Say Hello to the Islamic Front

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In a statement broadcast on Al Jazeera, Islamist rebels have just announced the creation of the Islamic Front, which gathers some of the largest factions in the Syrian civil war.

This crowns a process begun in September, when several of these groups jointly distanced themselves from the National Coalition exile opposition and its exile government. They went on to make the point even more clearly, saying that anyone who participated in the planned Geneva peace talks would be considered a traitor.

Recently, many of the Islamist leaders also held meetings in Reyhanli in Turkey, where they confronted the general staff of the Western-backed Brigadier General Salim Idris, chief of staff of the Supreme Military Council (SMC), with a demand for greater representation in any joint rebel leadership, arguing that it should be dominated by the forces on the ground. The meetings were preceded by talks with Khaled al-Attiyah, the foreign minister of Qatar. The Reyhanli meetings ended inconclusively amid threats from the Islamist factions to declare their own rival body if they didn’t get their way.

And now they’ve done it.

MEMBER FACTIONS

The initial statement mentioned seven member factions, all of which participated in the meetings mentioned above.

The Suqour al-Sham Brigade: This group began in the Jabal al-Zawiya region of Idlib and quickly grew into one of the most important opposition factions in northern Syria. While it originally portrayed itself as a part of the Free Syrian Army, it has always had an Islamist profile and has gradually come to stress its religious message more. Its leader, Ahmed Abu Issa, has lost several relatives to the regime under both former president Hafez and current president Bashar al-Assad.

The Army of Islam: The Army of Islam was started as the Islam Company in summer 2011 by the Salafi activist Zahran Alloush. As one of the most active factions in eastern Damascus, it took the name Islam Brigade in 2012 and gained fame after claiming to have been behind the death of Syria’s then defense minister Dawoud Rajha and Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat in July 2012. In September 2013, Alloush added a few smaller factions to the roster and took the new name, but he quickly faced opposition from other factions in Damascus.

The Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement: This hardline Salafi group has around 100 armed factions under its umbrella. It was created in January 2013 as a result of mergers within the Syrian Islamic Front alliance. But its forerunner, the Ahrar al-Sham Brigade, was among the first armed groups in Syria. Created by former inmates of Sednaya Prison in Damascus who were released and given amnesty in 2011, the Ahrar al-Sham Brigade began attacks in the Hama and Idlib areas in June 2011 and has been among the most important rebel factions ever since.

The Tawhid Brigade: One of the biggest groups in Syria, the Tawhid Brigade was created in July 2012 out of militias from the northern Aleppo countryside. It has dominated Aleppine rebel politics by virtue of its military strength and centrist-Islamist position, and it is always careful to maintain good relations both with the Western-backed leaderships and the radical jihadis. Its military leader Abdul Qader Saleh was just killed by the Assad regime, and the group was represented at the Islamic Front declaration ceremony by its political leader Abdul-Aziz Salameh.

The Haq Brigade: Formed in 2012 by the Ansar Battalion and other Islamist factions in the Homs region, this group is dominated by Salafis but also includes Islamists of other stripes. It is among the strongest factions in the Homs insurgency and also has a number of affiliates in the surrounding province.

The Ansar al-Sham Battalion: This faction is mainly active in the Sunni areas of northern Latakia and the adjoining areas of Idlib. It was a founding member of the Syrian Islamic Front alongside Ahrar al-Sham and the Haq Brigade.

The Kurdish Islamic Front: As the name implies, these are Kurdish Islamists, who have been active in the fighting against Kurdish militias in northern Syria that are fighting to keep the Syrian civil war out of Kurdish areas. It gained prominence only recently and does not seem to be a big group, but it adds a touch of ethnic diversity to the new alliance.

Looking at this list, we can see that the Islamic Front effectively joins the biggest Islamist Free Syrian Army groups to more hardline Salafis but stops short of including al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Several member factions are part of Salim Idris’s SMC and were also part of the more or less defunct Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, including Tawhid, Suqour, and the Army of Islam. Others were in the more stringently Salafi Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) that just dissolved itself, including Ahrar al-Sham and Ansar al-Sham. The Haq Brigade straddled these camps, being both a SIF member and part of the SMC hierarchy.

LEADERSHIP

According to Mohammed Alloush (a cousin of Zahran), the leadership of the group is as follows:
Shura Council Leader
: Ahmed Abu Issa (Suqour al-Sham)
Deputy Shura Council Leader: Abu Omar Hreitan (Tawhid)
General Secretary: Sheikh Abu Rateb (Haq)
Sharia Office: Abul-Abbas al-Shami (Ahrar al-Sham)
Political Office: Hassan Abboud alias Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi (Ahrar al-Sham)
Military Office: Zahran Alloush (Army of Islam)

All of these are the top public leaders of their groups, except Abu Omar Hreitan, who is presumably filling in for the late Abdul Qader Saleh, and Abul-Abbas al-Shami. Abul-Abbas’s real name is allegedly Mohamed Ayman Aboul-Tout, and he is said to be a former Sednaya prisoner and a very influential figure within Ahrar al-Sham. As a young man, he allegedly fought in the Fighting Vanguard, a Muslim Brotherhood splinter that challenged Hafez al-Assad in the 1980s.

FURTHER UNIFICATION?

The statement promises that more member factions will be revealed in a detailed list to come and that the Islamic Front will soon issue a charter detailing its political and ideological beliefs. But in the words of Hassan Abboud, the head of Ahrar al-Sham, the front is “an independent military, political, and social formation striving to completely overthrow the Assad regime, and to build an Islamic state in which God’s law alone rules sovereign.” Ahmed Abu Issa calls it “a qualitative leap” for the rebel movement, pointing out that “it begins by unifying the slogans and logotypes and so on. It will begin gradually, but it is a front for joining and fusing” these groups.

That’s an ambitious goal, considering how much trouble these groups have had to gather even their own fighters and the fact that they fight in different areas of the country and under different leaderships. But in the somewhat unlikely event that they manage to stick together and work as a single entity, that means we’ve just seen the creation of the Syrian opposition’s most powerful alliance yet.

 

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  • Joshua Landis
    Carnegie has scored a coup in getting Aron Lund to be its Syria man. A fine report.
     
     
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