Just short of four months ago, I published a post here on Syria in Crisis describing the creation of the so-called Levant Front, or al-Jabha al-Shamiya in Arabic. Announced on Christmas Day 2014 after days of negotiations, it was to be the largest rebel coalition in northern Syria, combining five major insurgent groups into one single organization:
- The Islamic Front’s Aleppo wing, consisting of what was previously known as the Tawhid Brigade, as well as parts drawn from the more hard-line salafis of Ahrar al-Sham and affiliate groups. The Tawhid Brigade founder and leader Abdelaziz Salameh was appointed head of the Levant Front.
- The Mujahideen Army, a not-very-ideological group created in early 2014 that holds sway in parts of the western Aleppo countryside, led by Lieutenant Colonel Mohammed Bakkour.
- The Noureddine al-Zengi Brigades, another big faction in the western Aleppo countryside, led by Tawfiq Shahabuddin.
- The Fastaqim Kama Umirta Gathering, a group mostly active inside the rebel-controlled eastern half of Aleppo City, led by Saqr Abu Quteiba.
- Smaller Aleppo-area factions of the Asala wa-Tanmiya Front, an Islamist coalition with links to Saudi religious figures.
What these groups shared was enemies in the form of President Bashar al-Assad and the Sunni extremist faction known as the Islamic State. And, even though they cooperated militarily with al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front against these enemies, they all seemed to be worried—albeit to differing degrees—by the rapid rise of the Nusra Front, which has acted in a more aggressive and domineering fashion since summer 2014. By uniting, they sought to close ranks to avoid being gobbled up by the jihadi group.
It was also, of course, a question of messaging. Even though the Levant Front contained Islamist figures that had traditionally shunned the use of opposition symbols such as the Free Syrian Army name and the independence flag with three red stars, the Levant Front wholeheartedly embraced these symbols. It also showed up for joint meetings with the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which is the main Western-backed body of Syrian exiles, and vowed to protect minorities and secure equal representation for all citizens in a democratic Syria. It was the Free Syrian Army rhetoric of 2011 all over again—and, all in all, a strong pitch for U.S.-approved material support from the Turkey-based multinational logistics and supply center known as MOM.
Unity itself had a morale-boosting effect for some opposition supporters in northern Syria. A prominent Syrian dissident I met in Istanbul earlier this month told me that even though he had been skeptical of the Levant Front at the time of its creation, he had come to appreciate it after a trip to Syria this spring. The checkpoints on the roads into Aleppo had previously flown a dazzling array of flags to symbolize the rival factions that ran them, but this time they were all under the Levant Front banner. Seeing all these identical flags, he said, had felt both strange and reassuring—how rare is that to hear from a Syrian these days?
Now, less than four months after its creation, the Shura Council of the Levant Front, where all its leaders held a seat, has decided to dissolve the group. After initially trying to conceal the decision from the media, it began to be widely reported by Syrian opposition media on Monday.
The Levant Front appears to have been beset by internal dissent from the first days of its existence. Once they had repelled the pro-Assad forces’ attempt to encircle Aleppo, the members had little to unify them except their hope for increased funding. With some factions closer than others to the MOM and major funding, interest in maintaining the coalition seems to have dwindled.
In the first few months of 2015, the group was faced with a major challenge and failed to rise to the occasion. The U.S.-backed rebel group known as the Hazm Movement was entangled in a struggle with the Nusra Front. Since coming under U.S. fire in September 2014, the Nusra Front has no more patience for American allies.
Fearing defeat and annihilation, Hazm threw itself at the mercy of Levant Front forces west of Aleppo. The Levant Front boldly stepped up to the plate by allowing Hazm to join as a member faction, effectively telling the Nusra Front to pick on someone its own size. But when the skirmishing continued—likely in some part due to Hazm’s own uncompromising attitude—the Levant Front shrunk back, diffidently assigned blame to both sides, and looked away as the jihadis ground Hazm into a pulp. Having proven itself unable and/or unwilling to protect one of its own member factions against the predations of the Nusra Front, there now seemed to be little point in continuing the charade of unity.
A first major split within the Levant Front came in early March, when the so-called 1st Regiment (al-Fawj al-Awwal) of the Tawhid Brigade decided to call it quits and reconstitute itself as a separate entity in Aleppo. A dispute over territory and checkpoints ensued, with Levant Front loyalists at one point attempting to invade a 1st Regiment stronghold near the Aleppo Citadel. After the fighting, the 1st Regiment pulled out from a joint committee set up to resolve the dispute according to sharia law, and there then seemed to be little hope of reunifying the groups.
In April, a second split occurred in the western countryside. Several local groups then broke off to form the Levant Revolutionaries Battalions led by Captain Naji Mustafa, a former Mujahideen Army subcommander.
Why Did the Levant Front Dissolve?
According to sources speaking to the pro-opposition news service Siraj Press, the dissolution of the Levant Front was a result of “the reluctance of international actors to support this formation ever since it started in late 2014, and the restrictions they placed upon it. It finally reached a point where it could no longer operate militarily due to a lack of ammunition and weapons.”
Since member factions were united more by their need for money and guns than by any common ideology or politics, that certainly seems like an excellent reason to end the project. However, a source in the Free Syrian Army’s exiled General Staff told the London-based Saudi newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat that the Levant Front’s dissolution was the result of “many problems, most importantly the lack of intellectual and ideological cohesion, particularly on the leadership level, as well as differences over questions of strategic planning on the battlefield”—perhaps a reference to internal tensions over how to handle the Nusra Front.
From other sources, however, the paper heard a different story: there had been a power struggle, with Tawfiq Shuhabuddin angling to replace Abdelaziz Salameh as the Levant Front’s supreme commander. Once member factions realized they would not come to an agreement, they decided to dissolve the front rather than having to go through the inevitable announcement of a split when one faction triumphed over the other in internal elections.
If true, that is a sad end to the attempt to unify Aleppo’s major non-jihadi factions. It is also illustrative of the Syrian opposition’s most debilitating flaw, namely the persistent refusal of leaders to submit to democratic decisions whenever they happen to go the way of the other guy. The result: complete fragmentation.