Analysis: Al-Qaeda shifts strategic focus to Syria while still seeking to attack West

Jabhat al-NusraIn an effort to remain relevant, al-Qaeda has shifted its strategic focus from Yemen to Syria but continues to pursue a globalist agenda by seeking ways to attack Western targets, according to an expert report. Following the meteoric rise of the Islamic State in 2014, al-Qaeda found it difficult to retain its title as the main representative of the worldwide Sunni insurgency. But in an argue published last week on the website of the RAND Corporation, two al-Qaeda experts argue that the militant group is rebounding.

The authors, Middle East Institute senior fellow Charles Listeris and RAND senior political scientist Colin Clarke, editorial that al-Qaeda followed a pragmatic and patient strategy after 2014. Specifically, the group remained on the margins and “deliberately let the Islamic State bear the brunt of the West’s counterterrorism campaign” they argue. At the same time, al-Qaeda has sought to remain relevant by shifting the center of its activity from Yemen to Syria. That decision appears to have been taken in 2014, when the group began to systematically transport assets and resources from its traditional strongholds of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Levant, the authors argue.

Observers are still evaluating the implications of al-Qaeda’s strategic shift. Listeris and Clarke note that counterterrorism experts have yet to fully understand them. What appears certain is that al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, the al-Nusra Front, “proved to be the most potent military actor on the battlefield” in the Levant. It did so by operating largely independently from al-Qaeda central, which allowed it to act with speed in pursuit of a strictly localized agenda that attracted many locals. At the same time, however, al-Nusra’s independence effectively separated it from its parent organization. Many al-Qaeda loyalists accused the group of abandoning al-Qaeda’s principles and left it when it rebranded itself to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Levantine Conquest Front) in 2016 and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Organization for the Liberation of the Levant) in 2017.

Al-Qaeda itself denounced Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in 2018 and today supports a number of smaller militias that operate on the ground in Syria. These smaller groups appear to be extremely professional and experienced, and are staffed by “veterans with decades of experience at al Qaeda’s highest levels”. What does this mean about al-Qaeda’s strategic priorities? Listeris and Clarke argue that Syria remains al-Qaeda’s priority. But the group remains focused on attacking the West while also pursuing guerrilla warfare in Syria, they say. This reflects al-Qaeda’s overarching narrative, namely to fight in local conflicts while pursuing the “far enemy” (the West), which it sees as a mortal enemy of Islam.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 September 2019 | Permalink

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Trump administration instructs CIA to halt support for anti-Assad rebels in Syria

Free Syrian ArmyThe White House has instructed the Central Intelligence Agency to halt military support to armed groups that are associated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a group opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Some believe that the move indicates a change in American policy under United States President Donald Trump. But Syrian rebel commanders say they believe the move is temporary, and that military aid will be restored. For several years, the CIA has provided training and other forms of assistance to rebel groups in Syria, such as the New Syrian Force, which operate under the umbrella of the FSA. Aside from training, the assistance has included light and heavy ammunition, including antitank missiles, mines and grenades.

However, it appears that the CIA was instructed nearly a month ago by the White House to freeze all assistance to these rebel groups. Correspondents from the Reuters news agency said they confirmed the change in policy by speaking to senior rebel commanders from five armed groups operating under the FSA. These commanders told Reuters that they had not been given any official reason for the sudden termination of all CIA assistance. The change coincided with the change of guard at the White House, from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. Some in Washington, as well as some members of rebel factions in Syria, are concerned that the change in the CIA’s stance might denote a broader policy shift in the White House. During his election campaign, Mr. Trump said repeatedly that he would end America’s overt and covert support for the FSA and would focus instead on defeating the Islamic State.

But the rebel commanders themselves told Reuters that the freeze in CIA support was due to a wave of renewed attacks against them by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, a Sunni militant group that was previously affiliated with al-Qaeda. The rebels said that the CIA was concerned that weaponry provided to the FSA would end up in the hands of jihadist militants, so it temporarily halted its support until Jabhat Fateh al-Sham could be pushed back by FSA forces. Reuters published comments by two anonymous officials who were familiar with the CIA’s operations in Syria. They told the newspaper that the freeze of the CIA’s program had “nothing to do with US President Donald Trump replacing Barack Obama in January”. Additionally, said Reuters, Mr. Trump’s policy in Syria remains unknown. Several newspapers and news agencies contacted the CIA asking for comments, but the agency declined all requests on Wednesday.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 23 February 2017 | Permalink