The al-Qaeda organization officially declared that it has a branch operating in Syria.
It called on its followers in Syria to cooperate with the “real mujahideen,” it said in a statement.
The Syrian branch of the group was announced weeks after major disputes erupted between former al-Nusra Front and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham leaders.
Experts said that the announcement of the al-Qaeda branch was not a remarkable development with Dr. Hassan Abou Hanieh noting that al-Nusra had cut off ties with the group back in July 2016.
At the time, there were members who were opposed to this break, he said.
The break off only seemed superficial and with the approval of al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri and other leaders.
Abou Hanieh told Asharq Al-Awsat that Abou Mohamed al-Joulani slowly began to distance himself from al-Qaeda to eventually form Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in January 2017. After that, some leaders in the group started to abandon it and lean towards re-forming the al-Qaeda branch in Syria.
“Joulani was aware of that, which prompted him to take preemptive measures and eliminate some leaders under the excuse that they were ISIS members even though they were affiliated to al-Qaeda,” he revealed.
In November, Zawahiri released a recording condemning Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, saying that breaking off from al-Qaeda was “unacceptable.”
He then sent messages to al-Qaeda leaders, accusing Joulani of treason. This was eventually followed by the official announcement of the formation of the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda.
The branch did not reveal an official name for itself or any other details about it.
It is likely that it is being led by Abou Hammam al-Soury or Jordan’s Sami al-Aridi or Abou Juleibeb, said Syrian opposition media sources.
The media spoke of the emergence of the “Jaish al-Muslimeen in al-Sham” that did not issue an official statement on its formation. The group declared that it is dedicated to confronting the Syrian regime, Iranians, Russians and Kurdish People’s Protection Units. It did not indicate whether it was affiliated to al-Qaeda.
The Syrian branch of al-Qaeda has since started to restructure its branch and regroup its fighters, comprised of members who initially refused to break off from it. They include Sami al-Aridi, Abou Hammam al-Soury and others who managed to garner several extremist followers.
A proposal was made by Seif al-Adel al-Masry, who is present in Iran, to have Hamza bin Laden lead the Syrian al-Qaeda branch. Masry is an al-Qaeda military leader, who rose to prominence before the September 11, 2001 attacks. He is described as one of the most effective al-Qaeda operatives and a possible successor to Zawahiri.
Syrian opposition sources do not hide the fact that influential al-Qaeda operatives are active among their factions, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Faylaq al-Sham.
Experts ruled out the possibility of a conflict erupting between al-Qaeda and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
Abou Hanieh said that the conflict is likely to remain restricted to a proxy war and minor skirmishes, amid Russian and international coalition strikes against these groups.
He added: “Everyone now is under pressure and no one knows his fate because that it bound by international agreements.”
“With a lack of an international agreement and the plethora of possible scenarios, Idlib will likely be the focus of all sides in 2018,” he predicted.
“Al-Qaeda is counting on time playing in its favor in order to determine whether current standing agreements can be violated,” he said.
Abou Hanieh stressed that al-Qaeda realized the futility of a traditional war and is now looking into guerrilla warfare, similar to what it did in Iraq between 2006 and 2008.