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The Prospective Military Power

of Al Qaeda Affiliated Groups in
the Syrian Conflict
December 18, 2013Aaron Lin, Daniel Smith, and Ryan Pereira

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 AQaffiliates’ 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 FSAaffiliated 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.

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. including members of the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front coalition and Suqour al-Sham. Ahrar al-Sham has closely cooperated with both FSA and al-Qaeda linked groups during important military battles. al-Qaeda linked groups include the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). which was established with Saudi financial assistance and continues to receive significant Saudi funding . The group endorses an Islamic Syrian state though its leaders have not called explicitly for a caliphate. While many FSA affiliates are secular. in reality. 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). 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). 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. the SMC does not control or coordinate strategic decisions across the war’s several fronts and multiple actors. like the Northern Storm Brigade.Finally. and concludes by discussing significant battlefield changes over the past several months. Fatah al-Islam. 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. 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. Liwa alIslam is the most notable fighting force within the coalition. and Jabhat alNusrah. 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 Abdullah Azzam Brigades. For the purposes of this analysis. These resources will enhance the military power of AQ-affiliated groups in the coming years. we will now provide a brief overview of the current distribution of military power between groups. the AQ-affiliated factions benefit from significant outside support in the form of both arms and recruits. with a significant military presence in contested suburbs around Damascus. 1 Other significant fighting coalitions include Jaysh al-Islam. This analysis also considers Ahrar al-Sham. like Ghouta. . the FSA does include nationalist Islamist rebels. The group’s Islamist outlook and cooperation with groups like Jabhat al-Nusrah fosters the al-Qaeda linked radicals’ growing military strength. explaining the effects of the regionalization and internationalization of the conflict. While the Supreme Military Council (SMC) was established to better coordinate operations between local and regional units of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Having summarized our basic findings and the evidentiary support.

Evidence suggests that Assad won’t defeat the rebels in the next two years. which is to topple the al Assad regime.3 Disparate sources . However. In forcing him to commit the Syrian Armed Forces (SAF) to defend regime strongholds and protect important facilities. Rather than acting under a coherent strategy. however. The FSA has shown an inability to coordinate the efforts of the brigades under their umbrella. many rebels have been acting independently without extensive planning. the myriad rebel groups in Syria exhibit differences in ideology. Indeed.The second al-Quasyr campaign represented a turning point in the conflict given the erstwhile possibility that rebels would overthrow Assad earlier this year. FSA units have been fighting each other over limited resources. Rebel forces still control significant territory in the north and east. “safe havens. the SAF are stretched thin. fighters. our analysis will now examine the evidence for AQ-affiliates’ greater military power (relative to other groups) in 2015. perceived U. unable to launch the sustained offensive needed to take significant amounts of rebel-held territory.This evidence can be categorized into three broad categories: silitary coordination. While regional commands have appeared among FSA ranks. however. given Assad control of key transit-resupply routes. Military Coordination Rebels operating in Syria have one goal in common. many groups of fighters are simply rushing to the sound of gunfire. Similarly. the FSA's inability to coordinate their fighters will continue to grow. lack of unity and lack of resources remain a major problem within these regional commands. 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. al Qaeda affiliated fighters have shown greater capacity to coordinate complex attacks than the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces. and are still actively contesting territory.S. funding. and funding will continue to flow to groups like the SIF. like in Aleppo and Idlib.” and external support. Aside from this goal. 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. The successful campaign has disoriented the rebels. and fighting effectiveness. The Syrian rebellion has been characterized by widespread fracturing and general lack of command and control. Evidentiary Support Having summarized the general distribution of military power. continue to carry out operations in regime strongholds. As the FSA loses more fighters due to ideological differences and dissatisfaction with a lack of support from the upper echelons of the organization. hesitancy to support the increasingly radicalized rebel opposition may incentivize these states will step up their assistance to their respective clients. allocation of resources. and ensured a route connecting Damascus to the Alawite coastal strongholds of Latakia and Tartus. have conducted successful attacks within Damascus. a sign that short term interests have been hampering cohesion within the FSA. Uninterrupted military resupply chains and foreign interest in the outcome of Syria’s civil war mean that weapons.

the AQ-affiliated groups have seized territory in the country’s northeast. 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. and Somalia. 7 As the war drags on. Competition over resources may radicalize under-funded rebel factions. 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. where they led attacks on the government stronghold in October 2012 and continued to launch assaults until the siege was lifted in April 2013. Despite this. 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. which has been a low priority for the Syrian Armed Forces (SAF). Control over a relatively uncontested territory will likely enhanced the military power of AQ-affiliated . allowing the regime to break the siege. “Safe Havens” and Military Power In stark contrast to other factions within the Syrian conflict. these groups have been popularly linked regardless of whether they cooperated in an operation or not. 5 An example of JN led coordination can be found in the siege of Wadi al-Deif. Groups not affiliated with al Qaeda have fought alongside JN and ISIS units. particularly those hardline sectarian elements of the opposition supported by Gulf states. 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. with rebels (mainly FSA-affiliated) rarely able to consolidate a secure base of operations. 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. Iraq. The majority of fighting between regime forces and the rebels has taken place in the southwest of the country surrounding Damascus. However. FSA-affiliates have been the foremost threats to SAF military and political power in Damascus. this ability to lead will attract more fighters to extremist groups. This ability to coordinate and lead complex attacks has helped to increasingly push JN into a leadership role in the South.9 Furthermore. AQ-affiliated groups have the benefit of territorial “safe havens” from which they can launch operations and develop more effective administrative apparatuses.of external support may also undermine the regional commands. but jihadist elements have often taken the lead in coordinating these combined forces in the most complex attacks. 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.4 Al Qaeda affiliated groups. 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. 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. Accordingly.6 Infighting between rebel battalions and the departure of JN to fight elsewhere lead to a collapse in cohesion. This phenomenon has also been observed with JN and ISIS.

In terms of military power. By contrast. the acquisition of a territorial “safe haven” is propitious to the development of an administrative infrastructure at the local level.11 The extent of public goods provision has far outstripped the tentative measures employed by FSAaffiliated groups to ameliorate the economic woes afflicting recently captured areas. 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. Al-Nusra’s careful attention to the maintenance of effective administration was demonstrated in the days following the capture of Raqaa.12 While the majority of evidence is specific to al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. 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. 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. these two groups are among the dominant AQ-affiliated groups in terms of size and territorial control. 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. The ability to launch and recall military operations from an uncontested territory also lends to the long-term military power of AQ-affiliated groups. the group secured administrative files and government facilities which were then used to carry on the quotidian functions of governance and social service provision. the provision of essential public goods and co-optation of social elites serves as disincentives against fifth column activities such as sabotage and espionage. 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. which in turn contributes to their inability to hold territorial gains for sustained periods of time.13 Such resources can then be used to aid in military efforts against competing groups. First.groups due to administrative and strategic advantages that accrue to groups that control such uncontested spaces. Their dominant positions mean that their behaviors are likely to be emulated by less powerful factions under the AQ-affiliate banner. Second.10 Sources cite the surprisingly high quality of governance in the provincial capital of Raqaa after its capture by Jabhat al-Nusra.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. External Support . Administrative penetration of local society has also led al-Nusra leaders to incorporate local notables into the city’s new governance structure. 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. During that period. indicating that the “safe haven” qualities of the northeast will continue to be a boon for local perceptions of al-Nusra’s political legitimacy.

This will entice members of other rebel groups to join ranks with al-Qaeda-linked groups. As the conflict drags on. By taking Al-Bab. with outside fighters from the Caucuses. with less cash. weakening Iran’s regional power. for instance. Europe. Moderate rebels initially expected that they would receive light weapons. AQlinked groups’ successes in capturing and distributing humanitarian assistance will likely translate to success in taking control of donated weapons and funds.16 These moderate rebel units and brigades. they can offer recruits selective incentives like decent wages and health care services that other rebel units and brigades cannot. ISIS now controls a key resupply route for the rebels. 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. Saudi Arabia is a crucial supporter of rebels. military equipment. these Salafist. Africa. Turkey has stepped up its military involvement in the conflict. AQ-linked groups will attract larger amounts of funding and arms from outside actors seeking to influence the conflict. giving the group greater control over the distribution of weapons and vital resources. supplies. challenging the Syrian Democratic Unity Party. Since the al-Qaeda-linked groups are better funded. Further. 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.15 After abandoning early attempts to encourage Assad to address some of the protestors’ demands. Key motivations include overthrowing Assad. 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. This is even more likely given the close cooperation between these and other rebels on the ground. Qatar is another significant GCC player although it has primarily funded more radical groups like Jabhat al-Nusrah and Ahrar al-Sham. However. and preventing the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascendancy in Syria in the event that Assad falls. 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.Hopes for a contained civil war in Syria were long ago dashed. 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. 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). In addition these better-organized. notably groups Liwa al-Islam and the Army of Islam coalition. Saudi goals include overthrowing the Assad regime. and training assistance after the sarin gas attack in Ghouta. suggests that international jihadists’ military influence will continue to expand in the civil war.17 Given the aforementioned trends in the acquisition and utilization of . trained. 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. The internationalization of the conflict. and North America.

Posted October 11. 6 Nov 2013. September 2012. Rania Abouzeid. 6 Nov 2013. pg. June 2012. Ali.com/2013/03/23/how-islamist-rebels-in-syria-are-ruling-a-fallenprovincial-capital/ . Harfouch. Abdulkader H.Posted April 18. it is probable that such support will enhance the military power of AQaffiliated groups over the next two years. Thomas.understandingwar. Gebeily. Organizations at war in Afghanistan and Beyond. material and financial support must be supplemented with demonstrated cooperation between FSA-affiliated factions. Hegghammer. Second. http://world.” Washington DC: Institute for the Study of War."Middle East Online. 4. 67 11.org/backgrounder/update-syriassouthern-battlefront. Dupree. These two strategies may stem the tide of AQ-affiliates’ military power over the course of the next two years. Time Magazine Online March 23. “Syria Update: Regime Breaks Siege of Wadi al-Deif. 5.external support. While the general conclusion may be alarming to champions of FSA-affiliated factions in Syria. Foreign Policy Institute Syria Panel 10.” Institute for the Study of War.A56j4wLb.” Institute for the Study of War. Without coordinated efforts. 2013. Nassief. Sinno.dpbs 9.org/backgrounder/syria-update-regime-breaks-siegewadi-al-deif 7. Mike Rogers. 2008. 26 September 2013. Mercury Media Inc. the United States can attenuate the “safe haven” and “external support” advantages of AQaffiliated groups by working closely with the Iraqi government to clamp down on the flow of resources from AQI to their counterparts in northeastern Syria. O’Bagy.http://www. 8.com/posts/2013/12/09/syrias_foreign_fighters#st hash. the available evidence points towards several strategies for enhancing the military power of factions not affiliated with AQ. 3. Elizabeth. Holliday. Posted December 10.http://mideastafrica. the rebels stand to lose ground to AQ-affiliated groups as well as the Syrian Armed Forces regardless of material assistance.http://www. “Syria’s Foreign Fighters. 2013.flE6gwfm. Maya.” Washington DC: Institute for the Study of War.understandingwar. 1. First. 3.” 18. Isabel. Cornell University Press. Holliday. “Middle East Security Report 5: Syria’s Maturing Insurgency. 8. 2013.”.foreignpolicy. Joseph. “Syria’s Southern Battlefront. Web. 2013. "Syrian Islamists split and merge. 2. “Middle East Security Report 6: Jihad in Syria. Web.time. 25. 6.” Foreign Policy Online. Jonathan. 16 October 2013. “Middle East Security Report 5: Syria’s Maturing Insurgency." NOW. "Assessing Syria's Islamic Alliances.

15 Dec.12. Barfi and Zelin. 10 Oct 2013: n. Joshua. Print. 12 Dec 2013. Barak. Rule and Revenue 1988. and Aaron Zelin .reuters. "US and UK suspend non-lethal aid into Syria. Web. Landis. Al-Jazeera. Oliver Holmes and Alexander Dziadosz.com/article/2013/06/20/us-syria-rebels-governancespecialreport-idUSBRE95J05R20130620 13. "Al Qaeda's Syrian Strategy. 17. page.1 (2012): n. Margaret Levi. page. Reuters June 20. 14. 16. KEYWORDS Topics: Al-Qaida and Affiliated Movements Political conflict and Violence Terrorist Networks Threat AssessmentWeapons and Tactics Research Area: Violent Groups and Movements Regions: Middle East and North Africa . 2013. "The Syrian Uprising of 2011: Why the Assad Regime is Likely to Survive to 2013. XIX. 2013 15. 15 Dec 2013. Barfi." Al-Jazeera. Web." Middle East Policy Council. http://www." Foreign Policy. 2013.