This is the sixth 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.
When it formed in November 2013, the Islamic Front was undoubtedly Syria’s largest and most powerful rebel coalition. It was made up of seven Islamist factions:
- The Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement, a hardline Salafi group that is particularly strong in the Idlib and Hama Provinces but has subfactions all over Syria
- The Army of Islam, led by the Salafi commander Zahran Alloush in the Ghouta region east of Damascus
- The Tawhid Brigade, formed in July 2012 in the northern Aleppo countryside and still a dominant group in the Aleppo Province
- The Suqour al-Sham Brigade, centered in the Idlib Province
- The Ansar al-Sham Battalion, a somewhat smaller group working in western Idlib and northern Latakia, described in greater detail here on Syria in Crisis by Tam Hussein
- The Haq Brigade, which is not as big as the others but remains one of the key groups in the Homs area
- The Kurdish Islamic Front, which is by far the smallest of the lot and seems to be propped up by factions like Ahrar al-Sham to draw Kurdish support
Before the front was formed, all these factions—possibly with the exception of the Kurdish Islamic Front—were well-entrenched in their own areas and had developed independent albeit overlapping sources of support. Merging them into a joint organization would be no easy task. While the ideology, politics, and public messaging of these groups have been streamlined effectively, initial hopes for closer organizational and battlefield unity have not yet borne fruit. Five months after its creation, the Islamic Front seemingly remains a rather wobbly umbrella movement.
Destabilizing Losses and Infighting
Additionally, the Islamic Front has suffered significant battlefield losses and some notable defections. The first and worst of these blows actually landed just before the front formed, when the Tawhid Brigade’s military chief Abdul Qader Saleh was killed alongside several other high-ranking commanders in a regime airstrike on his hideout in Aleppo.
This was followed by a growing conflict with the Islamic Front of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a jihadi faction that was alienating much of the rest of the revolution with its extremist and domineering behavior. In January 2014, these tensions exploded into conflict when two other newly formed, foreign-backed alliances—the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front and the Mujahideen Army—initiated a major purge of ISIL fighters from northwestern Syria.
Despite the attempts of some in the Islamic Front to distance themselves from the infighting, many Islamic Front factions joined in wholeheartedly. Soon the front as such was deeply embroiled in controversial and brutal score settling with its jihadi rivals. This put immense strain on the group, particularly as some hardline Salafi figures were influenced by the resulting split within the global jihadi movement.
A Costly Conflict
The Islamic Front group that seems to have suffered most from the internecine conflict in the rebel movement is Suqour al-Sham, which has been badly mauled by the infighting and was forced to take up arms against former members and factions based in its own local community.
On January 12, Suqour al-Sham’s top religious official, Abu Abderrahman al-Sarmini, announced his defection to protest the war with the ISIL. A month later, Suqour al-Sham’s top military commander, Mohammed al-Dik (alias Abu Hussein), was killed by the ISIL. Just before, Suqour al-Sham’s chief of staff and one of its most powerful founding factions, the Suyouf al-Haq Brigade, had announced an unapproved separate peace with the ISIL. It then defected entirely to join a new group called Jaysh al-Sham, or the Army of the Levant, which included former members of both the ISIL and Suqour al-Sham and declared itself neutral in the infighting.
The Tawhid Brigade also continued to suffer losses, both at the hands of the ISIL—which assassinated one of Tawhid’s most important commanders, Adnan Bakkour, in early February—and the regime, which has exploited the rebel infighting to push forward around Aleppo. Only after the ISIL was finally expelled from northwestern Syria in mid-March could the Tawhid Brigade and its local allies regain their footing, and they’re now back putting pressure on regime positions in western Aleppo.
Ahrar al-Sham has also suffered some local defections. More significantly, it was expelled from its stronghold in Raqqa City by the ISIL, which then massacred dozens of Ahrar al-Sham members. And in late February, the jihadi veteran known as Abu Khaled al-Souri, who served as Ahrar al-Sham’s military leader in Aleppo, was assassinated.
Meanwhile, the regime has advanced in and around Homs. Rebels in that area are now much weakened by Assad’s successful use of siege-and-starve tactics—and the fortunes of the Haq Brigade seem to have dwindled with the rest of the local insurgency.
New Funding Patterns
The battlefield losses and the resulting pressure from the regime might not be the worst problem the Islamic Front faces. The infighting has occurred in parallel with a rearrangement of rebel funding patterns and the outbreak of a major dispute between the insurgency’s two top sponsors, Saudi Arabia (backed by the United Arab Emirates) and Qatar. One of the effects has been a split in the rebel Free Syrian Army’s apparatus set up to fund the rebellion, with a new Saudi-backed leadership unveiled a couple of weeks ago.
Whether related to this or not, other groups have been rising alongside the Islamic Front since winter 2013, including the Mujahideen Army in Aleppo, the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front in Idlib, Hama, and southern Syria, and the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union in Damascus. Some such groups work well with the Islamic Front and have even spoken of becoming members, but many clearly view the front’s local adherents as rivals and competitors. For example, there is growing tension between Zahran Alloush’s Army of Islam and Ajnad al-Sham in Damascus, while the Saudi-backed Syria Revolutionaries’ Front has previously skirmished with both Ahrar al-Sham and Suqour al-Sham over dominance in Idlib.
According to some, one result of the growing Saudi-Qatari conflict has been a promise from the Qatari ruler to cut support to factions inside the Islamic Front. If this is true, it could have a major effect on the front’s military strength and its ability to support and retain the allegiance of local factions. But the international funding of the rebellion in Syria is very murky, and the continuation of the Saudi-Qatari spat gives little reason to think Qatar has already caved fully on Syria.
Others say Qatari support for the Islamic Front is unlikely to cease. The truth of the matter remains to be seen—and it will take some time before we know if the Islamic Front can overcome its current problems and reclaim its preeminent position among Syria’s rebels or if it is set to decline.
Previous posts in this series:
The Politics of the Islamic Front, Part 1: Structure and Support
The Politics of the Islamic Front, Part 2: An Umbrella Movement
The Politics of the Islamic Front, Part 3: Negotiations
The Politics of the Islamic Front, Part 4: The State
The Politics of the Islamic Front, Part 5: The Kurds