After years of byzantine internal disputes, Syria’s armed rebels are suddenly gathering into large, centrally directed organizations of the kind they always needed to threaten President Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian regime. But rather than a winning move, these last-minute unifications look more like the prelude to ultimate defeat. The balance of power in opposition-held northern Syria has now swung sharply in favor of hardline Islamists and an internationally targeted jihadi group, whose growing influence is more likely to drive Western states over to Assad’s side than to topple him.
The background is complicated even by Syrian standards. The fall of the rebel-held eastern half of Aleppo last December ushered in a profound crisis among opposition groups. They had already suffered from political and ideological differences, incompatible foreign relationships, and internal recriminations after several rounds of failed unity talks, and now saw themselves losing the war. A ceasefire imposed by Russia, Turkey, and Iran on December 30 further upset relations, turning opposition-held Syria into a pressure-cooker of internal tensions, and the ensuing peace talks in Astana on January 23–24 finally catalyzed a brutal reordering of the rebel landscape.
The conflict began on January 24 when Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, a powerful terrorist-listed jihadi faction previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra, attacked a Western-endorsed group that had attended the Astana talks. Jihadists portrayed it as a preemptive strike against counterrevolutionaries in cahoots with the “Russian occupiers,” correctly pointing out that the Astana meeting aimed to isolate and destroy Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. Other rebels wouldn’t buy that, claiming that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham had lashed out to prevent a consolidation of rival, non-jihadi forces. “It is clear that they felt it was the most appropriate time because of the clarity with which [we were] moving completely toward a merger with the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian revolutionary factions,” said Mohammed Talal Bazerbashi, a leader in the region’s other large Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, which had not been present at the talks but did not object to others going. “As for Astana, I do not think it was the reason, but they used it as an excuse.”
A WAVE OF RIVAL ISLAMIST-LED MERGERS
When Jabhat Fatah al-Sham’s shock troops began kicking down doors, panicked leaders of the Astana factions threw themselves into the arms of Ahrar al-Sham, the only group strong enough to defend them against the jihadists. Within days of the first skirmishes, six insurgent groups pledged allegiance to Ahrar al-Sham’s leader, Ali al-Omar, who promptly placed them under his protection. These groups were:
- The Mujahideen Army: The first group to be attacked by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, this largely depleted alliance of rural groups from the countryside west of Aleppo was originally formed in 2014 to combat the Islamic State.
- The West Aleppo wing of the Levant Front: Another remnant of a failed unity project, most of the Levant Front had already withdrawn to areas east of Aleppo, where they fought the Islamic State under Turkish leadership.
- The Suqour al-Sham Brigades: Once among the dominant groups in Idlib, the Islamists of Suqour al-Sham had already joined Ahrar al-Sham in 2015. A rump faction recently broke away to recreate the group, led by its original founder Abu Issa al-Sheikh, who now returned to the Ahrar al-Sham fold once again.
- The Idlib wing of the Islam Army: Long the dominant rebel group in the Damascus region, the Islam Army is a Salafi movement that has at times worked closely with Saudi Arabia. However, its Idlib units were of minor importance.
- The Thuwwar al-Sham Battalions: This is a group that was cobbled together from splinter factions of the Mujahideen Army and other smaller, local Free Syrian Army-branded militias in the western Aleppo countryside.
- The Fastaqim Kama Umirta Gathering: One of the larger groups in the besieged quarters of eastern Aleppo until December 2016, Fastaqim had been cannibalized by rivals just before the rebel enclave fell and was now a shadow of its former self.
The clashes did not stop, and Ahrar al-Sham warned of a major conflict. On January 28, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and four other factions united under the name Tahrir al-Sham. The groups in this new alliance were:
- The Noureddine al-Zenki Brigades: This opportunist-Islamist force led by Tawfiq Shehabeddine was once part of the CIA-vetted opposition and a major force in the countryside west of Aleppo. However, it fell on hard times after being kicked out of the Western-backed support program in 2015 due to its involvement in crime and kidnappings.
- The Ansar al-Din Front: A small but aggressive umbrella organization of Syrian and foreign Salafist-jihadists who had not openly declared their ties to Al-Qaeda, but has plenty of ideological proximity.
- The Sunna Army: A small group of fighters from Homs who had fled to Idlib, where they worked closely with Jabhat al-Nusra, and later Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.
- The Haqq Brigade: Another small group in Idlib, which started life in 2011–2012 with Muslim Brotherhood funding, but later drifted into the jihadi camp.
Other radical groups piled on, including a hardline Ahrar al-Sham splinter group known as the Ashida Mujahideen, whose leader Abu al-Abd Ashida had briefly been the rebels’ supreme commander in eastern Aleppo. Tahrir al-Sham also attracted Salafi scholars such as Abdullah al-Moheisini and Abderrazzaq al-Mehdi, who enjoyed considerable influence but had never formally joined a faction before.
Significantly, a part of Ahrar al-Sham’s own membership also defected to join the new group, including well-known hardliners such as Hashem al-Sheikh, Abu Saleh Tahhan, Abu Mohammed al-Sadeq, and Abu Youssef al-Muhajer. Indeed, Sheikh was appointed the emir and public face of Tahrir al-Sham, while Jabhat Fatah al-Sham’s leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani took on a less visible role. Remaining Ahrar al-Sham members downplayed the significance of the defection, with Bazerbashi saying it only involved a few individuals who were unable to “keep up with Ahrar al-Sham’s political and social broadening.” However, some sources with insight into rebel politics insist that this was a significant split and that the defecting leaders left with powerful armed units in tow.
Whatever the truth, the fighting petered out, more or less. Since then, Ahrar al-Sham and Tahrir al-Sham have glared uneasily at each other, but muttering curses under their breath, well aware that a final showdown between them would rip the insurgency in half and leave only one man standing: Bashar al-Assad.
A RUPTURING OF THE ISLAMIST FAULT LINE
Northwestern Syria has been dominated by a multifaceted but mostly Sunni Islamist insurgency since 2012, increasingly riven by infighting since 2013–2014. International attention has focused on the extreme ends of the ideological spectrum, such as secular activists and the Islamic State. There was, however, a latent but more important fault line within the Islamist mainstream, running between a subset of Salafi rejectionists that refused to water down their fundamentalism or engage with the international community, and other fighters who, while also for the most part unabashed Islamists, were willing to play politics and collaborate with foreign governments. The jihadi-dominated former camp was led by Jabhat al-Nusra and some smaller Salafi-jihadi outfits, plus a part of Ahrar al-Sham. The more pragmatic second camp included most factions that used the Free Syrian Army moniker as well as Muslim Brotherhood-style groups, some Saudi-backed Salafists, and, again, a part of Ahrar al-Sham. But by 2015, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham were by far the most powerful organizations, virtually sharing control over the Idlib Governorate.
In other words, the insurgency’s key political fault line ran straight through Ahrar al-Sham, which had spawned within the Salafi-jihadi movement in 2011 but drew close to Turkey and Qatar from 2014 onwards, adopting a complex but increasingly incoherent mixture of Islamist ideological tenets. Eagerly encouraged by Ankara, Ahrar al-Sham’s elected leadership had inched its way toward a more pragmatic posture over the course of 2016, but a muscular minority of jihadi hawks continued to block any attempt to get involved in politics and rally behind the Free Syrian Army banner.
While the two militant Islamist trends—call them purism and pragmatism—have been complementary and mutually reinforcing for most of the Syrian war, they are now parting ways, with potentially devastating effects for the rebellion in general and for Ahrar al-Sham in particular.
“It’s like Iraq circa 2006,” says a Syrian who works closely with the armed factions. At that time, Iraq’s Sunni rebels were bogged down in internal squabbles over power, money, and doctrine, exacerbated by near-unbearable pressure from the U.S. military and Iranian-backed Shia militias. Some of the smaller and Gulf-funded insurgent groups began to look for a way out, and they found it in a U.S.-backed project known as the Sahwa, or Awakening, which coopted Sunni rebel and tribal fighters to serve as local defense forces on behalf of the Iraqi government. Meanwhile, many of the hardline Islamists who refused reconciliation with Baghdad decided to follow Al-Qaeda into an alliance known as the Mujahideen Shura Council, which presented itself as a unifying force among the rebels and a guarantor of principled resistance—just as Tahrir al-Sham is doing today in Syria. In October 2006, it changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq. Those insurgent groups that tried to steer a middle course—such as the Islamic Army of Iraq, the Iraqi Mujahideen Army, or the 1920 Revolution Battalions—soon began to splinter and fade away, leaving the Islamic State as the dominant power within a collapsing Sunni insurgency. The rest, as they say, is history.
TAHRIR AL-SHAM ON TOP
There is still a bewildering number of smaller Sunni insurgent factions in northwestern Syria, but there is little they can achieve on their own. Only the two bulked-up Islamist giants, Tahrir al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, are capable of launching independent operations and exercising real leadership.
The question now is which group will finally absorb or disassemble the other. With Ahrar al-Sham seemingly unable to deal with its own internal rifts, the smart money is on Tahrir al-Sham. Its predecessor, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, had claimed to represent two thirds of the insurgency’s strength before the merger and though that was surely a self-serving estimate, the balance of power has now visibly tilted in favor of the jihadis. “They have a stronger propaganda line, they appear more cohesive, and they are more aggressive,” says the Syrian who works with rebel groups. “Ahrar [al-Sham] on the other hand has a hesitant leader, is riven by internal inertia, Turkey is beginning to squeeze it, and its newfound allies—the armed opposition groups that joined it—are a bunch of losers.”
“Right now, [Tahrir al-Sham] controls all the supply lines in northwestern Syria, in towns like Sarmada and Dana,” adds a well-informed non-Syrian diplomatic source. “The border crossing at Bab al-Hawa is still run by Ahrar al-Sham, but Nusra has done what the Islamic State did in Azaz [near the Bab al-Salameh crossing north of Aleppo], they just took the town next to it instead.”
In other words, Tahrir al-Sham is well placed to continue to poach fighters from Ahrar al-Sham and the smaller groups, gradually cementing its dominance over the dwindling Syrian insurgency. An aggressive intervention of Gulf money, Turkish military aid, and U.S. drone strikes might be able to shift things around, but that is by no means certain and even less likely to be tested. While struggling to sort out its own identity issues and assess the new situation, Ahrar al-Sham will therefore have to tread carefully to avoid further fragmentation or an eruption of mutually destructive conflict.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, this tense rivalry may lead straight back to unity negotiations. In fact, Ahrar al-Sham proposed a grand merger with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham on January 27, while bullets were still flying, in a bid to reduce tension and contain hostilities—not unlike how a battered boxer may lean in and hug his opponent to win a moment’s respite. These are not all mind games, either. Both groups remain true believers in the ideal of Islamic unity and they fear, for good reason, that the current two-way split could cripple the insurgency. Tahrir al-Sham, too, is now working for renewed unity talks, both out of ideological fervor and as a stratagem to anchor Ahrar al-Sham in its own rejectionist posture and fully “jihadize” the insurgency. It is far from inconceivable that Ahrar al-Sham, or some large chunk of it, will stumble into such an alliance simply to break the stalemate and escape its own internal contradictions.
Or, of course, something entirely different may happen. There remain important question marks around Tahrir al-Sham’s internal functioning, Ahrar al-Sham’s ability to make clear decisions without breaking up, and Turkey’s intentions. But for the time being, opposition-held Syria’s center of gravity, which until recently hung in the balance between Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, seems to have shifted decisively in favor of the Salafi-jihadist camp. Sooner or later, this will alter how foreign governments approach the Syrian conflict. There is now a strong likelihood that January 2017 will be remembered as the moment when Western and Arab states turned away from the Syrian opposition, sealing its fate.