A group of Syrian rebel commanders released a video statement on November 18 that sent shock waves through the Syrian opposition. Seated at a conference table under a black Islamic flag, men who claimed to represent the main insurgent groups of the Aleppo region denounced Syria’s new opposition leadership-in-exile, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, as a “conspiratorial project.” They declared that they had instead reached a “consensus on the establishment of a just Islamic state.”
Controlling Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, is important to the Syrian opposition, so this apparent challenge to the National Coalition could have proved fatal to the body’s legitimacy. It also threatened to ruin the hopes of the National Coalition’s Western and Gulf backers for the creation of an effective government-in-exile.
Rebel gains in and around Aleppo have all but cut off supply lines to the sizeable regime garrison there, and the city is likely to fall to the opposition in 2013. If a rival revolutionary government were set up in Aleppo, no opposition group based abroad could hope to compete with it for legitimacy and influence. But the November 18 declaration turned into a dead letter within days. Still, the experience underlined the fluid nature of the opposition.
A Nonexistent Islamist Front
The fourteen alleged backers of the November 18 plan spanned an ideological spectrum ranging from the nonideological Sunni mainstream—such as Liwa Ahrar Souriya, a Free Syrian Army (FSA) faction in northwest Aleppo—through Islamist-leaning groups like the Liwa al-Tawhid (the largest group in the province) to a handful of small jihadi organizations, including the al-Nusra Front, Kataeb Ahrar al-Sham, and Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiya.
Some units considered close to the Aleppo Military Council did not participate in the meeting, among them the FSA’s Liwa al-Fateh. The Aleppo Military Council, hostile to jihadi groups, is affiliated with the Joint Command of the Revolutionary Military Councils, one of several claimants to the leadership of the Syrian insurgency. Both of these alliances act as conduits for Gulf money to the rebel movement, with U.S. and other Western support.
Despite these missing faces, the group making the announcement represented the bulk of rebel fighters in the region. As potential future rulers of Aleppo, their statement could not be taken lightly.
Some outside observers imagined that the rebels had “unilaterally declared an Islamic state in the key battleground of Aleppo,” but they had done no such thing. The November 18 statement voiced strong support for Islamic rule as a common goal—not very surprising, given the significant Islamist influence over the rebel movement—but did not indicate that its backers expected to establish this theocracy anytime soon.
This focus on the “Islamic state” part of the text in fact obscures its more important content: an absolute rejection of the National Coalition. Fighters inside Syria are troubled by what they regarded as an attempt by a group of Western-backed exiles to claim the battlefield gains for which they have sacrificed many lives.
But pragmatic calculations are more significant than religious and political grandstanding. Most of the major armed groups in Aleppo seem more eager to curry financial favor with the West and the Gulf states than they are to ally with al-Qaeda.
That explains the swift unraveling of the November 18 statement. Its main flaw appears to have been that it was poorly anchored among the groups supporting the effort. It seems that the al-Nusra Front sprung the statement on these groups in the hope that they would accept it as a fait accompli. According to one source with good connections among Syria’s armed factions, the jihadi group “called some second and third row members of some groups and convinced them to join the statement, without the knowledge of the head of each group or the Military Council.”
Most other groups quickly distanced themselves from the statement. Some appeared shocked by the media furor about an Islamic state. Others backed off to avoid association with the hardline Islamist camp or because they were anxious to retain the support of civilian activists. On November 19, the Revolutionary Command Council of Aleppo issued a sharp response, saying that Syria’s future should be “decided by free voting at the ballots, not by force of arms” and lauding the National Coalition as “a fundamental step towards the unification of revolutionary ranks.”
Rebel commanders were probably also worried that openly opposing the National Coalition, which is closely associated with Qatar and other leading members of the Friends of Syria that supports the Syrian opposition, would reflect badly on their economic fortunes. Many armed groups in the region receive support from the Western-backed Aleppo Military Council. Insurgent commanders who depend on this set of external sponsors would be wary of attacking the National Coalition because it is backed by the same bloc of states.
The November 18 Statement Unravels
It took only a couple of days for the November 18 Aleppo declaration to collapse. Among the first to back off, the FSA’s Liwa Ahrar Souriya claimed that its name had been included “by mistake” and said that it is up to the people to “determine the form of the Syrian state”; one leader of the group made a point of welcoming the creation of the National Coalition. Another faction, Liwa al-Umma, acknowledged backing the November statement but claimed it did so only to express support for “a just state which includes all parts of the Syrian people, from all religious and ethnic groups.” The Turkmen fighters of Liwa al-Sultan Mohammed condemned the statement, saying that they want “a civil state which derives its laws from Islamic sharia,” and expressed firm support for the National Coalition.
Even some Salafis felt exploited. Kataeb Ahrar al-Sham, Syria’s largest network of homegrown jihadis, first denied ever having stood behind the declaration but later clarified that “some of the brothers produced this statement out of a sincere love for their religion and a fear that the gains of their jihad will be hijacked.” On the National Coalition, Kataeb Ahrar al-Sham noted coldly but correctly that “we weren’t consulted about its creation and we have no connection to its members, whether organizationally or through alliances.”
A few days later, Kataeb Ahrar al-Sham was joined by Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiya, which also claimed never to have backed the statement. While the group supports the creation of a theocracy, it maintains that there has not yet been “a meeting where the Islamic state was established.” The group reaffirmed its resistance to any foreign-backed “conspiratorial project,” although it did so without explicitly referencing the National Coalition.
Liwa al-Tawhid had posted the November 18 declaration to its official website, making it difficult to blame its support on a misunderstanding. But that didn’t matter much: within forty-eight hours, and presumably after pressure from external funders, the group had rejected the statement.
Al-Tawhid commander Abdel Qader Saleh appeared in a new video statement, seated next to Colonel Abdul-Jabbar Akidi, head of the Aleppo Military Council and a supporter of the National Coalition. Saleh reaffirmed his commitment to Islamic rule but softened the tone of the November 18 declaration: “We confirm that Free Syria is a civil state where the basis of legislation is the Islamic faith, with consideration for all the [minority] groups of Syria.” He also endorsed the National Coalition while demanding that it “increase the representation of revolutionary forces, and empower them within the Coalition’s apparatus and offices.”
On November 23, another videotaped statement was released as a sort of corrected and approved remake of the November 18 declaration. It was shot in the same room and at the same conference table, but the Islamic flag had been replaced by Liwa al-Tawhid banners. Abdel Qader Saleh—again flanked by Colonel Akidi—explained that the rebels seek “a just state that rules according to the law of God,” but he avoided using the term “Islamic state,” and there was no mention of the National Coalition.
The new list of backers featured most of the cast from the November 18 video, including Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Umma, Liwa al-Sultan Mohammed, Liwa Ahrar Souriya, and even Kataeb Ahrar al-Sham. This time, the Aleppo Military Council–aligned Liwa al-Fateh of the FSA also backed the statement, while the jihadis of the al-Nusra Front and Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiya were left off the list.
A Struggle for Influence
Only five days separated the two declarations, each designed to appeal to a different political constituency. The affair demonstrates the extreme fluidity of Syrian opposition politics, even as the battle for Aleppo grinds slowly toward a conclusion.
On the one hand, the rebel movement is radicalizing: Sunni Islamism is becoming the new mainstream, and hard-core jihadi groups are growing in strength and influence. On the other hand, the U.S.-Gulf alliance, with its combination of financial carrot and political stick, is also having a major impact on the ground. By outspending private Islamist donors, Washington and the Gulf States have been able to nudge most of Syria’s mainstream insurgents toward their espoused political positions, including grudging support for the National Coalition.
Libya’s revolution demonstrated that even hardline Salafi groups could often be counted on to tone down their ideological agenda—or at least to postpone its implementation—in order to gain access to foreign state support. But a minority of doctrinaire jihadi groups will continue to resist Western influence and try to move their fellow Muslim rebels toward radical political positions. These groups may be a minor presence in the Syrian insurgency as a whole, but they are well established in several strategic areas of the country, such as Idlib and Aleppo Provinces, and their dedicated fighters are highly effective on the field. As the Islamization of the larger insurgency progresses, ideological barriers to the Islamists’ influence are also slowly withering away.
Currently, all eyes are on the rebel commanders of northern Syria as they prepare to wrest the country’s economic capital out of government hands. While most of them have proven eager to please the Friends of Syria in return for financial support, they will also be forced to balance economic needs against the ideological appeal of Islamism and the practical support extended by jihadi organizations on the ground. The battle for Aleppo could therefore prove decisive, not only in the fight against Bashar al-Assad, but also in the struggle for the soul of Syria’s revolution.
Aron Lund is a writer on Middle Eastern affairs. He recently published a report on Syrian jihadism for the Swedish Institute of Foreign Affairs.