The Two Terrorist Groups That Scare Russia, Syria And Iran More Than ISIS

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Russ Read Pentagon/Foreign Policy Reporter
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Russia, Syria and Iran have been actively fighting the Islamic State since the group’s rise in 2014, but there are two other terrorist groups in the region that also challenge the alliance.

Syrian terrorist groups Ahrar al-Sham and especially the group formerly known as the Nusra Front (now Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or JFS) are significantly more dangerous, an Iranian military source told al-Monitor’s Ali Hashem. According to the official, Iran does not distinguish between the aforementioned groups and ISIS, instead it sees them all as different branches of the same al-Qaida school of thought.

“For years now, we’ve been doing our duty without looking at names and without giving attention to whoever is backing and supporting [these groups],” said the official, who spoke to al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity. “We’ll continue to do what we have to do, wherever we need to be, and whether it’s Nusra, al-Qaeda, Daesh (ISIS) — or the new name it [Nusra Front] was given — our mandate is to uproot it and rid the region of such a terrorist group.”

Ahrar al-Sham and the newly-branded JFS share certain ideals with al-Qaida. Both groups want to establish an Islamic State in Syria, however, Ahrar al-Sham limits its goals to Syria itself, whereas JFS has a global mindset. This difference in philosophy has not stopped the two groups from working together though, and both have proven to be adept at gathering other groups under their leadership. That said, it is JFS that has seen the most success in the recruitment endeavor.

Before it was renamed JFS in late July, Nusra Front was considered the prominent al-Qaida wing in Syria, and one of the most powerful, and dangerous, terrorist groups in the area. While initial speculation of the group’s re-branding claimed the group had separated from al-Qaida, experts tend to agree the new name is more symbolic than anything.

“Counterterrorism analysts see the current departure of the Nusra Front from al Qaeda’s constellation as merely a rebranding that will allow the Nusra Front to create a broader Syrian coalition of radical Salafist-oriented rebels (and possibly some secular rebel formations) in which the Nusra Front is the most powerful group,” wrote Brian Michael Jenkins in a blog post for RAND Institute on August 8.

Jenkins noted that Nusra Front’s link to al-Qaida was impeding on its ability to rally other Syrian rebel groups who were afraid of being targeted by U.S. and Russian strikes, as well as losing funding from Gulf partners. Iran and Russia do not seem to care much about the name change, as Russian aircraft flying from Iran continued targeting what are believed to be JFS positions in Syria Tuesday.

Despite Russian strikes, JFS has seen some success in gathering other groups to its banner. Jaish al-Fatah, which was formed by JFS, helped break the Syrian government’s months-long siege of Aleppo earlier this month. The coalition was also joined by Fateh Halab, a mix of radical and conventional rebel groups. JFS’s ability to gather both terrorist and conventional groups underneath its flag shows it may have some staying power while ISIS continues to lose territory in the region.

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