The swift defeat of the Nour Al Din Al Zenki movement by its one-time ally, Hay’at Tahrir Al Sham (HTS), has shocked close observers of Syria. For despite its modest size, Zenki had been considered one of the strongest fighting factions in northern Syria. Zenki had a strong central command structure, loyal fighters and local support. It was the most successful rebel group countering HTS’s encroachment. Now, the sudden reversal in HTS’s fortunes show once again the enduring strength of the Salafist-inspired group and its ability to dominate over its rivals using divide-and-conquer strategies. Equally important, Zenki’s defeat reflects the fragility of alliances among rebel groups and within factions, leaving them vulnerable to betrayal.
The offensive against Zenki began on the first day of this year, and ended with HTS quickly expelling Zenki from its territory in rural Aleppo. The fighting lasted only four days, after which Zenki fighters withdrew to areas in Afrin that are under Turkey’s sphere of influence, allowing HTS to capture territory and heavy weapons. So, what happened?
The recent conflict encapsulates the complexity of the shifting coalitions among Syria’s rebel groups. One of the oldest armed groups founded in 2011, Zenki was actually part of the HTS coalition at its formation, despite its perceived moderation compared to the HTS’s previous incarnation as Jabhat Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. That alliance fell apart, and soon fighting commenced between Zenki and HTS in August 2017, leading to lasting hostilities.
Tensions between the two groups heightened on December 28 last year, when HTS accused Zenki of killing its fighters in the town of Talla’deh in western Aleppo. Despite reaching a peace agreement on December 31, HTS mobilized and attacked Zenki territories the next day, taking its opponents by surprise. In a desperate defense, Zenki fighters spread out across several fronts without a coordinated defence strategy and poor logistics capabilities. Fielding a larger, better armed force, HTS quickly captured Zenki strongholds such as the towns of Darat Izza and Anjara, as well as the key Regiment 111 base.
Part of the failure can be attributed to Zenki’s misplaced reliance on its erstwhile allies, who failed to deliver on their promise. In August 2018, Zenki joined the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF), theoretically coming under the defense umbrella of what is considered the largest rebel group in Syria. The was meant to enable Zenki to mend fences with Turkey and open new funding opportunities from or through Ankara.
At the outset of the January offensive, the NLF called for a mobilization of all its forces. However, the campaign by some NLF factions in rural Idlib was limited in intensity – to put it mildly – and failed to apply enough pressure on HTS to blunt its onslaught. In fact, the response – such as it was – from the majority of NLF fighters amounted to – incredibly – no more than issuing statements on social media. The explanations for such inaction remain highly speculative.
The hope – false as it turned out – that its allies would come to its aid did much harm to Zenki’s defense preparations, as the group failed to prioritize its own resources and come up with a plan to defend its territory on its own.
More importantly, HTS successfully manipulated some Zenki-allied communities and factions. As soon as the fighting started, HTS started brokering local deals with Zenki-controlled towns such as Kfar Dael and A’wejel, offering them and other Zenki allies protection in exchange for staying out of the fight. In some cases, those deals included blocking Zenki reinforcements and interior lines.
Worst of all, HTS even struck similar deals to neutralize Zenki fighters who were deployed on the front lines facing the Syrian regime on the outskirt of Aleppo city. Despite attacks on their fellow combatants and hometowns, these fighters did not abandon their positions or redeploy to counter the HTS offensive. The nature of HTS’s agreement with those fighters remains unclear, but some agreed to affiliate themselves with HTS either during or after the offensive. In return, HTS announced after its victory that it would pay fighters who had not abandoned their posts.
The HTS strategy to divide and neutralize enemies, including both civilians and combatants, which defeated Zenki in this instance has been used repeatedly against other rebel groups, such as Ahrar Al Sham, Haraket Hazem and others. In the campaign expected in the near future on Soqur Al Sham in rural Idlib, HTS will almost certainly deploy the same model. Due to its extensive military power, future attacks can only be countered by building strong and genuine alliances between the remaining rebel groups and local communities, to protect and defend each other. In the absence of such alliances, HTS will continue to pick off its rivals one at a time.
Haid Haid is a research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. He is also a consulting research fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.
AFP PHOTOP/OMAR HAJ KADOUR