Al Qaeda’s affiliates in Syria have begun gaining ground in the central part of the country, taking advantage of the regime’s increased focus on the ongoing fight against Islamic State in northern Syria.
Fighters from Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, a faction of the former Syrian al Qaeda cell now known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, have overrun government forces in the central Syrian cities of Qomhana and Ma’an, 30 miles south of anti-government stronghold of Idlib, according to local reports.
The attacks come as forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad has begun diverting his forces from battling rebel fighters in central Syria to territory held by Islamic State, or ISIS or ISIL. The ensuing vacuum has allowed al Qaeda-affiliated groups to push into rebel-held territory near Idlib and Hama.
It remains unclear how far the group’s Syrian cells will push unchecked by Damascus into rebel territory. But those efforts in Syria fall in line with al Qaeda’s recent resurgence in Yemen, west Africa, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Earlier this week, the Trump White House issued a ban on all electronics inside the cabins U.S.-bound commercial aircraft from several Mideast countries. Administration officials claim the ban was motivated by information on a new terror threat emanating from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group’s formidable Yemeni cell.
But Abu Jaber, general commander for Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, disavowed any ties between his organization and al Qaeda. The group, under Jaber’s command, “is an independent entity and not an extension of previous organizations or factions,” he said in a statement issued in February.
Al Qaeda’s Yemeni cell, formerly known as al Nusra Front, had allied with rebel forces battling to overthrow the Assad regime after the Obama administration balked at proposed strikes against the regime during the height of the Syrian civil war.
In the aftermath, al Qaeda fighters quickly co-opted the Syrian resistance, infiltrating American-backed groups such as the Free Syrian Army and other moderate rebel groups. With Assad’s brutal victory in Aleppo, retaking the rebel redoubt with the support of a blistering air campaign by Russian warplanes, moderate and extremist factions within the anti-Assad forces splintered across the country.