Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, has called upon his supporters to wage guerilla warfare against what he’s called an "international satanic alliance," referring to the US, Assad, and his allies Iran and Russia.
In an audio message released online on Sunday, Zawahiri directly addressed Salafi-jihadi groups in Syria that portray their efforts as 'nationalist,' willing to serve and fight only in Syria. He said that the country’s conflict should be seen as the "cause of the entire Ummah," urging them to focus on weakening the enemy and not on holding territory.
There are approximately 80,000 fighters in Syria who would claim to be Nationalist Salafis. But perhaps in raising the question of whether this is a battle for Syria or a battle that starts in Syria, Zawahiri was trying to empower those inside Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), the former al-Qaeda affiliate, who argue that the group should not follow a nationalist agenda, something that has been the pursuit of some of its factions.
This question has long been a dividing line for Salafi-jihadi groups in Syria. Some perceive Zawahiri's message as an attempt to unify Syria's Sunni Islamist factions, whether Salafi-jihadis with nationalist or transnational aims, against "the Crusaders and their allies the Shiites and Alawites." However, many argue that this message could be counterproductive for Zawahiri. It could lead to a greater division between the two sets of jihadi groups on whether or not jihadi wars should be global or national projects.
Interestingly, by aiming his message only at groups in Syria, it could be argued that Zawahiri is aiming to create a new pro-al-Qaeda Salafi-jihadi group in the country.
Interestingly, by aiming his message only at groups in Syria, it could be argued that Zawahiri is aiming to create a new pro-al-Qaeda Salafi-jihadi group in the country. Groups within the Syrian conflict are constantly changing and forming new allegiances. In January 2017, JFS merged with four other Salafi-jihadi armed factions: Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki, Jabhat Ansar al-Din, Liwa al-Haqq, and Jaish al-Sunna under a new umbrella group named Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), or the "Committee for the Liberation of Syria." By stoking up 'jihadi division,' Zawahiri, who did not mention HTS or any other group specifically in his message, is perhaps hoping that more groups allied to al-Qaeda emerge through the dispute.
Perhaps more likely, Zawahiri is trying to marginalise those within JFS who want to adopt a Nationalist Salafi approach, empowering the Salafi-jihadis in the hope that this will lead to JFS re-affiliating to al-Qaeda. It has been reported that a deep division exists between prominent leading figures in JFS and its leader, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani. Some have argued that this is going to lead to the launch of a new branch of al-Qaeda in Syria.
Turning his fire on the international community, Zawahiri argued that the West wants to see Syrian jihadi groups operating only a nationalist form of jihad. He stated that the international community “wish to deceive you into buying the myth that only if you were to change your jihad to an exclusively nationalist Syrian struggle, [then] the leading international criminals would be pleased with you.”
Zawahiri’s message that there is a greater enemy is likely to mostly fall on deaf ears. Unless Zawahiri pays tribute to their fight, there is a chance those ‘nationalist’ militants may feel that Zawahiri is demeaning their ‘struggle.’
Tahrir al-Sham (HTS):
Leader: Abu Jaber Hashem al-Sheikh
Date of Establishment: 28 January 2017
Number of Fighters: Approximately 14,000
Funding/Support: Allegedly individuals from the Gulf; ransom payments from the merged factions; seizures from rival factions.
Ideology: Nationalist Salafi
Additional ideologies: As a coalition, its factions have varying ideologies, ranging from Salafi-Jihadi to Internationalist Islamist.
To depose Assad
To establish an Islamic state or emirate in Syria
Location: North and north-east Syria
HTS claims to be a Syrian nationalist project. However, the coalition is formed largely on religious lines. Its political approach is based on opposing Russia and rejecting externally negotiated peace agreements.
The coalition's leader, Abu Jaber Hashem al-Sheikh, formerly led a dissident faction of Ahrar al-Sham.
Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is the main faction in HTS.
Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS)
Member of Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)
Leader: Abu Mohammad al-Jolani
Date of Establishment: 23 January 2012
Number of Fighters: Approximately 5-7,000
Funding/Support: Allegedly individuals from Gulf states; seizures from rival factions; ransoms from hostages.
Ideology: Salafi-Jihadi (Internationalist)
Additional Ideologies: Factions within the group believe that it should pursue a Nationalist Salafi agenda.
To depose Assad
To establish an Islamic state/emirate in Syria
Location: Damascus, Latakia, Aleppo and Idlib provinces
Former Name: Jabhat al-Nusra
JFS was affiliated with al-Qaeda until it came to an amicable split with the group in 2016. It initially faced hostility from some rebels, but developed a strong reputation that led to a number of groups, including from the Free Syrian Army coalition (FSA), protesting the decision by the US to label JFS a terrorist organisation in December 2012.
At the core of JFS' organisational structure is a Sharia council. It believes in the establishment of a Salafi vision of Sharia law within an Islamic emirate, the protection of Muslims against their perceived enemies, and the strengthening of "God's religion on earth."