Syria: Al-Qaeda takes Jisr al-Shughur, threatening Key Port

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

A coalition of extremist groups with al-Qaeda ties managed on Saturday to take the city of Jisr al-Shughur from the Syrian army. Among them were fighters of the Support Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) and the Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant (Ahrar al-Sham). Also involved was Chechen terrorist Muslim al-Shishani and his Syrian Army.

Al-Hadath [The Event], a Saudi-owned, Dubai-based sister news organization of Alarabiya, argues in the link above that the al-Qaeda-linked leaders and organizations who fought together to take the city were organized and funded by Turkey for this purpose.

The significance of these developments is that the coalition led by al-Qaeda has recently taken both the city of Idlib and Jisr al-Shughur in Idlib province, positioning it to move against the key regime-held port of Latakia. Latakia is one of the ways Russia resupplies Damascus and its loss would be a tremendous blow to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Moreover, the port is nestled in a hinterland dominated by the Alawite Shiites, who are the backbone of the regime and constitute some 10-14% of the Syrian population. The upper echelons of al-Assad’s Baath Party are staffed by Alawites. If the regime cannot protect its own, it will soon fall.

Al-Qaeda views Alawites as wretched heretics and has genocide on its mind if it wins in Syria.

The US military has bombed Support Front positions, given its status as an al-Qaeda affiliate, along with Daesh (ISIS or ISIL) ones. (Daesh was excluded from the Jisr al-Shughur operation). Despite the clear al-Qaeda links of Free Men of the Levant, the US has not designated it a terrorist organization, and there are rumors that Turkey supports it.

The rebels launched a Latakia campaign in 2013, which failed, but the regime is more exhausted and weaker now than then.

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Related video:

Reuters: “Islamist fighters seize Syria’s Jisr Al-Shughour ”

18 Responses

  1. It seems rather likely that the US is supporting these groups via Turkey in order to deny the port of Latakia to Russia. Is this known, and if so is the rationale the same as in supporting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan against the USSR, ie., simply making them an enemy, under any pretense that they might become a threat?

    • There is no evidence that the U.S is supplying the al-Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, or ISIS – however there are credible reports that the Israeli government has a cooperative relationship with the al-Nusra Front.

      The CIA has been reportedly involved in the distribution of weaponry to pro-democracy rebels in Syria such as the Free Syrian Army.

      There have been some reports that Turkish intelligence has had a positive relationship with ISIS and also that Turkish border guards have been bribed to allow passage of ISIS recruits into Syria.

  2. Hmm, if you look on the map you’ll see that both Idleb and Jisr al-Shughur are North-East of Latakia, but the supply routes out of Latakia run South-East to Damascus i.e. in the other direction.

    So these developments don’t indicate that the Assad government is about to be cut off from resupply any time soon, nor that the Alawite-dominated area around Latakia is about to fall – again, a look on the map shows why.

    There is a flat plain between Idleb and Jisr al-Shughur, so their advance from the former to the latter faced little in the way of difficult terrain.

    But there is some quite mountainous territory between Jisr al-Shughur and Latakia, so a further advance to the sea will be much, much more difficult – there’s pretty much only one route they can take.

  3. We should all be grateful that our intelligence (sic) and security (sic) agencies under the glorious leadership of Dubya and Obama decapitated the heads of Al-Qaeda; otherwise, said al-Qaeda would be creating real problems in the Middle East today.

  4. The great debacle committed by the Obama administration was to suspend supplying the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as they were about to topple Assad in 2013 because an FSA arms depot was raided by Islamic militants. This suspension caused many fighters to defect from the FSA to Islamic rebel organizations.

    At that time the Baathists were also close to having their overland logistics route between the Mediterranean coast and Damascus severed by FSA rebels. Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate within Syria and ISIS were had minimal presences as far as being military forces against the Baathists.

    Today ISIS and the al-Nusra Front are the two most powerful rebel groups within Syria opposing the Baathists. The Assad regime is now applauding the bombing sorties flown by the U.S. Air Force against these two Islamist opposition organizations.

    Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford has been a bitter critic of the Obama administration’s handling of the Syrian situation.

    The Obama administration has snared defeat from the jaws of victory in Syria.

    • As I recall, FSA arms were known to be finding their way to other rebel groups including AlQaeda, and FSA was a minor contender among more extreme groups. What sort of victory would be gained for whom by arming the rebels further, especially with little control over who ultimately gets the arms? Isn’t that strategy what led us here each step of the way?

      • The F.S.A. was the key rebel group in 2013 with about 100,000 militants in its ranks.

        ISIS was not a major player in Syria at that juncture and al-Nusra Front fighters were estimated to number about 5,000 to 10,000. The F.S.A. pledged it would turn its guns on the al-Nusra Front as soon as the Baathists were finally defeated.

        The U.S. and its allies could have provided air support to the F.S.A. as was done in Afghanistan and Libya to knock the Baathists out of Damascus and worry about the militant Islamic groups later.

  5. With respect, this is a dangerously misleading piece, far below the standards of this site.

    “Al Qa’eda-linked groups” did not take Jisr al-Shughour — or indeed make the wider gains of an offensive across Idlib and Hama Provinces that could turn the course of the war.

    None of the groups involved have links to Al Qa’eda except Jabhat al-Nusra. Some may be called “Islamist”, such as Ahrar al-Sham, but this general category does not capture the debates over religious and political approaches going on right now. Other groups are “Islamic” or “secular”.

    Full coverage at link to eaworldview.com

    • Jabhat al-Nusra is a lead group in Fath al-Sham, and Ahrar al-Sham, another lead group, has firm al-Qaeda connections. the rest are Salafi Jihadis not much different from al-Qaeda. Can’t entirely understand why you would want to downplay this, but around here we calls ’em as we sees ’em

      • Thank you for the reply.

        1. Jabhat al-Nusra is important on the battlefield, but it is far from the leading group in the rebellion and the opposition. The Islamic Front — including factions such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam which are much larger than Jabhat al-Nusra — the Southern Front, and the Levant Front (now “renamed” Fateh Haleb) blocs are the notable forces. They do not include Jabhat al-Nusra, although they cooperate with it in operations such as the Jaish al-Fateh operations room.

        Slapping the label “Salafi Jihadis” on all those groups is simplistic and wrong — for example, Free Syrian Army units are involved in all the blocs — and does not begin to appreciate the religious and political debates as these blocs develop.

        2. One of the senior members of Ahrar al-Sham, Abu Khalid al-Suri, was Ayman al-Zawahiiri’s representative in Syria. He was killed in 2014 by the Islamic State as he tried to broker a truce between the Islamic State and rebel factions.

        However, he is the exception rather than the rule. Few in the Ahrar al-Sham leadership have any ties with Al Qa’eda, and the group has made clear — under Hassan Abboud, killed in September 2014 in a bombing, and under present leadership — that it does not subscribe to Al Qa’eda’s ideology.

        The simple and false equation of Ahrar al-Sham=Al Qa’eda has been pushed by some of the same folks who pushed for US entry into the 2003 Iraq War, so it is interesting to see it replayed here.

        3. Countering the false presentation of the complex nature of the Syrian rebels and opposition should not be dismissed with the equally false charge of “downplaying” the issues — to the contrary, it highlights them. As Assad is going to lose this war, it is probably important to have an understanding of that complexity rather than to put it into a convenient if inaccurate box of “Al Qa’eda”.

        • Jabhat al-Nusra is among the few groups actually to hold a lot of territory on its own, and I very much doubt that Idlib or Jisr al-Shughur would have fallen without it. You can’t slap a name like Fath al-Sham on a group that is primarily victorious owing to al-Qaeda and hide the fact that it is al-Qaeda. Ahrar al-Sham’s connections to al-Qaeda go beyond one guy, now dead.

          What do you think these guys will do to the Alawis once they get hold of them? The Christians who fell under them were already brutalized. Or the Kurdish Marxists? These Salafi Jihadis (and yes, that is what Fath al-Sham is) are a small minority of Syrian Sunnis, and are ideological extremists, but with Saudi and Turkish funding they are taking over. Many of them are mass murderers, just like the regime they are fighting.

          Scott, I respect your work, but your reply contains logical fallacies. That Neocons are also afraid of the Salafi Jihadis is irrelevant; they and I are also both afraid of tsunamis.

          We don’t know who is going to win the war, but that consideration is irrelevant to the characterization of the people who just took most of Idlib province. They are Salafi Jihadis and some of them are outright al-Qaeda, which means all of them are allied with al-Qaeda.

    • Scott:

      In actuality, the Islamic Front is a loosely-knit umbrella organization of highly autonomous brigades that each have varying “shades” of adherence to Islam – some are ideologically very similar to al-Qaeda, others are more secular. The Islamic Front coordinates information and distributes funding to constituent brigades.

      The Islamic Front consisted of armed rebel groups that split off from the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) largely over the issue of allegiance to the internationally-recognized Syrian National Coalition, but remains largely sympathetic to the FSA. They are Saudi-funded and have eschewed formal ties to Western interests.

      The al-Nusra Front has won kudos from segments of the FSA, Islamic Front brigades and even the Syrian secular public due to their battlefield prowess – and has fought ISIS at times.

  6. there are also credible reports, believe it or not, that the coalition which liberated Jisr ash-shughour is supported passionately by the inhabitants of Idlib province, and by the refugees from Idlib province in Turkey. This because the Assadist forces previously occupying the town have been committing massacres there since the 1980s, and more recently a near-genocide. al-Q plays a minor role in the coalition, and al-Q as understood in the West – as an anti-western terror org – plays no role at all. so long as people seek to understand syria through western concerns, or in terms of which states are supporting who, rather than first and foremost through the experience and motivations of Syrians, they’ll end up understanding nothing much.

    • Yes, and a lot of Afghans were happy to see the Taliban take Kabul in 1996 because the Mujahidin reduced it to rubble fighting among themselves. In 2004, 5% of Afghans in polling reported thinking well of Taliban.

    • There are elements within the Syrian exile community that welcome Israeli military action is Syria while acknowledging their disdain for Israel.

      There are also have been reports that the al-Nusra Front has received medical assistance, air support, and technical assistance from the Israeli government.

      Virtually every nation in the region has their fingers in the Syrian civil war in one way or another with the primary intent of advancing their own selfish interests.

  7. Turkey’s behaviour and willingness to have links with, or support, religious-political extremist militants to remove Assad, kind of highlights the ideological mindset of the current govt, no different than the sectarian sided Gulf Arab states support of the same or similar fundamentalist militants.

  8. Dear Professor Cole

    I am concerned at the amount of armour I am seeing among the attacking forces. I suspect that there is a two pronged attack with one prong coming south and west from Turkey to threaten Latakia and Tartus and draw forces away from Damascus and a second attack from Jordan coming to Damascus.

    A siege of Latakia will be very messy. 300,000 people and a Russian base. It can be supplied by sea but we may need to take women and children off and transport them to perhaps the UK sovereign bases on Cyrprus.

    An alternative would be for the UK Tornados on Cyprus to fly close support for the defenders of Latakia. However we suspect UK government is with Al Aqaeda and the attackers

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