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Discussion Point: The Prospective Military Power of Al Qaeda Affiliated Groups in the Syrian Conflict

The following is part of a series of thought pieces authored by members of the START Consortium. These editorial columns reflect the opinions of the author(s), and not necessarily the opinions of the START Consortium. This series is penned by scholars who have grappled with complicated and often politicized topics, and our hope is that they will foster thoughtful reflection and discussion by professionals and students alike.

Policy makers in the United States have deep concerns about the prospective influence and military strength of al Qaeda affiliated rebel groups participating in the Syrian conflict. In light of these concerns, this article offers a tentative estimation of AQ-affiliates’ relative military strength in two years’ time.

After reviewing a variety of academic, journalistic, and government sources we have come to the conclusion that “al Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria will have greater military power (relative to other groups) than at present by the end of 2015.” The relative military power of AQ-affiliated groups (defined below) will increase due to enhanced capacities as well as decreases in the overall military efficacy of competing groups in the Syrian conflict such as the Free Syrian Army and the military forces associated with the Assad regime.

Evidence supporting our conclusion falls into three general categories, including: (1) the relative effectiveness of military coordination between AQ-affiliated groups, (2) the extensive territorial “safe havens” held by AQ-affiliated groups, and (3) outside support in the form of weapons and recruits.

The AQ-affiliated groups have been able to coordinate military activities with one another while FSA-affiliated groups have struggled with intense internal rivalries, clashing agendas, and the resulting inability to coordinate at a national scale. The ability to conduct joint operations at a national scale will likely increase the overall military power of AQ-affiliated groups within the relevant timeframe.

AQ-affiliated groups have also been able to establish control of territorial “safe havens” in the northeast, which affords them the opportunity to build effective local administrative apparatuses. This stands in contrast to the disorganized attempts of FSA-affiliated groups and pro-regime forces to build up an administrative infrastructure in hotly contested areas. The control of uncontested territory allows them to secure the human and material resources of held areas and utilize the space as a logistical asset in military operations.

Finally, the AQ-affiliated factions benefit from significant outside support in the form of both arms and recruits. This includes the provision of weapons by the Gulf Cooperation Council in addition to the significant influx of recruits and financial resources from al Qaeda-linked organizations in Iraq and elsewhere. These resources will enhance the military power of AQ-affiliated groups in the coming years.

Having summarized our basic findings and the evidentiary support, we will now provide a brief overview of the current distribution of military power between groups.

Extant Distribution of Military Power

The following section briefly outlines the contours of the Syrian civil war by discussing significant rebel coalitions, clarifying which groups this analysis considers to be linked to al-Qaeda, explaining the effects of the regionalization and internationalization of the conflict, and concludes by discussing significant battlefield changes over the past several months.

While the Supreme Military Council (SMC) was established to better coordinate operations between local and regional units of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), in reality, the SMC does not control or coordinate strategic decisions across the war’s several fronts and multiple actors. While many FSA affiliates are secular, like the Northern Storm Brigade, the FSA does include nationalist Islamist rebels, including members of the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front coalition and Suqour al-Sham, an Islamist group that envisions an Islamic Syria but disavows calls for an Islamic caliphate and whose leader heads the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF).1

Other significant fighting coalitions include Jaysh al-Islam, which was established with Saudi financial assistance and continues to receive significant Saudi funding . Liwa al-Islam is the most notable fighting force within the coalition, with a significant military presence in contested suburbs around Damascus, like Ghouta.2 The Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) operates independently of the FSA although its fighters often fight alongside each other and coordinate actions on the ground in heavily contested areas.

Ahrar al-Sham is the best-equipped and trained battalion of the SIF. The group endorses an Islamic Syrian state though its leaders have not called explicitly for a caliphate. Ahrar al-Sham has closely cooperated with both FSA and al-Qaeda linked groups during important military battles. There are also many independent rebels including Islamist groups like the Ummah Brigade that call for an Islamic Syria but whose leaders have signaled a willingness to participate in democratic elections if and when Assad’s regime falls.

For the purposes of this analysis, al-Qaeda linked groups include the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, Fatah al-Islam, and Jabhat al-Nusrah, an organization that was established with the help of seed money from leaders of the group then known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). This analysis also considers Ahrar al-Sham, although not the broader Syrian Islamic Front, to be an al-Qaeda linked group given the high degree of cooperation between this battalion and al-Qaeda linked groups in contested territories. The group’s Islamist outlook and cooperation with groups like Jabhat al-Nusrah fosters the al-Qaeda linked radicals’ growing military strength.

The second al-Quasyr campaign represented a turning point in the conflict given the erstwhile possibility that rebels would overthrow Assad earlier this year. The successful campaign has disoriented the rebels, given Assad control of key transit-resupply routes, and ensured a route connecting Damascus to the Alawite coastal strongholds of Latakia and Tartus. Evidence suggests that Assad won’t defeat the rebels in the next two years, however. Rebel forces still control significant territory in the north and east, like in Aleppo and Idlib, have conducted successful attacks within Damascus, continue to carry out operations in regime strongholds, and are still actively contesting territory.

This rebels’ continued ability to cooperate during intense fighting and the high stakes of the conflict make it likely that GCC states will increasesupport for their respective clients if they suspect that Assad may be cementing recent battlefield advances. Similarly, perceived U.S. hesitancy to support the increasingly radicalized rebel opposition may incentivize these states will step up their assistance to their respective clients.

Uninterrupted military resupply chains and foreign interest in the outcome of Syria’s civil war mean that weapons, fighters, and funding will continue to flow to groups like the SIF. The rebel’s ability to continue successful operations like suicide attacks in Damascus and ISIS’ capture of the Menagh Airfield does not threaten Assad’s hold on power. In forcing him to commit the Syrian Armed Forces (SAF) to defend regime strongholds and protect important facilities, however, the SAF are stretched thin, unable to launch the sustained offensive needed to take significant amounts of rebel-held territory.

Evidentiary Support

Having summarized the general distribution of military power, our analysis will now examine the evidence for AQ-affiliates’ greater military power (relative to other groups) in 2015.This evidence can be categorized into three broad categories: silitary coordination, “safe havens,” and external support.

Military Coordination

Rebels operating in Syria have one goal in common, which is to topple the al Assad regime. Aside from this goal, the myriad rebel groups in Syria exhibit differences in ideology, funding, allocation of resources, and fighting effectiveness. Rather than acting under a coherent strategy, many rebels have been acting independently without extensive planning. Indeed, many groups of fighters are simply rushing to the sound of gunfire. However, al Qaeda affiliated fighters have shown greater capacity to coordinate complex attacks than the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces.

The Syrian rebellion has been characterized by widespread fracturing and general lack of command and control. The FSA has shown an inability to coordinate the efforts of the brigades under their umbrella. As the FSA loses more fighters due to ideological differences and dissatisfaction with a lack of support from the upper echelons of the organization, the FSA's inability to coordinate their fighters will continue to grow. FSA units have been fighting each other over limited resources, a sign that short term interests have been hampering cohesion within the FSA.

While regional commands have appeared among FSA ranks, lack of unity and lack of resources remain a major problem within these regional commands.3 Disparate sources of external support may also undermine the regional commands, particularly those hardline sectarian elements of the opposition supported by Gulf states. Competition over resources may radicalize under-funded rebel factions, and drive more moderate factions to do what they can to gain access to resources even if it mean cooperating with al Qaeda linked groups.4

Al Qaeda affiliated groups, such as Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) have demonstrated leadership in complex attacks against military installations and government-held logistical nodes. Groups not affiliated with al Qaeda have fought alongside JN and ISIS units, but jihadist elements have often taken the lead in coordinating these combined forces in the most complex attacks.5

An example of JN led coordination can be found in the siege of Wadi al-Deif, where they led attacks on the government stronghold in October 2012 and continued to launch assaults until the siege was lifted in April 2013.6 Infighting between rebel battalions and the departure of JN to fight elsewhere lead to a collapse in cohesion, allowing the regime to break the siege. This ability to coordinate and lead complex attacks has helped to increasingly push JN into a leadership role in the South.

The ease with which al Qaeda linked jihadist groups have been able to work with each other has also grown dramatically. Ahrar al Sham and JN have built a strong working relationship although they do not work together in every operation. Despite this, these groups have been popularly linked regardless of whether they cooperated in an operation or not. This phenomenon has also been observed with JN and ISIS.7 As the war drags on, this ability to lead will attract more fighters to extremist groups. There is a strong possibility that this will also gradually push extremist groups into more leadership roles within the Syrian opposition over the course of the coming months and years.

“Safe Havens” and Military Power

In stark contrast to other factions within the Syrian conflict, AQ-affiliated groups have the benefit of territorial “safe havens” from which they can launch operations and develop more effective administrative apparatuses. Rebels’ control of the Northern border and Turkey’s military and political support of the rebel opposition means that foreign fighters wishing to enter the active theater of war in Syria face less restraints than previous jihadists trying to fight in areas like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia.8

Turkish officials’ hesitancy to prevent rebels from crossing its border with Syria and the rebels’ control of the border from the Syrian side has allowed the conflict to become internationalized at a worrying pace. The majority of fighting between regime forces and the rebels has taken place in the southwest of the country surrounding Damascus, with rebels (mainly FSA-affiliated) rarely able to consolidate a secure base of operations. However, the AQ-affiliated groups have seized territory in the country’s northeast, which has been a low priority for the Syrian Armed Forces (SAF).

The primary reason for this is that the SAF’s operations are aimed at securing logistical and military dominance in the corridor between Damascus and the Alawi-dominated areas along the coast.9 Furthermore, FSA-affiliates have been the foremost threats to SAF military and political power in Damascus. Accordingly, the geopolitical interests of SAF forces and AQ-affiliated groups yield a relatively pacific area in the northeast that has avoided the frequent shifts in control characteristic of the southwest. Control over a relatively uncontested territory will likely enhanced the military power of AQ-affiliated groups due to administrative and strategic advantages that accrue to groups that control such uncontested spaces.

First, the acquisition of a territorial “safe haven” is propitious to the development of an administrative infrastructure at the local level. Scholars such as Abdulkader Sinno argue that such “safe havens” afford groups the opportunity to develop centralized and specialized administrative apparatuses that can then be used to build public support for the group.10 Sources cite the surprisingly high quality of governance in the provincial capital of Raqaa after its capture by Jabhat al-Nusra, indicating that the “safe haven” qualities of the northeast will continue to be a boon for local perceptions of al-Nusra’s political legitimacy.

Al-Nusra’s careful attention to the maintenance of effective administration was demonstrated in the days following the capture of Raqaa. During that period, the group secured administrative files and government facilities which were then used to carry on the quotidian functions of governance and social service provision.11 The extent of public goods provision has far outstripped the tentative measures employed by FSA-affiliated groups to ameliorate the economic woes afflicting recently captured areas. Administrative penetration of local society has also led al-Nusra leaders to incorporate local notables into the city’s new governance structure.

Community leaders are encouraged to select representatives from within their own ranks to interface with al-Nusra administrators and aid in the maintenance of public order.12 While the majority of evidence is specific to al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, these two groups are among the dominant AQ-affiliated groups in terms of size and territorial control. Their dominant positions mean that their behaviors are likely to be emulated by less powerful factions under the AQ-affiliate banner.

In terms of military power, the provision of essential public goods and co-optation of social elites serves as disincentives against fifth column activities such as sabotage and espionage. There are also strong theoretical and empirical reasons to predict that a modicum of political legitimacy and correspondence with local elites increases a group’s capacity to extract financial and material resources from the populace without forceful resistance.13 Such resources can then be used to aid in military efforts against competing groups.

Second, the safe haven available to AQ-affiliated groups in the northeast also gives them a strategic advantage by increasing the security of supply lines and opening the option of strategic withdrawal to forces operating at the fringes of the safe haven. The importance of supply lines to all factions is demonstrated by the seizure of Al Bab by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) which deprived FSA-affiliated groups of key external resources.14

The threat of losing access to crucial supplies is less serious for groups such as al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham who have essentially uncontested control over the areas bordering northwestern Iraq and AQI-facilitated supply lines. The ability to launch and recall military operations from an uncontested territory also lends to the long-term military power of AQ-affiliated groups. By contrast, the tenuous nature of control by SAF and FSA-affiliated forces in the southwest has seriously curtailed the range of strategic options available to those groups, which in turn contributes to their inability to hold territorial gains for sustained periods of time.

External Support

Hopes for a contained civil war in Syria were long ago dashed. Saudi Arabia is a crucial supporter of rebels, notably groups Liwa al-Islam and the Army of Islam coalition. Saudi goals include overthrowing the Assad regime, weakening Iran’s regional power, and preventing the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascendancy in Syria in the event that Assad falls.15 After abandoning early attempts to encourage Assad to address some of the protestors’ demands, Turkey has stepped up its military involvement in the conflict. Key motivations include overthrowing Assad, challenging the Syrian Democratic Unity Party, and preventing the establishment of an independent Kurdish state that would embolden Turkish Kurds and undermine the fragile peace negotiations with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK).

Qatar is another significant GCC player although it has primarily funded more radical groups like Jabhat al-Nusrah and Ahrar al-Sham. Moderate rebels initially expected that they would receive light weapons, military equipment, and training assistance after the sarin gas attack in Ghouta. However, these hopes were dashed when the United States and Russia reached an agreement to compel Syria to join the OPCW and eliminate its chemical stockpiles.

Fears that supplies intended for the Free Syrian Army would be confiscated or purchased by al-Qaeda linked groups has limited funding to moderate units and brigades within the FSA.16 These moderate rebel units and brigades, with less cash, supplies, and fighting expertise than groups like Jabhat al-Nusrah and ISIS are at risk of some rank-and-file fighters becoming demoralized and defecting to receive better individual benefits and improved chances of military success fighting with al-Qaeda linked groups.

As the conflict drags on, these Salafist, AQ-linked groups will attract larger amounts of funding and arms from outside actors seeking to influence the conflict. Further, AQ-linked groups’ successes in capturing and distributing humanitarian assistance will likely translate to success in taking control of donated weapons and funds. This is even more likely given the close cooperation between these and other rebels on the ground. Additional factors suggest that these groups may become stronger militarily and able to take control politically of territory that is not currently contested by the SAF.

Since the al-Qaeda-linked groups are better funded, they can offer recruits selective incentives like decent wages and health care services that other rebel units and brigades cannot. In addition these better-organized, trained, and equipped al-Qaeda linked groups offer recruits a greater chance of battlefield success against the Syrian Armed Forces or other opponents within the rebel opposition.

This will entice members of other rebel groups to join ranks with al-Qaeda-linked groups. The internationalization of the conflict, with outside fighters from the Caucuses, Africa, Europe, and North America, suggests that international jihadists’ military influence will continue to expand in the civil war. ISIS’ capture of Al-Bab from Northern Storm not only showed that al-Qaeda-linked groups leverage their military superiority to take political control of rebel-held territories but also that they can use this to influence other rebels.

By taking Al-Bab, for instance, ISIS now controls a key resupply route for the rebels, giving the group greater control over the distribution of weapons and vital resources.17 Given the aforementioned trends in the acquisition and utilization of external support, it is probable that such support will enhance the military power of AQ-affiliated groups over the next two years.

While the general conclusion may be alarming to champions of FSA-affiliated factions in Syria, the available evidence points towards several strategies for enhancing the military power of factions not affiliated with AQ. First, material and financial support must be supplemented with demonstrated cooperation between FSA-affiliated factions. Without coordinated efforts, the rebels stand to lose ground to AQ-affiliated groups as well as the Syrian Armed Forces regardless of material assistance. Second, the United States can attenuate the “safe haven” and “external support” advantages of AQ-affiliated groups by working closely with the Iraqi government to clamp down on the flow of resources from AQI to their counterparts in northeastern Syria. These two strategies may stem the tide of AQ-affiliates’ military power over the course of the next two years.

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9. Mike Rogers, Foreign Policy Institute Syria Panel

10. Sinno, Abdulkader H. Organizations at war in Afghanistan and Beyond. Cornell University Press, 2008. pg. 67

11. Rania Abouzeid, Time Magazine Online March 23, 2013. http://world.time.com/2013/03/23/how-islamist-rebels-in-syria-are-ruling-a-fallen-provincial-capital/

12. Oliver Holmes and Alexander Dziadosz, Reuters June 20, 2013. http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/20/us-syria-rebels-governance-specialreport-idUSBRE95J05R20130620

13. Margaret Levi, Rule and Revenue 1988.

14. Barfi and Zelin, 2013

15. Landis, Joshua. "The Syrian Uprising of 2011: Why the Assad Regime is Likely to Survive to 2013." Middle East Policy Council. XIX.1 (2012): n. page. Web. 15 Dec. 2013.

16. "US and UK suspend non-lethal aid into Syria." Al-Jazeera. Al-Jazeera, 12 Dec 2013. Web. 15 Dec 2013.

17. Barfi, Barak, and Aaron Zelin . "Al Qaeda's Syrian Strategy." Foreign Policy. 10 Oct 2013: n. page. Print.