Al Qaeda is making steady gains in Syria. From its beginnings as a shadowy insurgent group to its evolution as a powerful military force in the civil war, the group's Syrian outfit has slowly but surely increased its influence in the country. And its patience is paying off. In January, al Qaeda's affiliate in northern Syria, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra) merged with several other rebel groups in the area to become Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Today, al Qaeda is eclipsing the Islamic State as the most dangerous extremist organization in the region. But its success may well be its undoing.
The Secret Weapon
Several factors have facilitated al Qaeda's rise in Syria. Unlike the Islamic State, which views other rebel groups as either with it or against it, al Qaeda in Syria has striven to forge alliances with a wide array of rebel factions over the course of the civil war. In the process, it has embedded itself deep within the fabric of the revolution against Syrian President Bashar al Assad's administration. The ferocious fighters of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham — and Jabhat al-Nusra before it — proved invaluable partners for the often hard-pressed rebel groups squaring off against better-equipped and -supported loyalist armies. In fact, al Qaeda has been the secret weapon behind numerous rebel victories, often contributing shock troops to spearhead offensives or tenaciously defend key sectors of the battlefield.
At the same time, al Qaeda has been careful to not overextend itself in Syria. The group has made sure to target hostile rebel groups — particularly those with ties to the United States — one at a time. Before attacking enemy rebel forces, Tahrir al-Sham and its predecessor groups first isolate them, for instance with allegations of corruption or betrayal. The al Qaeda affiliate, moreover, has not hesitated to back down, negotiate cease-fires, or look for temporary compromises when facing a backlash from the other rebel groups.
Beyond al Qaeda in Syria's battle prowess, roster of allies, and patient, selective approach to eliminating hostile groups, mounting rebel defeats have enabled it to highlight a different path forward for those fighting against al Assad. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has not only repeatedly argued that rebel unity is vital for success, but it has also astutely emphasized the insufficient support that foreign sponsors have provided the rebels. Combined with the loyalist armies' advances, the lack of support was instrumental in driving various rebel groups to close ranks with al Qaeda and form Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in a desperate attempt to turn the tide of battle.
And all the while, the group has tried to keep a low profile as the Islamic State, by contrast, continues to make enemies locally, regionally and globally. Jabhat al-Nusra adopted the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham moniker in July 2016 in part to hide its ties to al Qaeda. Its latest name change and merger was another step to avoid drawing attention to itself and to defend against attempts to isolate and weaken it.
But much as al Qaeda in Syria has more power today than ever before, it also has more threats to its existence to contend with. For one thing, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is still on the losing side of the Syrian civil war. Loyalist forces are on the advance, having secured Aleppo. The Syrian government is currently concentrating on regaining the territory it lost to the Islamic State while it was focused on the battle of Aleppo. But soon enough, loyalist armies will turn their attentions toward Hayat Tahrir al-Sham's stronghold in Idlib. A concerted loyalist advance, with ample backing from Iran and Russia, would put the group in a difficult position, forcing it to consider alternative means to maintain its resistance against Damascus, including guerilla and insurgent tactics.
For another, although Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is the most powerful opposition force in Syria, it cannot claim to represent the rebel cause as a whole. Numerous rebel groups, in fact, have joined forces against it, wary of the danger that al Qaeda poses in Syria and facing pressure from foreign sponsors. Even Ahrar al-Sham, the second-most powerful rebel group in Syria and a former close ally of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, has turned against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. As the rebel landscape becomes more polarized, the group will find it increasingly difficult to recruit new allies. Already, the number of neutral rebel groups that could be persuaded to join Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is dwindling.
A Crowded Field of Foes
Outside the rebel camp, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham's enemies are also becoming more numerous. The group can no longer assume that its main foes are the loyalist forces and their Russian and Iranian allies. Washington has taken notice of al Qaeda's growing power in Syria and begun ramping up targeted strikes on the group in response. The strikes have already frustrated the group's leaders and forced them to adopt stifling protective measures, such as curtailing communications.
More important, the rebel forces' traditional backers, including Turkey and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, increasingly view Hayat Tahrir al-Sham as a threat to their goals in Syria. In the past, such countries more or less turned a blind eye to the rebels' cooperation with the group because, in their view, defeating al Assad was more important than fighting al Qaeda in Syria. But their perspective changed as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham's influence grew. The group has not only weakened their rebel allies, by either driving them out or co-opting them, but it has also tarnished the rebellion's image, making it harder to rally international support against al Assad. As a result, Turkey and the GCC states have started taking measures against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, sometimes at the expense of the larger rebel cause. The countries, for example, have curbed their weapons and equipment shipments to Idlib province and pressured the rebels to stop collaborating with the group even in the face of loyalist attacks. In a last ditch attempt to isolate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, they also pushed for rebel forces to move from Idlib to northern Aleppo province to try to build up a rebel stronghold free of al Qaeda's presence.
Finally, despite its efforts to lie low, al Qaeda's affiliate group in Syria has had more and more trouble escaping the spotlight. As the Islamic State steadily loses ground in Iraq and Syria, al Qaeda's strength is growing — all the more so since Hayat Tahrir al-Sham's formation. Hostile forces are increasingly turning their focus toward the group, and it may not be long before al Qaeda finds itself facing the same kinds of concerted attacks that have crippled the Islamic State.