Ayman al-Zawahiri. From al-Qa'ida media.
On February 20, as-Sahab Media Foundation, al-Qa’ida's media wing, released a new video statement by Ayman al-Zawahiri addressed to "the Muslim brothers and mujahedin in al-Sham" (Syria). In the statement, al-Qa’ida's leader tried to mediate the tensions between the rival jihadi factions active in Syria and called on the different groups to "unite and come together" in the face of a common enemy.
The tensions between the jihadi factions in Syria are not new, and Zawahiri had tried to address them several months ago; as previously discussed in Jihadiscope, in late November 2017, as-Sahab released a message by Zawahiri in which, for the first time, he denounced Hayat Tahrir al-Sham's decision to sever its formal ties with al-Qaʿida. HTS formally broke with al-Qa’ida to better improve its international standing, presenting itself instead as a "fully independent" entity which isn't representative of any foreign body or organization. However, at the same time it also made secret promises to al-Qa’ida that this public break was purely for publicity. Jihadists who were still loyal to al-Qaʿida were angered by this and decided to break away from HTS and form their own pro-AQ groups. Additionally, as discussed in Jihadiscope, in late December 2017, two new pro-al-Qa’ida jihadist groups emerged in Syria: Jaysh al-Badiya (the Desert's Army) and al-Malahem (the Epic Battles).
The fighting between the rival jihadi factions in Syria has been described by some analysts as "the biggest crisis for al-Qa’ida since the rise of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State in 2013 and 2014", and the continued rivalry between them shows that Zawahiri has lost control of the developments in the Syrian jihad. Al-Zawahiri already lost control of al-Qaʿida in Syria after Jabhat al-Nusra rebranded itself as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (later to become HTS) in July 2016 without Zawahiri's consent. As this process is, by now, a done deal, Zawahiri instead attempts to present himself in the latest statement as the wise and experienced jihadi leader consulting the hotheaded jihadi youth fighting in "al-Sham [Syria], the land of Ribat [the frontier of Islam], and jihad." As part of this effort, Zawahiri presents himself as "a brother to you, a Muslim who is tied to you in the brotherhood of Islam, without regard to any organizational gathering."
Zawahiri's advice to jihadists in Syria is "to unite and agree and gather and merge and cooperate and stack together as one rank", and he urges the different factions to "bury the reasons of disagreement." Thus, unlike the IS which seeks to dominate the global jihadi movement and attempted to eliminate any group which disagreed with it, Zawahiri presents al-Qaʿida as the mature jihadi actor who seeks only to help and guide the mujahedin in their efforts. In addition to calling on jihadists to unite and cooperate rather than fight each other, Zawahiri warns that the fight in Syria is "a battle which may last for many years and perhaps decades", thus requiring the unity and concentrated efforts of the entire umma.
Zawahiri's call for unity among jihadists in Syria seems to have had some immediate results since the publication of his statement. As analysts Tore Hamming and Charles Lister noted, three pro-AQ groups – Jund al Malahim, Jaysh al Badiya and Jaysh Sahel – have recently merged to create Tanzim Huras al-Deen (The Organization of the Guardians of the Religion). Although the new organization has yet to formally declare its affiliation with al-Qaʿida, its formation marks the re-establishment of the official presence of al-Qaʿida in Syria for the first time since early 2012, when Jabhat al-Nusra was established. The coming months will tell if Tanzim Huras al-Deen will indeed manage to "cooperate and stack together as one rank", as Zawahiri called for, or will succumb yet again to more infighting and political disputes.