On August 3, 2014, a group of Islamic preachers and activists in the Idlib region of northwest Syria, including some Muslim Brotherhood figures, launched an initiative they termed Watasimo, or “hold fast”—as in the Quranic verse: “and hold fast, all of you together, to the rope of Allah and be not divided among yourselves.”
Over the following weeks, the Watasimo Initiative organizers—Abdelmoneim Zeineddine, Hassan al-Dugheim, and others—canvassed Syrian rebel commanders to gain backing for their plan and created a 26-member preparatory committee. The goal of the initiative would be to create a joint leadership called the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC, majlis qiyadat al-thawra), which would replace the collapsed institutions of the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA), an exile platform supported by foreign governments as a way of funding and coordinating the rebels.
Most of the so-called FSA factions—that is, just about any not-overly-Islamist armed group that is funded by Saudi Arabia, the United States, or their allies—quickly lent their support to the initiative. Some large Islamist factions that have eschewed the FSA label, such as the Islam Army, were also among the early supporters. By September, the Watasimo Initiative had gathered the support of much of the rebel mainstream in northern Syria, and in October the preparatory committee decided to move to the second stage: formally establishing the RCC and its institutions.
The RCC’s Founding Congress
On November 27–29, the RCC finally held its founding congress in the Turkish town of Gaziantep. It was attended by several dozen rebel groups, 72 all in all according to the organizers. Also present were a number of well-known exile politicians and Islamist figures, including the pro-Qatari businessman Mustafa Sabbagh, the Salafi televangelist Adnan al-Arour, and members of the National Coalition for the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the main body of Syria’s perpetually-splintering exile opposition.
A politico-military structure was set up and a leadership elected that represented a wide variety of rebel factions and regions. It is perhaps the most-broadly-based such rebel unification attempt yet although it excludes the ultra-radical Islamic State, the al-Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front, and the independent jihadis of Ansar al-Din, as well as the Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG)—all of which are among Syria’s most powerful armed factions.
The RCC also adopted a charter describing its political goals. Most of the charter is a spiceless mixture of standard rebel fare such as “overthrowing the criminal Syrian regime,” safeguarding Syria’s territorial unity against unspecified “partition projects,” “preserving the Islamic identity of Syria’s society,” and the requisite little bit about fighting terrorism. It provides little detail, skirts the big issues about what sort of political system should be created, and is clearly written to be acceptable to the widest possible spectrum of the opposition and its foreign backers.
However, the charter also signaled that the RCC has grand ambitions by announcing that it will create its own “independent judiciary” and “administer the liberated territories in a way that serves the interests of the citizenry.” It plans to rule Syria in “the interim period until the people’s representatives can accede to power in the state.”
It is hard not to read this as a challenge against the National Coalition, the FSA’s exiled general staff, and the National Coalition-backed exile government, but the charter seems to be deliberately ambiguous on this point. “The RCC does not eliminate other bodies, but neither is it part of them,” says the Watasimo Initiative spokesperson Zeineddine when contacted by Syria in Crisis. According to Zeineddine, “the nature of its relationship with the other bodies will be determined by the RCC in accordance with how credible our people inside Syria think that these bodies are.”
The Ahrar al-Sham Wild Card
Ahrar al-Sham, one of Syria’s largest Islamist groups, has long appeared as a missing link between mainstream Islamism and radical Salafi-jihadism. It is very strong in the Idlib region. Whether Ahrar al-Sham chose to ally with the RCC moderates or with the Nusra Front is therefore an issue of real importance for the balance of power in the insurgency.
Up to the last minute, it remained uncertain whether Ahrar al-Sham would join the RCC or not. It was not among the original signatories on August 3. After some foot-dragging, the group issued a statement in favor of the Watasimo Initiative, but then signaled that this was not a final decision. Reportedly, Ahrar al-Sham was still in the process of ratifying its accession to the RCC during a top-level internal meeting on September 9, when a mysterious explosion killed most of its leaders.
In the past few days, reports claimed that Ahrar al-Sham had withdrawn from the RCC negotiations due to tension with the Islam Army, its main rival within the Islamic Front, but the group denied this. Two leaders of Ahrar al-Sham have now separately confirmed to Syria in Crisis that they did indeed join the RCC and according to Mohammed Talal Bazerbashi, the group has been awarded with two representatives in the RCC’s executive office. Bazerbashi also denies any conflict between his group and the Islam Army, acknowledging only that there was “a dispute between some individuals and it has now been contained.”
Multiple Pressures Bringing RCC Factions Together
With the inclusion of Ahrar al-Sham and its Islamic Front allies, the RCC appears to have gathered all the dominant armed groups in northern Syria except the truly hardline jihadis and the Kurdish factions. In ideological terms, this means that three loosely defined currents have come together in the RCC:
- Groups seen as part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). These are typically backed by the Military Operations Command, or MOC, a Turkey-based center of operations staffed by representatives of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and other nations that are arming and training select rebel groups.
- Groups linked to the Syrian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood and other middle-of-the-road Islamists.
- Groups linked to the Islamic Front, a large Salafi-inspired alliance of Islamist factions that formally distanced themselves from the FSA in late 2013. At its creation, it was hailed as Syria’s largest armed movement, but more recently it has shown signs of stagnation and growing internal fissures.
The pressure on cash-starved rebels to conform to funder states’ agendas, in the hope of unlocking new funds and military support, is certainly one factor bringing all these disparate groups together. But given regime offensives in Aleppo and the growing pressure from the Islamic State, the pressure from common enemies must be at least as important. The increasingly aggressive behavior of the Nusra Front in Idlib, Aleppo, and Hama is also likely to have contributed to the sudden rush for unity.
Ideology seems to be far less important, but all these groups (a) depend a significant degree on funding from foreign states; (b) have a significant presence on the Turkish border; (c) have made some effort to distance themselves politically from anti-Western jihadis, even though some enjoy good working relations with such groups on the battlefield.
A Joint Army?
Similar to previous unity efforts—such as those under the FSA brand, or Islamist varieties like the Syrian Islamic Front, the Syria Islamic Liberation Front, or the Islamic Front, et cetera—the RCC is an umbrella body with no forces on the ground except those of the factions that decide to join it.
However, the newly elected leader of the RCC’s Executive Office, Subhi al-Refai, has said that only groups that can provide at least 100 battle-ready fighters will be allowed in the RCC. The idea is to use these forces to create a joint force of around 7000 fighters, which would operate under central RCC command. Such a force would help the RCC move beyond a mere umbrella organization. It’s an ambitious plan—but low on detail, with issues of leadership still unsolved and presumably very expensive to implement. Perhaps it could succeed with strong foreign funding and state support, but hardly without it. Nevertheless, Zeineddine tells Syria in Crisis that the force could be founded very soon—perhaps within a month.
As building blocks for the national army, RCC members will also try to coordinate their forces on the local level. Notably, member factions in the Aleppo Governorate (including the Tawhid Brigade, the Mujahideen Army, the Noureddine al-Zengi Battalions, and Ahrar al-Sham) are trying to set up a unified leadership for their two-front war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and the Islamic State extremists, as well as a joint force of 1,000 fighters.
That’s all assuming the RCC sticks together, which is a big if. The losers in the November elections are already complaining, with some secular-leaning FSA factions claiming that “extremists”—meaning Ahrar al-Sham and its Islamic Front allies—have captured the executive functions of the RCC. No previous rebel unity project has managed to evolve into an effective leadership and why would this time be different?
The RCC is already plagued by a north-south imbalance, numerous internal contradictions, and a program so vague as to satisfy everyone and solve nothing. It appears to enjoy tentative backing from Turkey and its Qatari allies, and pro-Saudi factions are also involved. But the United Arab Emirates views several Islamic Front and Muslim Brotherhood groups in the RCC as terrorists and it seems the United States recently bombed Ahrar al-Sham. The RCC could therefore easily be undermined by powerful regional states or caught in the inter-state rivalries that have undermined previous unity attempts.
“Everyone is in it, but no one really believes in it” says a Syrian activist who is in close contact with armed groups, “but rebels will never say no to a few boxes of free ammo so they say: why not, we’ll join, we have nothing to lose.” Whether related to the RCC’s creation or not, weapons shipments recently arrived in the Idlib region—but, quips the activist, “that is like a short term Red Bull that will keep them awake for a while.”
The RCC has arrived in a time of crisis for Syria’s rebels, squeezed between Assad and the Islamic State, and perhaps it is simply too late to make a real difference. If it survives its formative period without major splits, it may well establish itself as the new political framework for most of the Syrian opposition, marginalizing or coopting the FSA, exile government, and National Coalition institutions. But being “the new FSA” won’t make the RCC any more effective than today’s FSA, unless its formation is accompanied by more substantial and unified foreign support of the kind that could create and sustain a standing RCC army. That remains to be seen.
The Structure of the Revolutionary Command Council in Syria
RCC member factions
According to the Watasimo Initiative organizer Abdelmoneim Zeineddine, writing on its official Facebook site, a total of 100 factions had signed the initiative by October 4, 2014. They would therefore form the basis of the RCC. Additional membership applications would be passed on to the RCC leadership once it has been formed.
Following the November 27–29 founding congress, the new RCC leadership claims to be backed by 72 factions in total. Among these are found some of the largest armed groups in northwestern Syria, as well as some from other regions. They include:
- The Islam Army: An Islamist group and the most powerful faction in the eastern Damascus region, the Islam Army also maintains a presence in northern Syria with its fellow Islamic Front member factions. Its leader, the former political prisoner and Salafi activist Mohammed Zahran Alloush, is also the head of the military office of the Islamic Front.
- The Hazm Movement: A January 2014 merger of groups linked to the FSA’s exiled leadership, including several local remnants of the once-powerful Farouq Battalions, the Hazm Movement has always been tightly linked to the state backers of the rebellion. Based mainly in the Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo regions, the Hazm Movement was the first known recipient of U.S.-made BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles, indicating that it was considered an acceptable ally by the U.S. government. (Several other FSA-linked groups have since received the same missiles.)
- The Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement: A large faction created in 2011, which has long balanced on the border between radical Salafism and mainstream Islamism and constitutes an important “swing voter” in the struggle over the insurgency’s ideological direction. Alongside the Islam Army, a leading member faction in the Islamic Front. Interview here.
- The Suqour al-Sham Brigades: An Islamist group that used to be very strong in the Idlib region, but lost most of its power in 2014. A founding member of the Islamic Front. Led by “Abu Eissa,” whose real name is Ahmed Eissa al-Sheikh.
- The Sham Legion: A Muslim Brotherhood-backed faction, formed by groups funded through the Commission for the Protection of Civilians, a Brotherhood-linked fundraising network within the exile opposition. Profiled here.
- The Tawhid Brigade: One of the dominant factions in Aleppo, although it has been weakened lately and lost several of its leaders since late 2013. Part of the Islamic Front. Interview here.
- The Noureddine Zengi Brigades: An Islamist group led by Sheikh Tawfiq Shahabuddin, which controls areas in the countryside west of Aleppo. Formerly part of the Mujahideen Army, and before that of the Asala wa al-Tamiya Front, and also profiled here.
- The Mujahideen Army: Formed by a number of factions in the Aleppo area in early January 2014 to fight the jihadist group known as the Islamic State. It remains one of the larger rebel groups in the Aleppo region. Detailed profile here.
- The Haqq Brigade: An Islamist group created in Homs, led by Sheikh Abu Ratib and part of the Islamic Front. It has been weakened by the defeat of the insurgency in Homs.
- The Ghab Falcons: An FSA group operating in the Hama-Idlib area. It takes its name from the northwestern panhandle of the Hama province, a rich agricultural region known as the Ghab Plains. Profiled here.
- The Asala wa al-Tanmiya Front: An Islamist alliance backed by Saudi Arabia and seen as linked to an ultraconservative but politically quietist Salafi movement sometimes known as the “Madkhaliya.” Led by Secretary General Khaled al-Hammad. Short profile here.
- The Syria Revolutionaries’ Front (SRF): Created in December 2012, when Saudi Arabia and its allies gathered a number of non-ideological and soft-Islamist factions into a nation-wide network. The Idlib-Hama wing of the SRF is dominated by Jamal Maarouf, whose forces were recently routed by the Nusra Front. In the southern governorates of Daraa and Quneitra, the SRF forces evolved out of a network formerly known as the Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigades and operate independently of Maarouf’s SRF.
- The Shields of the Revolution Brigades: A Muslim Brotherhood-linked faction, led by the military defector Colonel Sami Hamza. Profiled here and here.
- The 13th Division: Another recipient of the U.S.-made BGM-71 TOW missiles, the 13th Division appears to be tightly linked to the FSA and its foreign funders in the MOC. Led by Colonel Ahmed al-Saoud and profiled by Hassan Mustafa here.
RCC Structure and Leadership
The RCC’s central leadership includes members of most of the key factions and trusted individuals. There are leadership quotas to guarantee representation for all of Syria’s geographic regions, although the factional representation suggests a strong northwestern bias, specifically Idlib and western Aleppo, Aleppo city, northern Hama, and northern Latakia.
President: Qais Abdullah al-Sheikh, a judge born in Deir aez-Zor in 1943 and educated at Damascus University, will serve as the president of the RCC. After joining the opposition following the outbreak of revolution in 2011, Sheikh worked on various projects to establish new legal norms and court systems in Syria. Recently, he was appointed minister of justice in the National Coalition-backed exile government of Ahmad Toumah. But as the news broke that Sheikh had instead been elected president of the RCC, he resigned the position. Other RCC appointees are expected to similarly resign if they are part of any exile bodies.
Deputy President: Ahmed al-Ragheb.
Secretary General: Naji al-Nahhar.
Executive Council: The Executive Council will be in charge of day-to-day affairs. It comprises of seventeen members and is led by Subhi al-Refai, who represents the southern areas of Syria. (According to one source, the current Executive Council is only an interim solution until proper elections can be held.)
General Command: 73 members, divided geographically, with nineteen seats allotted to groups and leaders from the northern region, fifteen for the capital of Damascus and its hinterland, twelve each for southern and central Syria, eight for the Syrian coast, and seven for the eastern area.
General Commission: At 219 members, the General Commission represents the largest decision-making body and will not remain in permanent session.
Political Office: Headed by Mohammed Alloush, an Islamist from Douma who is a member of the Islam Army and a cousin of its leader Mohammed Zahran Alloush.
Civil Office: Headed by Rami Habib, a pediatrician working in Salma, in the northern Latakia Governorate.
Military Office: Headed by Lieutenant-General Mohammed Hussein al-Hajj Ali, born in the southern town of Khirbet Ghezala in 1954, who defected from the Syrian Arab Army to Jordan in early August 2012.
I’m thankful to Charles Lister, Mohammed Talal Bazerbashi, Abdelmoneim Zeineddine, Joshua Landis and the Syria Comment team, and other people interviewed for this post. They bear no responsibility for its content.