On Christmas Day, the largest Sunni Islamist rebel groups in Syria’s Aleppo Governorate—except al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State—announced that they have united under a joint command. The new rebel coalition is called al-Jabha al-Shamiya, Arabic for the Levant Front (or, if you prefer: “the Shamiya Front”). Its creation follows months of negotiations held in Turkey and northern Syria between the five member factions, representing a broad array of rebel forces.
Members of the Levant Front
- The Islamic Front in Aleppo: Probably the most powerful of the five, the Islamic Front’s Aleppo wing is dominated by the Tawhid Brigade, which has links both to the Muslim Brotherhood and to Salafi Islamism and has enjoyed excellent relations with Qatar and Turkey. In November 2013, the Tawhid Brigade co-created a nation-wide alliance known as the Islamic Front together with six other rebel factions, including the hawkish Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement. In July 2014, the leaders of the Islamic Front opted to merge their subunits in the Aleppo region. While differences certainly persisted under the surface, this meant that the Tawhid Brigade, Ahrar al-Sham, and all other member groups stopped using their separate names and logotypes and agreed to work simply as “the Islamic Front." (In Aleppo only—in other regions of Syria, they retained their separate identities.) The Tawhid Brigade’s leader Abdelaziz Salamah, also known as “Abu Jumaa” and “Hajji Anadan,” was elected joint commander of the unified Islamic Front structure in Aleppo. This Islamist merchant from Anadan has been the political leader of the Tawhid Brigade since its creation in the summer of 2012, although he was overshadowed by his charismatic military deputy Abdelqader Saleh until Saleh’s death in November 2013 (just before the creation of the Islamic Front). Reflecting the strength of the Tawhid Brigade and its Islamic Front allies in Aleppo, Salamah will now become the overall leader of the Levant Front.
- The Mujahideen Army: Created almost exactly a year ago to combat the ultra-extremist jihadi group known as the Islamic State, the Mujahideen Army began to fall apart again soon after it (and other groups) succeeded in pushing the Islamic State out of their area of operations. What’s left is dominated by a subfaction called the Ansar Brigade and its local allies within the so-called 19th Division of the Free Syrian Army. The leader of the Ansar Brigade and the 19th Division, a defected lieutenant-colonel by the name of Mohammed Bakkour (also known as Abu Bakr), is the head of Mujahideen Army. He will now become the military chief of the Levant Front.
- The Noureddine al-Zengi Brigades: The Noureddine al-Zengi Brigades were created in late 2011. Since then, they’ve passed through almost every alliance active in the Aleppo Governorate, including the Tawhid Brigade, the Asala wa-Tanmiya Front, and the Mujahideen Army. They are led by Sheikh Tawfiq Shahabuddin, a religious figure who now runs his own rebel fiefdom in the western Aleppo countryside.
- The Fastaqim Kama Umirta Gathering: Led by Mustafa Berro (alias Saqr Abu Quteiba) and created by a merger of several smaller Aleppo-based factions in December 2012, the Fastaqim Kama Umirta Gathering takes its name from a Quranic verse and contains several subfactions including the Peace Brigade, the Aleppo City Brigade, and the Aleppo al-Shahba Brigade. Like the Noureddine al-Zengi Brigades, the Fastaqim Kama Umirta Gathering was previously part of the Mujahideen Army but left it only a couple of weeks ago, apparently in preparation for the announcement of the Levant Front.
- The Asala wa-Tanmiya Front: Just like the Islamic Front, the Asala wa-Tanmiya Front has affiliate groups elsewhere in Syria that won’t be affected by the Levant Front’s Aleppo-only merger. The front is led by Secretary-General Khaled al-Hamad, a Salafi preacher based in the Gulf, and it is composed of a mixture of military defectors, civilian rebels, and Islamists. On the leadership level, the group is seen as close to the so-called madkhaliya, which is a conservative but politically pliant Salafi tendency that supports the Saudi government and opposes any Islamist group that would challenge it (including jihadis like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, but also reformist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood). In the Levant Front unification treaty, the Asala wa-Tanmiya Front was represented by Ibrahim Majbour, a career soldier from Idlib who was one of the very first Syrian military defectors in 2011.
What Does the Levant Front Represent?
The Levant Front’s five member factions are themselves made up of a bewildering mass of smaller subfactions, whose ideological and political connections vary. It represents a spectrum of ideologies, ranging from the hardline Salafism that can be found among Ahrar al-Sham loyalists in the Islamic Front, across Muslim Brotherhood and other mainstream Sunni Islamist tendencies, to more or less apolitical factions linked to the Western- and Gulf-backed exile structure that is loosely referred to as the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Most of these groups seem to receive support directly or indirectly from the Turkey-based Military Operations Center (MOC), a multinational support structure that is staffed by the United States and other nations. Others are separately funded by state or private sponsors outside of the MOC structure.
The Levant Front has not published a political program, although its leading groups favor some sort of Sunni Islamic rule in Syria. However, the symbols chosen to represent the new Levant Front draws on the Syrian independence flag favored by the mainstream opposition and the FSA, despite the fact that some of the Levant Front’s more hardline Islamist members—such as the Islamic Front factions—tend to view it as overly associated with un-Islamic nationalism and pro-democratic forces. The independence flag is also shunned by the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda franchise active in some areas of the Aleppo Governorate, which recently clashed with Western- and Saudi-backed rebels; the Nusra Front was apparently not invited to join the Levant Front.
Relations to Other Rebel Coalitions
The Levant Front member factions are all part of a recently created Aleppo Operations Room, a joint headquarters for armed factions that also includes strongly Western-linked FSA factions like the Hazm Movement. The Aleppo Operations Room is presided over by Mulhem al-Ageidi, a commander within the Fastaqim Kama Umirta Gathering.
In addition, all of the member factions in the Levant Front are members of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), created in late November. The Fastaqim Kama Umirta Gathering commander, Abu Quteiba, says he personally visited the RCC President Qais al-Sheikh to inform him of the unification project. The Levant Front’s creation was also publicly blessed by Abdelmoneim Zeineddine, an Islamist figure who—along with Hassan al-Dugheim, Yassin Alloush, and other activists in the so-called Waetasemo Initiative—took the first steps to create the RCC in summer 2014.
Dangerous Times Ahead
The Levant Front is created at a dangerous time for the Aleppo rebels. President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Army forces have recently moved into the Handarat area north of Aleppo and they are now within striking distance of Castello Road, the last remaining exit from the opposition-held eastern part of Aleppo City. If the regime manages to encircle Aleppo, tens of thousands of civilians and some of Syria’s largest rebel formations will be cut off and may be exposed to a starvation siege like the one that defeated their allies in Homs this spring. Meanwhile, the Islamic State jihadis based just east of Aleppo are studiously ignoring Assad’s chokehold on the city. They’re instead slowly pushing toward soft targets like Marea and other towns in the northern Aleppo countryside, threatening not only rebel supply lines but also the home areas of many powerful brigades inside Aleppo.
The situation is further complicated by a rush of sudden international attention to Aleppo. The UN’s new Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, has recently launched the idea of a “freeze” in Aleppo, hoping to get both the government and the mainstream rebel forces to sign on to a local ceasefire. The UN envoy recently traveled to Turkey to meet with the RCC President Qais al-Sheikh and other rebel representatives in the region, having previously visited Damascus.
The founders of the Levant Front may well have had the upcoming “freeze” negotiations in mind when creating their new coalition—and if they can keep the regime from encircling the city, some of them may prefer to scuttle the ceasefire altogether. For example, Abu Quteiba, the commander of the Fastaqim Kama Umirta Gathering, warns in an interview with the pro-rebel news site Zaman al-Wasl that Mistura’s “freeze” initiative will only serve the regime.
Whatever strategic choices they make, Syria’s bitterly divided rebels will need all the unity they can get to deal with all of these simultaneous challenges. The Levant Front may be a step in the direction of such unity—but declaring its existence is one thing and making it work is another.