Before US whacks ISIS-Syria, Al Qaeda is resurgent
DEBKAfile Exclusive Report
The main thrust of the campaign against the Islamic State in Syria ordered by the Trump administration is still ahead, but ISIS forces did not wait in their Raqqa stronghold for the axe to fall. They moved southeast into the Deir ez-Zour region, where they are beating back Hizballah’s elite Radwan Battalion, which has just been deployed there.
But meanwhile a new-old menace has raised its head: Al Qaeda and its Syrian affiliates which are seizing upon the mounting upheaval in the Syria for a fresh wave of terror. Saturday, March 11, two bomb explosions killed 74 pilgrims, most of them Iraqi Shiites, on a visit to an ancient cemetery in the Old City of Damascus. The second explosion was delayed so as to hit full on the Syrian police and rescuers rushing to the scene.
The same Al Qaeda branch planned and perpetrated the large-scale terrorist attack on Syrian government military facilities in the town of Homs on Feb. 25. Two generals were among the scores of dead troops.
Counterterrorism experts are warning US President Donald Trump to tread very carefully in the offensive he is preparing to launch against ISIS in Syria, since this organization’s defeat may well open the door to an Al Qaeda comeback in full and deadly spate to the Syrian arena.
This is what happened in the wake of the Russian-led Syrian victory in Aleppo in January, DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources note. After the breakup of defeated Syrian rebel groups, who were forced to leave the northern town and head for neighboring Idlib, hundreds of rebels remained and refused to lay down arms. Instead, they joined Al Qaeda and have made the Islamist terrorist group the most powerful independent rebel force still fighting in northern Syria as well as in the surrounding areas of the main towns, including Damascus, Homs and Hama.
On Jan. 26, Al Qaeda announced its merger with four smaller factions under another new brand name, Ahrar al-Sham. The new outfit attracted many new recruits who had never before been attached to Al Qaeda.
Hashim al-Sheikh aka Abu Jabir, who fought the Americans in the Iraq war under Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, was named leader of the new Islamist terror alliance. Reputed to be a skilled war tactician who never gives up, his appointment attracted another wave of Syrian rebel fighters.
Al Nusra’s first commander, Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, has meanwhile reappeared as head of a group calling itself Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (Liberation of the Levant Organization). Joulani has tried claiming he operates independently of Al Qaeda, although in fact he follows the orders of Ayman Al-Zawahiri to the letter and, according to some sources, is secretly working hand in glove with Hashim al-Sheikh.
An additional source of Al Qaeda’s renewed strength comes from the success of the combined Russian-Iranian-Hizballah forces to smash all the Syrian rebel groups who once fought the jihadist organization. Their disintegration has left Zawahiri’s following in Syria without effective adversaries. But it has Its Achilles heel too in the turf wars among the Syrian branch’s component groups – especially in the northern Idlib Province.
According to our military sources, the Russian, Syrian, Iranian and Hizballah commanders are together weighing an operation for taking control of Idlib. However, there too, if the Syrian rebels, who are fugitive from other fronts, are driven east or the south, Al Qaeda may again turn out to be the winner..
Therefore, even if President Trump and his generals are resolved to focus fully on a military operation to capture the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa – which has meanwhile emptied out of fighter - it is essential to detach enough fighting strength for dealing with the resurgent Al Qaeda. Failing to do so would leave the US forces at the Raqqa front vulnerable to attack from the rear by Al Qaeda, as the Russians and Iranians have found since they conquered Aleppo.