Late January saw a few days of clashes between Syrian Islamist rebels. More crucially it saw an enormous consolidation of smaller groups around the two largest rebel outfits, the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham, and the bin Ladenite Jabhat al-Nusra
Nervous that Russia-sponsored peace talks then being held would see it isolated Al-Nusra (also Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) set out to expand its power to the point it could not be marginalized. It crushed a few of the smaller groups taking over their checkpoints, weapons and some of the fighters.
This in turn led over a dozen other groups to unite with the other large rebel outfit, Ahrar al-Sham, for protection. However another dozen of groups rushed to join Nusra in the new Tahrir al-Sham coalition instead. Moreover there were reportedly hundreds of individual defections from Ahrar al-Sham to Nusra.
Ahrar al-Sham claims 955 of its members defected during infighting w. AQ/JFS in #Syria.
[That ties closely to my estimate: 750-1,000] pic.twitter.com/FSKOhsGPyz
— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) February 15, 2017
The end result is that al-Qaeda in Syria has been greatly strengthened. The new official al-Qaeda, Tahrir al-Sham, stands completely unrivaled in power to any other rebel organization — except of course the coalition around Ahrar al-Sham, but which is so close in ideological terms it at one point contemplated merging with al-Nusra itself.
How could that be? Weren’t we told that Syrian rebellion is largely a ‘moderate’ one (whatever that means)? Didn’t at one point no lesser authority that the British Prime Minister assure us there are 70,000 moderate rebels on the ground in Syria?
Well the Saudi-funded Atlantic Council is struggling with the same question. Having once sold groups who are now al-Qaeda it has to now somehow explain away their decision. This is what it comes up with:
Hassan Asbro, a military officer who defected from regime forces, said that, in the context, “It would not be surprising for the [Zenki] Movement to join an alliance with Islamist brigades, given that the international community has stopped supporting the moderate opposition with weaponry.”
Asbro adds that, “Opposition fighters felt disillusioned when the regime took control of Aleppo, after having believed that the international community would not allow any side of the conflict to defeat the other.”
In other words, since their outside sponsors are no longer raining money on them — or at least not in quantities sufficient to check the Russian-backed Syrian advance — they might as well go where their heart is. Al-Qaeda is a now more useful ally than unreliable foreign governments, and these were never moderates as anybody who doesn’t receive Saudi millions would understand the term. Not only is the rebellion in Syria by now overwhelmingly Islamist, it is majority Saudi-style Salafist. Heck even the main opposition to Syrian al-Qaeda is just diet al-Qaeda.