While the United States and NATO remains focused on defeating Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, al Qaeda in Syria is accumulating strength and territory at an alarming pace and may eventually pose the most daunting counterterrorism challenge that the U.S and west has ever faced. Al-Qaeda has reportedly benefited from the U.S.-led coalition’s single-minded focus against ISIS and exploited the opposition against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to grow stronger. While ISIS is under daily coalition bombardment, al Qaeda has been thriving, continuing to re-align itself with local forces, and re-emerging as the world’s enduring terror group. Al-Qaeda has created its most powerful stronghold ever in north-west Syria. It has taken full control of Idlib province and of a vital Syrian-Turkish border crossing since July this year. “Idlib Province is the largest al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11” says Brett McGurk, the senior US envoy to the international coalition fighting ISIS. The al-Qaeda linked movement, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which used to be called Jabhat al-Nusra, has long been the most powerful rebel group in western Syria. But after the capture of east Aleppo by the Syrian army last December, it moved to eliminate its rivals in Idlib, including its powerful former Turkish-backed ally Ahrar al-Sham. Now HTS has a stronghold over the province and it’s unchallenged.
HTS is estimated to have 30,000 experienced fighters whose numbers is growing as it integrates brigades from other defeated rebel groups and recruit’s young men from the camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who have sought refuge in Idlib from Syrian government forces. Al-Qaeda is growing in strength in and around Idlib province just as ISIS is suffering defeat after defeat in eastern Syria and Iraq. It is very much possible that if Islamic State is destroyed or rendered a marginal force, Sunni Arab jihadist refusing to surrender to President Assad’s army and intelligence service will have no alternative but to join al-Qaeda linked HTS. Since it entered the Syrian conflict, al Qaeda has established its local affiliate as one of the most dominant rebel groups in the country and has quietly amassed its largest guerrilla army in history. Right now, al-Qaeda has established itself as the tip of the spear in the resistance against the Assad regime and as a result of this many Sunnis Arabs who do not share al-Qaeda’s jihadist ideology are also flocking to al-Qaeda because it is the only credible option for fighting Assad. Al-Qaeda’s goal has always been to take charge of the Syrian uprising and slowly transform it into a global jihad against Iran, Russia and the United States in which it has succeeded up to a some extend. In achieving this partial success al-Qaeda that been helped by US led coalition which focused almost exclusively on the al-Qaeda staunch rival Islamic State.
Counterterrorism officials and experts are now suggesting that the group’s Syrian wing may be the largest and strongest al-Qaeda branch in the world. Qaeda is transitioning from a small terrorist outfit with struggling affiliates to a potent transnational network of branches that has gained in numbers and fighting strength and now spans the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Al-Qaeda as an organization has spent the last five years growing durable, deep roots in Syrian opposition and revolutionary society through outreach to tribal leaders, power brokers and sometimes the broader community, rather than outright fear and coercion. while Islamic State, on the other hand, has shallow roots. IS never focused on acquiring popular support it just controls the population. Al-Qaeda reduced its public profile, downplayed its successes rather than publicizing them, and embedded further within local populations. In this way, al-Qaeda presented itself to the local communities as a more palatable alternative to its bloodthirsty rival.
It’s unfortunate that the US is not giving proper attention to the seriousness of the threat al Qaeda poses. With a base in Syria they can threaten American interests in the entire Levant region, Europe, and US allies in Jordan and Israel. Strong base in the heart of Middle East will not only allow al-Qaeda with an opportunity to de-stabilise the region. But it will also provide a springboard for AQ to launch strikes into Europe and West. As AQ leader Zawahiri has made it clear on several occasions that although the group may have prioritised local campaigns for the moment but it still remains committed to attacks on the west in the long term. Al Qaeda is almost certainly using its Syrian base for refining and improving its external attack capabilities to be prepared to deploy them at a future date against Western interests. Therefore, international community must seek urgently to counter-attack Al-Qaeda Syrian affiliate HTS, which grows stronger by the day, without waiting for the complete destruction of the Islamic State. Even the large-scale land intervention in Idlib like IS de-facto capital Raqqa should be considered.
(Author is a columnist for Middle-East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geo-political news agency Viewsaround can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)