This is the second piece in a series on the Islamic Front, the largest alliance of rebel groups fighting Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria. The first post can be found here.
Any attempt to describe the Islamic Front’s ideology is complicated by the fact that even some of its members seem puzzled by it. The alliance is less than two months old, and it is an umbrella organization rather than a full union. The member factions still serve under different leaderships, and there is no guarantee that they will be able to coordinate their policies or keep disagreements under control. While some members hope that a deeper and more lasting unity will soon be reached, this remains to be seen.
The seven main factions in the Islamic Front have always had slightly different ideological profiles, and they were all haphazardly assembled over the course of the ongoing Syrian civil war. This means the official ideology of the front can hardly be expected to have fully penetrated the ranks and that there must be considerable diversity on the lower levels, albeit within a generally Islamist framework.
As a leading Salafi member of the Homs-based Haq Brigade, one of the seven main Islamic Front factions, puts it, most ground-level fighters in his organization are “just conservative Muslims who, due to the situation, have drawn closer to their religion.” But of course, Islamic Front leaders try their best to present a common ideological face.
The Role of Ahrar al-Sham
Both the Sharia Office and the Political Office of the Islamic Front are led by members of Ahrar al-Sham, a hardline Salafi opposition group that has played a large part in shaping the Islamic Front’s public image. That is not surprising, given the emphasis placed by Ahrar al-Sham on ideology throughout the uprising.
But while Ahrar al-Sham was always an explicitly Salafi group that distanced itself from Western-backed alliances and the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) brand used by more mainstream opposition factions, this is not true of some of the other Islamic Front members.
Factions Formerly Linked to the FSA
Various Islamic Front factions—including the Suqour al-Sham Brigades of Idlib, the Tawhid Brigade of Aleppo, the Haq Brigade of Homs, and the Islam Army of Damascus—all started out under Islamist leadership and have consistently used religious rhetoric. Some of their leaders have at one point or other flirted with the Muslim Brotherhood, others have been committed Salafis, but few have made any effort to publicize a distinct ideology. They have certainly been much less dogmatic than Ahrar al-Sham or, for example, the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda faction. Ground-level fighters from these Islamic Front groups have often been described by reporters and activists as “FSA members,” in contrast to the ideological Salafis.
Indeed, these groups didn’t hesitate to affiliate themselves with the Supreme Military Council (SMC), the command structure of the FSA that is led by Lieutenant General Salim Idris. The SMC, also known as the General Staff of the FSA, was created with Gulf support in December 2012 to serve as a leadership for the mainstream rebel forces. It was subsequently linked to the Western-endorsed exile politicians in the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces to serve as the political body’s armed wing.
But as the Islamic Front emerged a year later, all the above-mentioned groups sharpened their criticism of the West and publicly severed these ties. Now, they say they want nothing to do with either the U.S.-backed exile leaders of the National Coalition or Idris’s SMC.
Shifting Ideological Nuances
The public rhetoric of these Islamic Front groups has also shifted over time, whether because of sincere ideological development on the part of their leaders, growing religiosity among their constituencies, disappointment with Western promises of support, or pressure from Salafi allies and foreign funders—or perhaps from all of these things combined.
For example, two years ago Suqour al-Sham’s leader, Ahmed Issa al-Sheikh, used to argue—from an Islamist perspective—for an election-based “civil state” that would provide full rights for religious minorities and secularists. The Islamists, he said, should compete in the “marketplace of ideas” like everyone else. But as the uprising went on, Abu Issa began to move toward the hard Salafi edge of the opposition. Recently, when confronted with his own statements from 2011, he recanted these views and asked for God’s forgiveness for “every error we have uttered in the past or may utter in the future.”
Today, the leaders of the Islamic Front try to present a unified facade and to speak with one voice. Soon after the front’s creation in November 2013, its members issued a joint manifesto endorsing the orthodox Salafi views of Ahrar al-Sham and refuting both the concept of a “civil state” and democracy. This is now the ideology adopted by the Islamic Front as a whole and supposedly the political program for which all member factions will fight.
The Syrian Islamic Front’s Trial Run
Will this strategy of coordinated public messaging, coupled with a gradual merger of member groups into joint institutions, be effective in unifying the Islamic Front’s political line?
It’s possible, but political homogenization at too forced a pace could easily undo the results achieved so far. However, there is some precedent for the success of this method. In December 2012, a forerunner of today’s Ahrar al-Sham movement gathered ten other factions into an alliance known as the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF). It was later dissolved to make room for the current Islamic Front, but its year-long existence is instructive.
Of the ten smaller factions in the SIF, seven gradually folded into Ahrar al-Sham, showing that unification could in fact be achieved. Of those SIF member factions that remained as separate organizations, two—the Haq Brigade and the Ansar al-Sham Battalions—have followed Ahrar al-Sham into the new Islamic Front. The SIF experience will certainly be helpful in merging the Islamic Front factions.
Then again, today’s Islamic Front is far bigger than the SIF ever was. In December 2012, SIF officials claimed to control around 25,000 fighters, but Islamic Front officials today give a figure of 70,000 men (whether either one of these numbers is credible is another question). The Islamic Front contains many individually strong groups with well-known leaders who have their own sources of funding, like Zahran Alloush of the Islam Army. There is no dominant central faction within the Islamic Front that the others could coalesce around and be absorbed into, as was the case with Ahrar al-Sham in the SIF. And getting some of Syria’s most powerful and ambitious commanders to surrender control over their forces in the name of unity will not be easy.
Therefore, it is hard to imagine that the Islamic Front could simply repeat the SIF’s experience. Assuming that it survives the current rebel infighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a jihadi opposition group, without collapse or major defections—which is far from certain—it may have to remain a weakly structured umbrella movement for now and try to let time do the trick.
Previous posts in this series:
The Politics of the Islamic Front 1: Structure and Support (Jan. 14, 2014)