What Happened: U.S. and U.N. officials warned that an al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Hurras al-Deen, is a growing threat to the West, including Americans and U.S. interests, The New York Times reported Sept. 30. U.S. officials said Russian air defenses in the area were allowing the group to operate, with rare exceptions, without having to deal with U.S. airstrikes and surveillance.
Why It Matters: International ambitions would mark a shift in the group's strategic focus in Syria from local issues. The warnings could lay the groundwork for direct U.S. interventions in northwestern Syria, which would raise the risk for direct clashes between the United States and other state actors on the ground, including Syria, Russia, Turkey and Iran. Ongoing fighting; splits between it and the other Syrian al Qaeda-affiliated group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham; and Western intelligence efforts will limit the group's ability to launch attacks farther afield.
Background: A U.N. assessment estimated that Hurras al-Deen has close to 2,000 fighters, who are in the last significant rebel-controlled area in Syria's northwest. If the number is accurate, they would be one of the largest al Qaeda franchise groups globally. The Syrian government had launched an offensive with Russia air support to retake the area, but a fragile cease-fire has been largely holding since August. The U.S. military conducted its first airstrikes in Syria in over two years in June and August, demonstrating how seriously it takes this threat.
The Syrian Civil War Grinds On, Largely Forgotten (July 25, 2019)
Tracking Jihadist Movements in 2019: Al Qaeda (Jan. 22, 2019)
Here's What the New U.S. Strategy in Syria Means For Russia (Sept. 11, 2018)