BEIRUT — For the first time since its meteoric rise in 2012 amid the chaos of war, al-Qaida’s branch in Syria is in retreat, battling rival militant groups in the north and fighting for survival in a key foothold near the capital, Damascus.
Over the past three weeks, the extremist group has been driven from nearly all of the northern province of Aleppo, losing dozens of fighters in battles there and in nearby Idlib province.
The fighting poses a major challenge to the militant group, already beset by infighting and a string of assassinations that have taken out some of its top leaders. Unlike previous battles in which al-Qaida-linked fighters were able to quickly crush their opponents, the fighting has been particularly fierce, with the militants losing dozens of villages.
The al-Qaida-linked coalition known as the Levant Liberation Committee is still one of Syria’s most powerful armed groups, with fighters numbering in the thousands.
While the U.S.-led coalition and Russian-backed Syrian troops have focused on driving the Islamic State group from the country’s east, the al-Qaida-linked group has consolidated its control over Idlib, where it remains the strongest force despite its recent losses there.
After the defeat of IS, al-Qaida is seen as the main jihadi group that rejects any peace talks to try to end Syria’s seven-year conflict. Its presence in northern Syria and in the Damascus suburbs of eastern Ghouta has provided a pretext for President Bashar Assad and his Russian backers to wage war against opposition-held territory, since various de-escalation and cease-fire agreements have excluded al-Qaida.
Several hundred al-Qaida fighters holed up in eastern Ghouta have become a burden to the armed opposition battling government forces there, which has pressed the extremists to leave the area for their stronghold in Idlib in order to avoid the current crushing offensive.
The group’s presence has also …read more
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