Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat a-Nusra, is under attack in its Syrian stronghold of opposition-held Idlib province.
Since January 1, an intensified bombing campaign led by the United States is targeting the former Al-Qaeda affiliate. US military officials claim that strikes by manned and unmanned military aircraft have killed “more than 150 Al-Qaeda terrorists” in northern Syria.
Among the dead are high-ranking JFS leaders, both foreign and Syrian. The most recent reported strike—for which the US has not taken responsibility—was this past Sunday. Last week, an attack on a JFS training camp reportedly killed 100 people.
Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis claims the US strikes “degrade Al-Qaeda’s capabilities, weaken their resolve, and cause confusion in their ranks.”
But how does the recent, repeated bombing of the organization—sometimes near towns populated by civilians—affect the way that Idlib residents view JFS?
Syria Direct’s Waleed Khaled a-Noufal, Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim and Alaa Nassar spoke with four activists and civilians in Idlib province for answers.
“The popularity of JFS and the other factions has begun to recede, especially with the factions fighting each other, rather than the regime,” says one citizen journalist from the south Idlib countryside.
If JFS weren’t present in Syria, says an English teacher named Ali al-Amin, “the airstrikes would not have happened.”
Abu Ahmad, a citizen journalist in the south Idlib countryside.
Since the truce at the beginning of this year, international coalition strikes on the positions and headquarters of JFS have increased markedly.
[Ed.: A nationwide ceasefire, brokered by Russia and Turkey, went into effect on December 30. It does not include Jabhat Fatah a-Sham or the Islamic State.]
The strikes show intent to generate conflict between the factions in Idlib, the Syrian opposition’s biggest stronghold, to ignite infighting between the factions. Let them kill themselves and finish each other off; no need for military action.
What is happening is that JFS are the only ones being targeted. This makes them think that the other factions have betrayed them, and are working with the coalition against them. This is what we sense from the recent infighting between JFS and the other factions.
[Ed.: JFS launched an “unexplained” attack on headquarters and positions belonging to more moderate FSA faction Jaish al-Mujahideen on Monday, January 23. Other factions responded and battles have continued in the west Aleppo countryside and Idlib province since then, Syria Direct reported on Wednesday.]
For civilians, the impact of these strikes is psychological rather than physical. We see that they are precision strikes in areas all but empty of residents. So the effect is psychological—it sows fear in people’s hearts. People see that the international coalition is capable of targeting leaders and individuals with high accuracy. We fear this precision will be used against the other brigades, just like with JFS. This would mean the elimination of the rebels.
Naturally, JFS’s popularity has not increased. The targeting is not new; it happened before. But now the strikes have increased and expanded, and people are generally sick and tired [of war]. For that reason, the popularity of JFS and the other factions has begun to recede, especially with the factions fighting each other, rather than the regime.
Ali al-Amin, an English teacher and political activist in the town of Kafr Nubl in the south Idlib countryside. He is firmly opposed to JFS.
These strikes are to be expected. If Jabhat a-Nusra were not present in Syria, then they would not have happened. We hope the bombings stay far away from the civilians.
[Ed.: Throughout the interview, al-Amin refers to Jabhat Fatah a-Sham as Jabhat a-Nusra, its name before rebranding itself and officially cutting ties with Al-Qaeda in 2016.]
Nusra has been infiltrated to the bone. These attacks are meticulously targeted, thank God. Al-Qaeda, under its new name, is not really effective against the regime or coalition forces. Even setting aside the theory that it collaborates with the regime, it is only effective against civilians and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions.
As for my opinion of the strikes, in theory, I do not support any military operations in liberated [opposition-held] territories, because they pose a danger to civilians. But in practice, Nusra bears part of the responsibility because it waited to break ties with Al-Qaeda. This led to it being classified as a terrorist organization and in so doing, it stopped being a faction belonging to the Syrian people.
In terms of impact, yes, these strikes will limit the movement of Nusra members. They will have to work in a more covert manner. Nusra has not responded to the strikes because it has aimed to market itself recently as a representative of Syrian citizens.
Nusra does not have the ability to respond, because its strength depends on suicide attacks and explosive devices. This is difficult to accomplish given the situation on the ground.
Al-Qaeda cannot hide from the coalition strikes. This is for many reasons, including that it is infiltrated by foreigners who provide precise information to the planes. And because civilians hate its presence, they aim to expose it in a number of ways. Some [JFS personnel] have been done away with by rebels, and the coalition has been accused of killing them.
Because of Al-Qaeda’s crimes, and because it shored up the pillars of [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad, it is considered the first enemy of the rebels, the Free Syrian Army, and the educated.
The organization could change its name a third time, but this won’t do anything.
Abu Ratib, a civil activist in the north Idlib countryside.
Civilians have been killed in the coalition bombings of Jabhat Fatah a-Sham. JFS keeps the number of civilians killed quiet and prevents anyone from getting close to the area that was hit. For that reason, we don’t have statistics.
[Ed.: It is not clear whether Abu Ratib is referring to the latest bombing campaign alone or previous airstrikes.]
The bombing targets JFS headquarters and movements. We continuously pressure JFS to keep their headquarters away from residential areas.
JFS has put intense pressure on people, interfering in all things big and small, which has weakened its popular support. Additionally, the attacks on Free Syrian Army [FSA] factions by JFS have completely erased popular support, like in Maarat a-Numan.
The international coalition bombing has weakened JFS by targeting prominent leaders, causing internal disarray.
Muhammad, a civilian in the Idlib countryside.
The coalition’s targeting of Jabhat Fatah a-Sham proves that the nations of the world have joined together against the [opposition] factions. It has completed a plan between Lavrov, Obama and Trump to sow discord [fitna] among the factions and the people in liberated areas by targeting one group and leaving the rest. This leads to fitna, with accusations that some provided coordinates and worked with the coalition.