In late March 2015, armed groups opposing the Assad government gathered to plan for the liberation of Idlib in northern Syria. The groups included the Al Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, Sham Legion, Jund al-Aqsa and the Sunna Army, most of whom are considered jihadist forces. They formed the Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) Operations Room, an army with no leader or unified military body. Despite the absence of a clear leader, the group quickly took Idlib city, and then advanced to other neighboring cities, including Jisr al-Shughour near the government-controlled mountains on the Syrian coast. This army has struck terror into the ranks of Assad’s supporters, especially after arriving at the outskirts of the Joreen army base in central Syria.
Recently, the Army of Conquest announced its intention to continue moving south to take Hama city, just 28 miles north of Homs on the main highway to Damascus. Although the battle has not yet reached Hama, the announcement has spread fear through Assad’s ranks. The Army of Conquest has advanced from the north, most recently taking the military base at Morek 17 miles north of Hama. The military operations have not proceeded beyond this point mainly because, with the cover of Russian warplanes, Syrian government forces have been able to advance into opposition-controlled regions on the southern outskirts of Aleppo. The opposition has hastened to relocate its forces from Hama’s countryside to Aleppo, resulting in violent clashes between the two sides. Initially, the government gained control over a number of villages south of Aleppo. However, in the past week, the Nusra Front was able to regain these villages, the most prominent among them being the villages of al-Qurasi and al-Hadir.
The Assad government’s strategy seems to be to exhaust the opposition by moving its troops from one location to the next, knowing that it is difficult for opposition fighters to match these movements. The government also has forces in multiple strategic areas, which enables it to launch simultaneous attacks that confuse the opposition. Further compounding this, Russia’s air support has replenished the government’s airpower, which the opposition had depleted by capturing Syrian army air bases. This has been in keeping with Assad’s recent scorched earth policy, which was on full display in the city of Salma near Latakia. More than six times Assad’s forces attempted to advance on this opposition-controlled city, and each attempt was preceded by shelling the city with hundreds of bombs, destroying large swaths of the area. This same approach has been applied recently in the countryside of Hama and Aleppo.
In an exclusive interview, Lieutenant Abu Hamza, head of an artillery division in the Army of Conquest, stated: “At first the Army of Conquest was originally only a small operations room that later transformed into an army with a consultative council. There is no leader of the army as of now. The armed groups would not have been able to achieve the victories of this past year without unifying in this manner, which led to the liberation of large swaths of land, most prominent of which was in Idlib.”
Regarding the battle for Hama, he said: “The battle for Hama has not yet begun as it should have. We are prepared. We have liberated a small village [Tel Sukayk], however battles such as this require large numbers and thorough preparations. I’m glad to tell the Syrian people that there are many fighters joining the Army of Conquest in expectation of this battle.”
Regarding the Free Syrian Army (FSA)’s support for the Army of Conquest, he said: “The FSA played a large part in realizing what has been achieved, especially concerning the liberation of Idlib. However, it has played an even bigger role recently in repelling the regime’s advances that have the backing of Russian airpower. It will play a prominent role in the coming battle.”
The battle’s delay is likely due to the recent Russian intervention, which has given Assad’s forces a morale boost and, just prior to the events in Vienna at the end of October, enabled it to advance on several fronts. However, according to the official Twitter feed of the jihadist Sheik Abdullah al-Muhisini, one of the most prominent figures in the Army of Conquest and an avid supporter of the Islamic State, this new tactic has not achieved any victories worth mentioning. Moreover, last Thursday, the jihadist groups seized the city of Morek, considered the northern gateway to Hama, suggesting that Russian support is not as strong as the opposition feared.
Politically, the Army of Conquest has managed to establish a civil administration in Idlib after routing the regime army. It is providing basic services including water, electricity, education and medical services, which has allowed it to gain local support. Life has begun to return to the city, with people actively going about their business in the markets and city centers. The Army of Conquest only imposes direct control over the city’s mosques, and it concentrates its efforts on Fridays when men come to pray and listen to the Army of Conquest’s appeals to join the opposition and liberate the rest of Syria. Recently, the University of Idlib reopened and young men and women have started to attend.
Most of the groups comprising the Army of Conquest are Islamist and jihadist in nature, but they have nonetheless beaten back Assad’s forces. They recruit fighters from the Syrian people despite their affiliation with Islamist groups such as the Nusra Front. The lack of international support for any major armed coalition in western Syria has cleared the way for the Army of Conquest to become the most powerful force in Syria in the future. Lieutenant Abu Hamza made it clear that, despite the presence of Al-Qaida in its ranks, there is nothing impeding the FSA’s cooperation with it.
However, cracks have begun to appear in the ranks of the Army of Conquest. Some of its groups, most prominently Jund al-Aqsa, oppose coordinating with the FSA, which they consider a puppet of the West and the United States in particular. But other groups, such as Ahrar al-Sham, do not harbor the same hostility towards the FSA. According to the journalist Abdul Rahman Khadar, this difference of opinion is expected to split these two factions in the coming days. He also asserts that this division may be one of the reasons for the delay in the battle for Hama. There are some factions, such as Ahrar al-Sham and the Sham Legion, that prefer to work with the FSA, and they have participated in all of the battles against the regime and ISIS.
This article was originally published by the Atlantic Council and is reprinted here with permission.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.
Top image: A Syrian opposition fighter watches as heavy fighting breaks out in the Idlib province on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. (AP Photo)