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Case Analysis 24 January, 2014

The Islamic Front: An Experimental Union of the Largest Military Factions in Syria

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The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 


On November 22, 2013, in the largest merge since the beginning of the Syrian revolution, seven Islamic military factions announced the establishment of “The Islamic Front”. These are Ahrar al-Sham, the Suqur al-Sham Brigades, the Army of Islam, al-Tawheed Brigade, al-Haqq Brigade, the Battalions of Ansar al-Sham, and the Kurdish Islamic Front. Suqur al-Sham’s leader, Ahmad al-Sheikh, also known as Abu Issa, said in a statement that the Front “is an independent political, military and social organization that aims to overthrow the regime and build a rightly-guided Islamic state”.[1]

In an interview with al-Jazeera, al-Sheikh also said that “the Front seeks to become a real alternative to the regime”.[2] This suggests that its creation goes beyond the goal of military unification to that of constituting a political alternative, which, though not overtly expressed, implies that it does not recognize the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

Shortly after the announcement, the Islamic Front formed a Shura Council comprised of: Ahmad al-Sheikh as chairman; senior Tawheed Brigade figure Abu Omar Huraitan as vice-chairman; al-Haqq Brigade’s leader Abu Ratib al-Humsi as secretary-general; Ahrar al-Sham’s leader Hassan Abboud as head of the political bureau; the Army of Islam’s leader Zahran Alloush as military commander; and Ahrar al-Sham’s legal advisor Abu al-Abbas al-Shami as head of the legal bureau. They hope to be fully integrated and unified, including the abolishment of the banners specific to each faction, the adoption of a new banner for the front, and the use of a single channel for receiving support and funding, within three months time.

This paper investigates the circumstances and the reasons behind this merge, and questions whether this union differs from previous attempts at unifying opposition military factions in Syria.


Previous Attempts

Since the revolution’s militarization at the beginning of 2012, the armed opposition factions have been seeking to unite, or at least coordinate among themselves, in the hope of defeating the regime’s superior military machine. Throughout 2012, there were numerous initiatives to unify military action regionally and nationally, including: the formation of military councils in governorates; the creation of the Higher Council of the Free Syrian Army, the formation of the Joint Military Command of the Free Syrian Army; and the establishment of the Joint Staff Command headed by General Salim Idriss, announced in December 2012.[3]

Despite some evidence of strengthened military endeavors, all unifications to date have ended in failure for a number of reasons, such as personal quarrels among the military commanders over representation in the Free Syrian Army; differences between the military commanders and the political opposition; conflicts among the states backing the military and their lack of coordination; and ideological differences that have led some Islamist factions to remain outside the military councils and the Joint Command. Such fragmentation—devoid of unified strategies, tactics, and maneuvers—has meant that the regime has had a relative advantage despite its growing political and military weakness.

In late 2012, Islamist factions with similar political and intellectual affinities attempted to nationally and regionally unify within larger organizational frameworks. The most notable national attempts were:

  • The Islamic Front for the Liberation of Syria: Founded on September 12, 2012, it included more than 20 military factions, the most important of which were: Suqur al-Sham, al-Tawheed Brigade, al-Islam Brigade, al-Fath Brigade, and al-Farouq Battalions. The Front was headed by the leader of Suqur al-Sham Ahmad al-Sheikh, and its command joined the Joint Staff Command of the Free Syrian Army.
  • The Syrian Islamic Front: Announced on December 22, 2012, it was composed of more than 10 military factions, the largest of which were: Ahrar al-Sham, al-Hiqq Brigade in Homs, the Islamic Vanguard group, the Islamic Fajr Movement, and Ansar al-Sham Battalions. Their goal was the establishment of an Islamic state according to Salafist doctrine; they have refused to join the Joint Staff Command.[4]

It quickly transpired that the alliances did not go beyond media statements, as fragmentation and division remained the dominant character of these factions. In light of these failed attempts, the largest Islamist political forces (al-Tawheed, Suqur al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, and the Army of Islam) sought to integrate the smaller battalions and brigades that were active in their geographic areas, taking advantage of their lucrative sources of funding and armament. During 2013, the most notable cases of regional unifications were:

  • The unification of the al-Fath and al-Tawheed brigades in Aleppo on September 16, 2013, under the name al-Tawheed Brigade, which became the largest military faction operating in Aleppo and its countryside.[5]
  • The integration of more than 50 battalions and factions into al-Islam Brigade, led by Zahran Alloush, and the creation of a new organization on September 29, 2013 under the name “the Army of Islam,”[6] which became the largest military organization in and around Damascus, with a presence in Aleppo as well.
  • The integration of 29 military factions in Damascus and its countryside on October 27, 2013 into a unified military formation called “the Army of the Great Epic”.[7]

 

The Islamic Front: Circumstances and Reasons behind its Formation

The creation of the Islamic Front was not a hastily made decision, but one that was established amidst a number of new political and military developments in Syria, leading to an announcement of successful talks between the leaders of the major Islamist factions. These had been ongoing for three months with the hope of unifying into a single military and political body as a result of the following circumstances:

1. The conflict between the National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army Staff Command: Following the general assembly elections, which took place in July 2013, the National Coalition for the Forces of the Syrian Revolution and Opposition underwent radical change in its structure and leadership. The candidates of the secular Democratic Bloc, in alliance with members of the Joint Staff Command,[8] won the majority of the leading posts in the Coalition. Immediately, the new leadership began to re-organize the Staff Command according to the new status quo by appointing individuals who are close to the new leadership. The new leadership also proposed the idea of a national army that would include the Free Syrian Army’s battalions and the moderate forces, which the Islamist factions perceived as a move directed against them by the Coalition’s “secular” leadership. These measures further widened the split between the Coalition and the Staff Command and between them and the Islamist-leaning factions. With the escalation of the fighting and the Coalition and the Staff Command’s weak performance in providing the necessary support for military action, 13 Islamist factions[9] published a statement on September 24, 2013, withdrawing their recognition of the Coalition and the interim government and calling for unification within an Islamic framework that is based on Sharia as the sole source of legislation.[10]

2. The Geneva-2 Conference: UN Security Council resolution 2118, which addressed the dismantling of the Syrian chemical arsenal, included two articles. The first article supported the Geneva statement of June 30, 2012, which set the plans to create a transitional governing body with executive powers. The second article called for an urgent international conference on Syria (Geneva-2) so as to implement the Geneva-1 statement. According to the Americans and Russians, the Geneva-2 conference aims to find a resolution between the regime and the opposition that preserves the institutions of the state, on top of the army and the security agencies, and to direct the efforts toward combating “terrorism”. Islamist factions believe that this resolution, in which the National Coalition has agreed to participate, undermines the revolution’s principles and objectives, and targets the very existence of some of these factions. As a result, 21 Islamist factions, including those that joined the newly-formed Islamic Front, were quick to issue a joint statement on October 27, 2013, in which they described the Geneva-2 conference as “a link in the chain of conspiracies to turn against and abort the people’s revolution in Syria”. Faced with this conference and its ramifications, integration within the Islamic Front gives its factions a greater ability to influence the political decision of the revolution.

3. The increase in the power of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS): ISIS’s increasing influence constitutes a great threat to these factions. As a result of its expansion and its gradual takeover of the regions liberated from the regime’s control, such as al-Raqqa, Azaz, al-Dana, and the Lattaqiya countryside, it has had large-scale confrontations with other opposition factions. All factions within the Islamic Front agree on the necessity of confronting the ISIS, but differ on how to do so. It is worth noting that the ISIS response to the new alliance came in the form of an attack on Suqur al-Sham’s headquarters in Atama, a town on the Turkish border, placing the town, a crossing point for weapons and aid to the Syrian interior, under its full control.[11]

 4. The advance of the regime’s forces: Over the last months, the various fronts in Syria have seen an advance by the regime forces, especially in Aleppo, where the regular army succeeded in re-capturing the strategic town of Khanasir and the city of al-Safira, as well as its the surrounding villages, thus opening a supply line for its forces in the city of Aleppo. In Damascus too, the regime made progress in the suburbs south of the city (Sayyida Zainab, al-Hujaira, al-Husainiya, al-Dhiabiya, and others), constituting a real threat to all opposition factions. The decision to integrate within the Islamic Front came as an important step on the path toward the unification of efforts and the coordination of military action among the factions.


Repercussions

Given the failure of previous unification attempts between Syrian opposition factions, it is too early to foresee whether this merge would succeed or fail. Moreover, the new body already faces several challenges, such as the variations in the strength and effectiveness of its constituent factions, the differing sources of support and funding,[12] and the different interpretations of the establishment of an Islamic state and how it should be established.[13]

Regardless, the rapprochement between these factions can indeed increase the effectiveness and competence of military action. This has been recently proven in the field, as these factions succeeded in preventing the advance of the regime’s forces—who were supported by units from Hezbollah and Iraqi militias—in the area around the 80th Brigade and the Aleppo International Airport. On November 24, 2013, in cooperation with other groups, the Islamic Front’s factions were also able to regain control over 13 villages in the Aleppo countryside, once again blocking the Aleppo-Khanasir road, the sole supply artery for the regime’s forces in Aleppo. The Islamic Front factions, together with Free Syrian Army battalions, were also able to regain the villages of al-Bahariya, al-Qasimiya, al-Abbada, and Deir Suleiman in the Eastern Ghouta on November 23, imposing a siege on the regime forces in the town of al-Utaiba, which is the Eastern Ghouta’s main supply route.[14]

The establishment of the Islamic Front caused confusion as to who really represents the revolution and the Syrian people. Arab and regional pressures have succeeded, so far, in convincing the Islamic Front to postpone the formation of an alternative political leadership to the National Coalition. This, however, may not last for long, especially if the unification experience proves a success in maintaining control over the different factions fighting under its banner, and in challenging the regime militarily. The challenge will be even more serious if the Islamic Front succeeds in developing a political vision that can present it as an alternative to that of the Coalition, which could then turn the National Coalition into an organization for the opposition forces abroad, but without influence inside Syria. If this takes place, it would have important repercussions, especially since the Islamic Front currently represents the largest military body in Syria, boasting more than 100,000 fighters nationwide.

As the Geneva-2 conference approaches, this union carries significant risks, and could substantially weaken the opposition’s position and its ability to face the regime in this important political forum. This would reinforce the regime’s position, which has thrived on the opposition’s fragmentation, and gives everyone a choice: the preservation of the regime or the rule of extremist groups that are intellectually linked to al-Qaeda. In order to avoid these risks, the Islamic Front must clearly announce its support for the National Coalition, vowing not to create a political alternative to the Coalition, and affirm its rejection of ISIS.

**This Assessment was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version published on November 26th, 2013 can be found here.


 


[1] To hear the announcement of the Islamic Front’s founding video, see the following YouTube video dated November 22, 2013: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R0qKSW1iM9M&feature=youtu.be.

[2] Ibid.

[3] For a more detailed discussion, see: Azmi Bishara, Syria: A Way of Suffering to Freedom, Doha\Beirut: the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 2013; pp. 202-203.

[4] To hear the Syrian Islamic Front and its battalions’ founding statement, see the following YouTube video dated December 22, 2012: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YySOTYEwKLw.

[5] To hear the announcement of this unification, see the following YouTube video dated September 16, 2013: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lcn6pZixGCs.

[6] To hear the Army of Islam’s statement, see the following YouTube video dated September 29, 2013: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=llo4cdlI9gE.

[7] For the founding statement of the Army of the Great Epic, see the YouTube video dated October 27, 2013: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iI9aYGE-W50.

[8] An assembly grouping the representatives of the Free Syrian Army inside Syria.

[9] al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, al-Tawheed Brigade, al-Islam Brigade, Suqur al-Sham, the Islamic Fajr al-Sham Movement, The Islamic al-Nur Movement, the Nureddine Zenki Battalions, al-Haq Brigade, al-Furqan Brigades, the Istaqim Kama ‘Umirt Coalition, the 19th Division, and al-Ansar Brigade.

[10] “Statement number 1 by al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham and al-Tawheed and al-Islam Brigade … we do not recognize the Coalition nor the interim government,” Kulluna Shuraka website, September 24, 2013, http://all4syria.info/Archive/100381.

[11] “Activists: A group affiliated with al-Qaida takes over a Syrian town on the borders with Turkey,” Reuters, November 22, 2013, http://ara.reuters.com/article/topNews/idARACAE9B2JX820131122.

[12] This may be the main hurdle since the Army of Islam receives support from Saudi Arabia, while the other factions receive support from countries, such as Qatar, Turkey, and some individual funders in Kuwait.

[13] The political project of the Islamic Front was inspired from that of the Syrian Islamic Front, which was led by Ahrar al-Sham. One of the leaders from Ahrar al-Sham was appointed as the new front’s legal advisor.

[14] “An advance for the battalions fighting in the Eastern Ghouta and al-Utaiba is on the verge of being liberated,” the website of the National Coalition for the Forces of the Syrian Revolution and Opposition, November 23, 2013; see: http://www.etilaf.org/important_news/...