By: Max Kuhns, CIB Middle East Desk
Analytical Question: Will Tahrir al-Sham (al-Nusrah Front) be defeated in 2017?
The militant group formerly known as the al-Nusrah Front has rebranded itself and merged with four other factions to create a group now formally known as Tahrir al-Sham (BBC Monitoring). This rebranding could possibly allow the group to introduce new tactics and capabilities, which were unavailable to it prior to the merger. I assess with high confidence that Tahrir al-Sham will not be defeated in 2017, due to the merger that has occurred.
The Syria-based al-Nusrah Front was aligned with Al Qaeda, and was led by Abu Muhammad al-Julani. In 2011, Al-Julani was tasked by the al-Qaeda-affiliated Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the future leader of the Islamic State, to set up regional cells in Syria (Stanford University). The group formally declared its existence at the beginning of the Syrian civil war, in 2012. However, al-Nusrah split from al-Qaeda in 2016 and renamed renaming itself Fatah al-Sham. The group renamed itself again in late January 2017 to Tahrir al-Sham. This new group is a merger between al-Nusrah and four other groups, namely the Nour al-Din Zinki movement, the Ansar al-Din front, Jaysh al-Sunnah, and Liwa al-Haqq (BBC Monitoring). Since the merger, the group has already carried three major attacks against pro-government aligned forces.
On January 28, al-Nusrah stated that it was rebranding itself and merging with new factions; on February 9, Tahrir al-Sham stated that it was completely independent from previous organizations (BBC Monitoring). Abu Jabir formerly the leader of a rival group, Ahrar al-Sham, stated that he was the new leader following the merger, replacing al-Julani as the new leader of the group in Syria. Al-Julani was confirmed by the group to be the alliance’s general military commander. In a short amount of time, Tahrir al-Sham has carried out several attacks, including a rocket barrage against a Russian-controlled airbase in the Latakia province (Al Masdar News). The group also claimed responsibility for a twin bombing in Damascus that killed 74 people and wounded more than 120 (Al Jazeera News).
The recent events regarding Tahrir al-Sham are likely a result of the increased focus on opposition forces in northern Syria. Russian Federation forces have increased targeting efforts in areas held by opposition groups, specifically in the Hama, Idlib, and Aleppo Provinces (Institute For The Study Of War). Turkish forces have increased their presence and cooperation within the ongoing Operation Euphrates Shield, which creates another front in the battle for northern Syria (Al Monitor). The American military is deploying additional forces to northern Syria, specifically the 75th Ranger Regiment and the 11th Marine Expeditionary Force. All of the belligerents stated above are external forces exerting influence in the same region that Tahrir al-Sham operates, along with forces of the Syrian government.
The merger of al-Nusrah Front with these other groups is likely an effort to strengthen remaining opposition groups in the face of this increased influence. Immediately after the merger, the group has conducted multiple large-scale attacks against Syrian pro-government forces. These attacks, such as the 25-rocket barrage and twin bombings mentioned above, represent an increase in ability and range, with one attack occurring in the coastal Latakia province and the other occurring in the capital of Damascus. These attacks are unlikely to have been possible logistically or in terms of capability without the combined resources of this group. With these additional resources and capabilities, it is highly likely that the group will continue to execute attacks similar in size, while simultaneously carrying out offensive pushes into provinces outside of their traditional footprints.
I assess with high confidence that Tahrir al-Sham will continue to demonstrate increased capabilities and resources due to the merger that occurred in late January 2017. This rebranding/merger is significant for the future of Syria, and the outcome of the Syrian Civil War. The London-based BBC news is the only Western news outlet that reported the merger, but several international news outlets including Al Jazeera and Al Masdar have reported the attacks carried out by the group since the merger. With al-Nusrah Front no longer existing, and the new group, Tahrir al-Sham, a group of increased size, with numerous entities within it, my analytical question itself has changed. Additionally, the merger changes my analytical forecast significantly. I assess with high confidence that Tahrir al-Sham will not be defeated in 2017, due to the merger that occurred in January of 2017.
Al Jazeera News. Al Jazeera Middle East. 12 March 2017. Document. 27 March 2017.
Al Masdar News. Al Masdar News Syria . 22 March 2017. Report. 27 March 2017.
Al Monitor. Turkey Pulse. 13 February 2017. Document. 28 March 2017.
BBC Monitoring. BBC News. 28 February 2017. News Report. 26 March 2017.
Institute For The Study Of War. Russian Airstrikes In Syria. 23 March 2017. Document. 28 March 2017.
—. Syria Situation Report. 9 March 2017. Document. 28 March 2017.
Stanford University. Mapping Militants Organizations. 25 August 2016. Document. 26 March 2017.