Skirmishes are ongoing in the northern corner of Syria’s Idlib Province, where the Islamic Front, a coalition of Islamist rebel groups, has taken charge of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing and several warehouses containing weapons of the Supreme Military Council (SMC), the command structure for the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA). But there’s also a wider conflict brewing—and it is very much related to the marginalization of the SMC.
On December 9, a group of Syrian rebel factions created yet another alliance, called the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front (SRF, not to be confused with an unrelated, defunct alliance of the exact same name). According to the SRF’s first statement, it includes fourteen different factions, their leaders here put in parentheses:
The Idlib Military Council (Colonel Afif Suleiman)
The Syria Martyrs’ Brigade (Jamal Maarouf)
The Ahrar al-Zawia Brigades (Ahmed Yahia al-Khatib)
The Ansar Brigades (Mithqal al-Abdullah)
The Coming Victory Brigades (Rabie Hajjar)
The Seventh Division (Colonel Heitham Afisi)
The Ninth Division of Aleppo (Murshid al-Khaled Aboul-Moutassem)
The Farouq al-Shamal Battalions (Abdullah Awda Abu Zeid)
The Ghab Wolves Brigade (Mohammed Zaatar)
The Idlib Martyrs’ Brigade (Mohannad Eissa)
The Ahrar al-Shamal Brigade (Bilal Khebeir)
The Riyad al-Salehin Battalions of Damascus
The Farouq Battalions of Hama
The Special Assignments Regiment of Damascus (Abdel-Ilah Othman)
Some of these groups are well-known and have a strong presence in their local areas, but most seem to have their glory days behind them. For example, the roster includes two factions of the Farouq Battalions. Not long ago, this group was seen as one of Syria’s biggest factions, but since the summer it has splintered into competing units.
Jamal Maarouf’s Syria Martyrs’ Brigade was also once a formidable force in the Idlib region and a primary recipient of Saudi support. But Maarouf has been widely accused of diverting resources for his own use rather than deploying them to the front lines. Islamist rivals disparage him as a warlord and “a highway robber.” From early 2013, the Syria Martyrs’ Brigade seems to have lost much of its support, and Maarouf’s influence has dwindled.
Ahrar al-Shamal is another very active group in the Idlib region, while Afif Suleiman’s Military Council has long been a foreign-backed player in arms distribution. He, Maarouf, and the Ahrar al-Zawia Brigades have all been viewed as local rivals of the Idlibi Islamist leader Ahmed Abu Issa, whose Suqour al-Sham Brigades have now joined the Islamic Front.
Even if most of these groups are now second-tier actors and the SRF has a strong Idlibi flavor, real unity between them could create a significant force on the ground, especially if backed by strong foreign funding. But there’s little to indicate that the SRF’s creation is underpinned by any real ideological or political agenda. Instead, it seems very much to be a case of coming together against a common enemy—the Islamist surge in general and the Islamic Front in particular.
To some extent, this is of course a natural process. Disparate groups that feel marginalized by the rapid rise of the Salafi factions and fear their access to Bab al-Hawa is threatened will lay their differences aside and come together to strengthen their collective bargaining position. “Syria is about factions,” says Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, who runs the Syria Comment blog,
- If the Islamic Front gets together, an opposition will form to challenge it. Perhaps dysfunctional at first, but the Islamic Front is going to have to brutalize people. It will alienate more and more, who will organize against it by region, by class, by sect—you name it. Syria is fragmented, and that is going to bedevil the Islamic Front just as it bedevils Assad. The Islamic Front can play factions against each other, as Assad does, but it will not be easy. Especially if the United States and others are against them and adding to the “conspiracies.”
Reorganizing the SMC Loyalists
But while there’s an inherent logic to this, creating an alliance also requires funds and political backing. The timing of the SRF’s creation and its composition both give us a hint of what is going on.
The SRF groups belong to the Gulf-backed chunk of mostly nonideological or moderately Islamist insurgents that have made up the core of all the various FSA coalitions. These groups have all declared their support for the latest iteration of the FSA—the similarly Gulf-funded SMC leadership of Salim Idris. He is in turn allied to the Western-backed National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, an exile opposition government that immediately welcomed the SRF’s creation.
The SMC’s Colonel Qassem Saadeddine also made sure to give the SRF an official stamp of approval on behalf of Asaad Mustafa, defense minister in the National Coalition’s new exile government. Saadeddine said that the SRF has been created by the SMC and the exile government to serve as the nucleus for Syria’s “future national army” and explained that “we’ve been working with the defense minister to restructure the General Staff [of the SMC] and create this army.”
Clearly, then, the SRF was formed to add some extra muscle to the SMC, the National Coalition, and its exile government, as they are being threatened by the rise of the Islamic Front and other Salafi groups. That’s a task all the more urgent after the Islamic Front’s capture of the SMC warehouses on December 6 and its newfound dominance at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. That the SRF was declared almost immediately after the warehouses were taken over is probably no coincidence—if that was “a complete coup” against the SMC, then cobbling together the SRF is a counter-coup.
Headed for Confrontation?
Some Islamic Front leaders are clearly hostile to the new group and see it as part of a plot to destroy them. Hassan Abboud, leader of the Islamist opposition movement Ahrar al-Sham and a prominent figure in the Islamic Front, writes, “The gangs of Jamal Maarouf have been attacking followers of the Islamic Front, which coincides with the attacks [by the jihadist opposition group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant against Ahrar al-Sham] in Maskana, accompanied by media distortion and defamation of the Front.” Abboud also decries the SMC’s portrayal of the warehouse incident on December 6. He says his forces would never dream of stealing another group’s weapons and that they only intervened after a request from the SMC for protection against “an armed group that the SMC knows well.”
But Colonel Heitham Afisi of the SRF’s Seventh Division takes the opposite line, accusing the Islamic Front of having staged the attack to deprive other factions of weapons and ammunition. Indeed, it seems like the December 6 incident and the Bab al-Hawa power struggle are quickly turning into a casus belli for both sides.
Calmer heads may yet prevail. SMC spokesperson Louay al-Meqdad was quick to deny that the SRF is a threat to any other group and tried to downplay the conflicts between the SMC and the Islamic Front. For his part, exile government and SMC representative Saadeddine insisted that the exile government had tried repeatedly to get the Islamic Front to join a restructured SMC and thereby be included in the future national army.
But he’s clearly frustrated with the situation. “We were already oppressed by the regime, and now we’re being oppressed by our own brothers,” he says, referring to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. When asked whether he thinks there could now be fighting between the SRF and those rebel groups that oppose the National Coalition and the SMC, he doesn’t mince words: “Our principles are to only raise our weapons against the Assad regime. But if some other party—whoever they are—tries to raise their weapons against the fighters, or against the Free Syrian Army, or the people of Syria that . . . [have] sacrificed so much, then yes we’ll fight them!”