By Jennifer Cafarella
The U.S. requires partnerships with Syrian armed opposition groups in order to destroy ISIS and al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra in the long term. Without local Sunni partners that hold the support of the population, the U.S. faces high costs to destroy ISIS and al Qaeda in Syria and risks failure. The U.S. still retains potential partners in the North to achieve this objective: ISW assesses that six of the powerbrokers or potential powerbrokers in Aleppo Province are eligible for this partnership.
Russian military support to the Assad regime's offensive in Aleppo is forcing U.S.-backed opposition groups to rely more heavily on support from Jabhat al Nusra and its Salafi jihadi allies in Syria. With the help of Russian airstrikes, the regime has continued to close in on the opposition and has nearly completed a full siege of the opposition-held parts of Aleppo City. The Salafi-jihadi opposition group Ahrar al Sham has begun to consolidate leadership over the Syrian armed opposition in Aleppo in order to coordinate the defense of the city more effectively. Ahrar al Sham plays a prominent role on the battlefield in Aleppo, as ISW assessed in a recent report. The group is assuming control of the Aleppo-based opposition as international support to those groups fails to materialize.
Eight prominent Aleppo groups agreed to unite under the leadership of former Ahrar al Sham leader Hashim al Sheikh on February 15. These eight groups include four U.S.-backed groups, of which ISW has assessed that one is a powerbroker in Aleppo and two are potential powerbrokers. The agreement places Ahrar al Sham in operational control of much of the Aleppo opposition, but it is not a complete merger. It does not mean these groups will cease operating independently, nor that they will necessarily accept Ahrar al Sham's religious agenda. Instead, the deepened coordination with Ahrar al Sham will help these groups fight more effectively against the Assad regime. It is unclear whether al Sheikh will now assume control of the Jaysh Halab military coalition that fifteen opposition groups declared on February 6. The absence of two major Jaysh Halab component groups, Jaysh al Mujahideen and Jabhat al Shamiya, indicates that al Sheikh may lead an alternate alliance, or possibly a subcomponent within Jaysh Halab.
The U.S. must act quickly to prevent Ahrar al Sham from translating operational leadership of U.S.-backed groups into their full merger under its command. Hashim al Sheikh will most likely try use his new leadership role to facilitate deepened cooperation between these eight groups and Jabhat al Nusra in defending opposition-held parts of Aleppo City. Over time, Ahrar al Sham will likely assist Jabhat al Nusra to create a new coalition in Aleppo under joint leadership, akin to the Jaysh al Fatah coalition they currently lead in Idlib Province.
It remains possible for the U.S. to fragment Ahrar al Sham’s leadership of opposition groups in Aleppo, therein restoring their independence, by providing an alternate source of military support to defend against the Russian-supported regime offensive. ISW recommended steps to preserve the opposition groups in Aleppo that are potential U.S. allies on February 13 in a paper titled The Syrian Armed Opposition Forces in Aleppo. These recommendations remain valid, and acting on them is even more crucial following Ahrar al Sham’s rise to new leadership in the province.