Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: a new rebel faction has been announced in Syria.
However, unlike most of them, this one merits a closer look. On October 9, Jaish al-Sham—which is Arabic for the Levant Army, but can also be understood to mean the Syrian Army or the Damascus Army—announced its existence. The name has been used by other groups before it, including one whose leaders eventually slid into the self-proclaimed Islamic State, but they are not related.
Jaish al-Sham is based in northern Syria, and many of its leaders apparently go back and forth between Turkey and Syria. According to leading Jaish al-Sham figure Yamin al-Naser, it has branches in Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, and on the Syrian coast. Naser says Jaish al-Sham already controls “great numbers and deserves being called an army,” specifying that its size is currently at “more than 1,000 fighters who were all recruited from smaller groups.” So far, there is evidence that Jaish al-Sham has participated in battles on at least two different fronts. One is northeast of Aleppo, where the Islamic State is trying to cut rebel supply lines to Turkey. The other area is near Kafranboudeh and Kafr Zita north of Hama, where the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad advance under Russian air cover.
At first sight, the creation of Jaish al-Sham might seem inconsequential. New rebel factions are a dime a dozen in Syria and they typically merge back into a larger group or fade away into obscurity. That could very well become the fate of Jaish al-Sham, too. But after speaking to Jaish al-Sham leader Mohammed Talal Bazerbashi, I believe that there are at least three factors that make Jaish al-Sham worth dwelling on for a moment.
1. Its “mop-up” strategy: Bazerbashi has written that the purpose of Jaish al-Sham is to “target the tens of small factions scattered across the battlefield” and to “merge these small factions into a single entity.” His colleague Yamin al-Naser also stresses this strategy. On the one hand, it sounds like a rhetorical trick to preempt accusations of having contributed to the fragmentation of the rebel landscape, by portraying the split as a project for greater unity. On the other hand, if Jaish al-Sham actually succeeds in mopping up smaller groups, there is certainly room to grow—but this might in turn require support from sympathetic foreign nations such as Turkey.
2. Its roots in Ahrar al-Sham: Jaish al-Sham appears to be the first consequential group to split from Ahrar al-Sham, possibly Syria’s largest rebel group. If it turns out that Jaish al-Sham’s creation has widened the ideological fissures inside Ahrar al-Sham, or if it prompts new strategies or alliances among rebels of this ideological stripe, it could become important for Syrian opposition politics in general.
3. Its leadership: Jaish al-Sham is linked to a number of high-profile Islamist leaders, in particular its spiritual father Mohamed Ayman Aboul-Tout, who appears to enjoy significant moral and intellectual influence among Syrian Islamist factions.
The Jaish al-Sham Leadership
On September 9, 2014, a mysterious explosion at an Ahrar al-Sham meeting killed most of the group’s leaders. Incredibly, this did not break the group, which rebounded and began to reorganize itself to make up for the loss. Ideologically, it continued to cautiously moderate its politics—a process begun in early 2014—and sought closer relations with non-Islamist groups and foreign states. As a recent report by the Syrian journalist Ahmed Aba-Zeid makes clear, these reforms were not without cost. Internal tension rose, with hardliners arguing that Ahrar al-Sham was at risk of betraying its politico-religious principles while others felt that the reforms were not going far enough. Over the past year, a number of leading figures have left the group and some of them have now come together to create Jaish al-Sham.
Mohammed Talal Bazerbashi, alias Abu Abderrahman al-Souri: The thirty-two-year-old Bazerbashi is a former highranking leader and co-founder of Ahrar al-Sham. In 2011, Bazerbashi created a small guerrilla faction near his hometown, Idlib, called the Green Battalion (not to be confused with a Salafi-jihadi group of the same name). It attracted start-up funds from several different sources—some say including individuals close to the Muslim Brotherhood, although Bazerbashi stresses that it had no particular political affiliation. In any case, the Green Battalion soon merged into the nascent Ahrar al-Sham movement. Bazerbashi was appointed spokesperson of the Syrian Islamic Front, a 2012–2013 unity project that ended up as a recruiting pool for Ahrar al-Sham. At the time, he also ran an influential sharia court based at the important Bab al-Hawa border crossing from Turkey into Idlib Governorate. Bazerbashi remained a leading figure in Ahrar al-Sham until he left the group citing “organizational differences” sometime in early 2015. He has now been elected the general commander of Jaish al-Sham. (For a longer interview with Bazerbashi, when he was still a member of Ahrar al-Sham, click here.)
Abu Homs Retyan: Hailing from Retyan, a village just north of Aleppo, Abu Homs is a young military commander who used to supervise Ahrar al-Sham’s military activity in the area. He heads an armed group known as the Ansar al-Sunna Brigade, which he brought with him into Jaish al-Sham. He has not played a major national role, but the village of Retyan lies next to the so-called Castello Road, which is the only remaining rebel supply line between Turkey and Aleppo city, and just east of the pro-regime Shia towns Nubl and Zahra. Capturing this area is a top priority for the Syrian government, which has made the village a focal point for violent battles and raised the profile of Abu Homs. According to the Saudi Islamist militant Abdullah al-Mohaisany, the legendary jihadi figure and Ahrar al-Sham leader Abu Khalid al-Suri—who was assassinated by the Islamic State in 2014—had named Abu Homs “the Lion of the Levant” for his displays of bravery. During the summer of 2015, Abu Homs led attacks on government lines in the Jam’iyat Zahra area of Aleppo. He now commands his Ansar al-Sunna fighters, which have been reflagged as a Jaish al-Sham force, in battles against the Islamic State east of Retyan.
Yamin al-Naser, alias Abu Bakr al-Deiri: Born in eastern Syria in the 1980s, Naser was one of the original founders of Ahrar al-Sham in 2011. Like many other early leaders, he had been incarcerated in the Sednaya Prison when the uprising began but quickly joined the budding insurgency when he was released by a presidential amnesty decree later that year. While he did not play a very public role in Ahrar al-Sham, he was widely acknowledged as a powerful figure and for a while he reportedly ran its operations in the Aleppo area. After the September 9, 2014 incident, he was marginalized and left the group, but is now reemerging as a leader of Jaish al-Sham.
Mohammed Ayman Aboul-Tout, alias Aboul-Abbas al-Shami: A generation older than most Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Sham leaders, Aboul-Tout is a veteran of the Syrian Islamist movement. He cut his teeth in the 1979–1982 Islamist insurgency against former president Hafez al-Assad as a member of the Fighting Vanguard, a militant Muslim Brotherhood splinter faction inspired by the teachings of the Egyptian Islamist thinker Sayyid Qutb. After years in exile, Aboul-Tout had the misfortune of ending up in Syria again and was thrown into Sednaya Prison, where his age and experience made him an authoritative figure in the eyes of younger Islamists. After his release, he came to exercise a strong influence over Ahrar al-Sham, which had been formed by some of his acolytes from prison. Holding a seat on its Shura Council, he was later made the religious head of the Islamic Front, a now-defunct Islamist coalition involving Ahrar al-Sham. Some speculate that his influence waned and that he may have grown somewhat estranged from the group after the September 2014 death of the first generation of Ahrar al-Sham leaders. He is now reportedly based in Ankara.
Many outsiders seem convinced that Aboul-Tout is a driving force behind the creation of Jaish al-Sham, but he is apparently not a member of the group. Bazerbashi tells me that “we have agreed that the spiritual father of Jaish al-Sham and one of its main points of reference is our sheikh Aboul-Abbas al-Shami,” but he adds that Aboul-Tout/Aboul-Abbas is “also a spiritual father to many other factions on the [Syrian] battlefield and we are honored to receive his advice, support, and instructions.” Yamin al-Naser, too, says that Aboul-Tout “might not be organized in Jaish al-Sham but he is effectively its spiritual father, like he is for many factions including Ahrar al-Sham.”
Several reports have alleged that two founding members of Ahrar al-Sham, Abu Anas Saraqeb and Aboul-Bara Maarr-Shamarin, are also involved with the new group. In addition, some point to roles for the independent jihadi theologian Abu Basir al-Tartousi, a Latakia-born Fighting Vanguard veteran who has in recent years become increasingly critical of al-Qaeda (more on him here), and the two Nusra Front dissidents Abu Maria al-Qahtani and Saleh al-Hamawi (more on them here and here). However, when I asked Bazerbashi about this, he denied that any of these individuals is a member of Jaish al-Sham.
From Ahrar al-Sham to Jaish al-Sham
While its leaders would almost certainly disagree, Jaish al-Sham appears to be largely an Ahrar al-Sham offshoot or splinter faction. The shared roots are there for all to see. For example, Jaish al-Sham has named a military unit in Kafranboudeh the Martyr Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi Brigade in reference to Ahrar al-Sham’s first leader, who was a longtime comrade of men like Bazerbashi and Naser.
The Islamist online commentator known as Mohammed al-Amin, who is in touch with leaders of both groups, tells me that the involvement of high-profile Ahrar al-Sham founders and a scholar like Aboul-Tout could transfer significant political capital to the new group. “Jaish al-Sham might later become the authentic Ahrar,” he quips. And in his report on the group’s evolution, Ahmed Aba-Zeid points out that defections of senior leaders may be particularly damaging for Ahrar al-Sham, since it risks stripping the organization of its “monopoly on representing the departed leaders and the middle-ground position that combines revolutionary and jihadi legitimacy.”
The question is therefore whether the new group should be taken to represent a split in Ahrar al-Sham or if it is better viewed as a complementary project, and whether there are different opinions about this inside Ahrar al-Sham itself.
When asked some weeks before announcing Jaish al-Sham about his decision to leave the group he had helped create, Bazerbashi told me the politics pursued by Ahrar al-Sham are not restricted to a single organization, because it “has become a current [tayyar] and I am a part of this current, having been among the early founders with Hamawi in 2011.” And rather than protesting Jaish al-Sham’s emergence, several Ahrar al-Sham leaders welcomed the new group, with Eyad Shaar (Abul-Hassan al-Tabbouki) writing about its leaders that “they are of us and we are of them.”
“I think what’s been underestimated in 2015 is just how much this core base of Ahrar al-Sham has come to represent a major socio-political movement in Syria, albeit one with strong religious foundations,” says Charles Lister, a Doha-based expert on Syrian Islamist groups at the Brookings Institution. “While many Syrians across the armed opposition spectrum may still be suspicious of Ahrar’s conservative Islamism, they universally give the group unrivaled levels of respect, whether around a political table, on the battlefield, or in social gatherings in southern Turkey. This revolutionary Islamist populism has had its detractors within Ahrar, however, and that’s a primary reason for the quiet extraction of people like Mohamed Talal Bazerbashi—to try and reignite this fusion of Islamism with the original ideals of 2011 revolutionary Syria, but without sparking destructive infighting.”
Waving the Flag of Relative Moderation
Jaish al-Sham’s first political messages were unabashedly Syrian and revolutionary-populist in a way that Ahrar al-Sham has never quite managed, despite its post-2014 moderation. Jaish al-Sham says it exists to wage a two-front war against Assad and the Islamic State, epitomized in its slogan: “a revolution against tyrants and extremists.” It stresses that its members are all native Syrians and that they are fighting for Syria, as opposed to being foreign fighters with a global jihadi project.
Though the Islamist character of the group is obvious, Bazerbashi says Jaish al-Sham was founded in order to return to the original sentiments of the revolution, namely “the Syrian people’s aspirations for freedom and dignity,” and that its founders will seek to avoid “narrow ideologization or partisanship.” A few weeks ago, he told me the still-forthcoming group would be “a new Syrian popular revolutionary army where all will participate to liberate Syria from tyrants and extremists, whether it be the regime or the sectarian militias or the so called Islamic State. It aims to overthrow the regime and liberate Syrian soil, to keep it united and free and to safeguard its people’s dignity and freedom without exceptions.”
One noticeable difference is the group’s use of the Syrian independence flag. This three-star tricolor has become a widely recognized symbol of the uprising against Bashar al-Assad, but it remains taboo for al-Qaeda style groups and other Islamist hardliners due to its nationalist-democratic connotation.
Ahrar al-Sham has consistently refused to associate itself with the independence flag, although this policy is no longer as strict and some individual commanders do use it. Jaish al-Sham, on the other hand, flaunts its use of the flag and states that it “has been embraced by our people and just as it was once their symbol of independence from the French mandate, it has today become the symbol of liberation from the tyranny of the tyrants and the crimes of the extremists.”
Whether or not a rebel group uses a particular flag might seem an obscure point, but the issue of the independence flag has in fact emerged as an ideological shibboleth among Syrian Islamists. It signals Jaish al-Sham’s desire to fully enter the political mainstream even as its parent group, Ahrar al-Sham, remains unwilling or unable to firmly come down on either side of the intra-Islamist divide.
In Lister’s view, “Jaish al-Sham is unlikely to be a new ‘mega-group,’ but rather something that may serve to bind the ties between Ahrar al-Sham and the remainder of the Syrian armed opposition. By presenting itself as anti–Islamic State and anti-regime, it’s also sending a strong message to countries like Qatar and Turkey, who are presenting arguments to the U.S. and Europe that Islamists should be accepted opposition actors worthy of involvement in broader political-military strategy.”
It is an experiment worth watching, and for Syria’s Sunni Islamist rebels, much may depend on how relations unfold between Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Sham.
This article has benefited from the comments and suggestions of several people, including Mohamed Talal Bazerbashi, Charles Lister, Sam Heller, and Mohammed al-Amin, which should not be interpreted to mean that any one of them has endorsed its content or conclusions.- Aron Lund