIS has strengthened al Qaeda,” Zimmerman told lawmakers in written testimony, adding, “Should ISIS’s global network collapse, al Qaeda will be able to capture the remnants and incorporate ISIS’s capabilities into its own organization.”
“Al Qaeda has set conditions for the future establishment of an Islamic emirate—not necessarily under al Qaeda’s name—that will secure al Qaeda’s objective to build an Islamic polity in Syria,” she also said.
The U.S. had deployed an estimated 2,000 troops to Syria American troops are primarily focused on fighting ISIS along their Kurdish allies.
U.S. President Donald Trump has expressed a desire to pull American troops out of the country.