Jabhat Fateh al-Sham: everyone's favourite jihadists

But there isn't any moderate opposition to support in Syria anymore, writes Christopher Goff.

In lots of places around the world you can find instances of conflict orchestrated by Muslims engaged in their 'struggle', or what in Arabic translates into 'jihad', to destroy non-Islamic societies and re-create new ones governed by strict forms of Islamic rule.

There are a whole host of recent conflicts which are said to have been inspired by jihad: the Iran-Iraq War, the Somali Civil War, the Bosnian War, the Chechen War, the conflict in Nigeria inspired by Boko Haram, the al-Qaeda inspired insurgency in Yemen, the Iraqi insurgency inspired by the Islamic State of Iraq, and of course the uprising in Syria jointly inspired by Jabhat al-Nusra, an offshoot of al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State of Syria. In 2013, the Iraqi and Syrian branches of Islamic State merged into what is now known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or alternatively the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and which follows a fundamentalist Wahhabi doctrine of Sunni Islam. ISIL/ISIS still commands large swathes of territory spread across areas of both Iraq and Syria, and a population of up to 8 million people are thought to be under its control.

The West likes to portray the aforementioned Syrian group, Jabhat al-Nusra, as the lesser of two evils – in comparison to ISIL/ISIS, that is. In July 2016, the group made what was regarded by many as a welcome split from the al-Qeada franchise and assumed a new name, that of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or Front for the Conquest of Syria. But a leopard doesn't change its spots quite so easily ...

On 26 September, 2016, the Cologne-based newspaper Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger published an interview that one of its reporters had conducted with a Jabhat Fateh al-Sham Commander near the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo. The Senior Commander, named by the newspaper as Abu al-Ezz, gave a fascinating insight into which countries were engaged in providing his group with financial and military support. al-Ezz named Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia as supporters of his group, and said of one of his group's military successes: "For taking the al-Muslimiyah Military School [in reality a Syrian Army base] we received from Kuwait 1.5 million Kuwaiti dinar and from Saudi Arabia 5 million US dollars". Interestingly, the Western media reported in December 2012 that it was the US-backed Free Syrian Army that had captured the Syrian Army base at al-Muslimiyah, a claim which seems to conflict with that of al-Ezz who says that it was his group, then known as Jabhat al-Nusra, which was behind the attack on the base.

In his interview for the German newspaper, Abu al-Ezz also spoke about which countries had been giving his group military equipment. He said: "America supports the countries that support us. But we are not yet satisfied with this support. They should support us with highly developed weapons. We have won battles thanks to the TOW [wire-guided anti-tank] missiles. We received the TOWs from Libya through Turkey. And also the BMs – multiple rocket launchers". al-Ezz went on to tell his interviewer about visits made to the area by Turkish, Qatari, Saudi Arabian, United States and Israeli military personnel, and said that "Israel is now supporting us because we are at war with Syria and with Hezbollah".

The activity of providing a proscribed terrorist organization – both Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and its predecessor Jabhat al-Nusra are on the United Nations list of 'terrorist organizations' – with financial or military support is a very murky, or some might say dirty business. America's closest Arab ally, Saudi Arabia, is believed to be the group's strongest supporter, and only recently the Saudi's have been busy forging what they have called an 'Islamic Coalition' of Sunni countries to better support those groups in Syria which are fighting the Government forces.

The Russians have long known of the support given to Jabhat al-Nusra and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham by countries like Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, but in a recent interview that the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, gave to the BBC World News he accused the US of 'protecting' the jihadist group. Lavrov claimed that a deal between the US and Russia to carry out air strikes against both ISIL/ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in Syria had been reneged upon by the Americans, and that the US were now unwilling to attack Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. In response, the US said Lavrov's claims were unfounded and it was more accurately the case that they had been reluctant to carry out air strikes against Jabhat Fateh al-Sham because its fighters had become what US State Department spokesman Mark Toner euphemistically termed "intermingled" with other rebel groups and civilians. That the Americans have possibly re-adjusted their thinking on Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and now see them as a 'necessary evil' in the war against the Syrian Government has clearly irritated the Russians who view the group as out and out terrorists and who have no place on the planet, let alone in Syria.

But why exactly might the US have re-adjusted its thinking on Jabhat Fateh al-Sham? Well, the simple realization that the moderate Free Syrian Army – the opposition group in Syria which the US has supported the most – has disintegrated, with many of its fighters having instead joined, or as the US State Department likes to put it 'become intermingled with', Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, might be one explanation. Indeed, a number of observers have claimed that this was exactly one of the aims of Vladimir Putin, that is to liquidate the moderate Syrian opposition by either destroying their fighting capability or by forcing their fighters into the ranks of jihadist groups. Only this development now leaves the US without any 'friends' on the ground in Syria, a situation which clearly puts the Americans at a significant strategic disadvantage given their ultimate aim of ousting President Bashar al-Assad from power.

President Assad has consistently claimed the uprising in his country to be the work of jihadists. And while this claim of his might have seemed a little wide of the mark at the start of the conflict and when the Free Syrian Army was a significant fighting force, it now looks to be spot-on. That the moderate Syrian opposition has evaporated is a reality that the US is now having to grapple with, and the issue of just how much of a friend or how much of a foe the Americans want to be to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham quite possibly has the potential to shape the eventual outcome of the conflict in Syria.

Copyright © Christopher Goff
Tag: Jihad
Uploaded: 7 October, 2016.