The new face of the Syrian rebellion

Rebel fighter, in Rif Dimashq area, early 2014.

Rebel fighter, in Rif Dimashq area, early 2014.

Jaysh al-Mujahideen, Jaysh al-Sham, Hazzm movement, Free Syrian Army Southern Front, Jabhat al-Tahrir al-Furat al-Islamiyya, the « new » Jabhat al-Akrad, the Alliance of Muhajireen wa Ansar, … The new coalitions list is long to establish. But there’s a fact : the rebellion has changed since three months. Foreign support or internal reform, strategical choice or last attempt to survive, all rebellion forces are touched by an evolution in their ranks as the regime is still gaining back some ground in the north of the country.

Islamic Front and its new rivals (or friends)

In a recent article, the journalist Hassan Hassan was assuring the Islamic Front (Jabhat al Islamiyya) is on the way for implosion, pointing the Ahrar al-Sham division on war against Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), the Liwa al-Tawhid (Aleppo) problem after losing a great part of its general command (as AbdelQader Saleh, killed in november 2013, main international figure for sponsors), and the Suqur al-Sham loss of influence after some parts of the sheikh Ahmed Abu Isa group decided to leave. But we can’t make some too fast conclusions for two main reasons : the principal force of the Islamic Front, the Jaysh al-Islam (Islam Army), is still the biggest in Syria and Zahran Alloush, its leader, has not to be afraid of the Ajnad al-Islam coalition in Damascus region (his personal stronghold). Second is that Liwa al-Tawhid is the first winner of the war against ISIS in the Aleppo northern countryside : after to be denounced as they accepted ISIS acts and terrors, they were, last weeks, on first forces engaged to free, another time, the northern countryside. All testimonies back from this campaign are positives : Liwa al-Tawhid is now saluted in its original role to free and protect the northern countryside and back to Aleppo battle (Aziza front). Yes, Suqur al-Sham is the most weakened. Nobody can reject this point. But the group was influential because of its history as one of oldest rebellion brigades, never for its strength : thousands fighters in early 2013, but not so many in autumn and winter of the same year. So, nothing new on this influential loss.

So I would talk about a « new » Islamic Front transformed into an umbrella organisation, but not as Free Syrian Army was in 2013. Because two main salafi parts are still firmly allied and powerful : the Islam Army and Ahrar al-Sham movement. Their different sponsors are still in the place to help and finance them. For Liwa al-Tawhid, sponsors are back : the brigade long war on ISIS has paid and some weapons and money supports arrived last week. The new Tawhid leader, AbdelAziz al-Salamah, must use the situation to show himself as a new Saleh to get last sponsors back. The decision of Northern Storm brigade to join Liwa al-Tawhid is the first time where a clear FSA brigade enters in an Islamic Front part.

Maybe Liwa al-Tawhid is far from Zahran Alloush and Hassan Abboud goals, but Islamic Front leaders political interests are more important for themselves than sponsors orders. They have different visions of the future and of their fights, but they need, all of them, this structure to touch these objectives, war on ISIS or not…

In the same time, in different governorates, others islamists forces, divided, decided to make some unified fronts, seen as rivalry for the Islamic Front but now engaged as coordinated with the Islamic Front. Jaysh al Mujahideen appeared this year, in early January (officially launched in January 3, 2014), based on nine islamist forces mainly based in Aleppo and Idlib governorates. The former Authenticity and Developpement Front (ADF) part Kataeb Nour ad-Din al-Zangi, the Harakat Nour al Islamiyya and also Jund al Haramein are the most important parts of this new islamist coalition, based on moderates but also salafi « patriots ». Just after their birth announcement, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham denounced them as « Sahwa ». Two month later, Jaysh is one of the powerful rebellion force in the north, and now working, with Islamic Front and Jabhat al Nusra in a common military room for Aleppo.

More recently, Jaysh al-Sham was announced in Idlib governorate. The Liwa Dawood, an important and former Suqur al-Sham part (split in 2013), led by Hassan Aboud, tried to get a future by integrating ISIS in the end of 2013. But weddings didn’t last. The ISIS – rebellion war made an important pressure on Liwa Dawood and, in January 20, 2014, the brigade announced its departure from ISIS ranks. After one month of silence, the same brigade, with the support of a dozen (some coming from Suqur al-Sham ranks) launched Jaysh al-Sham (the Sham Army), February 18. First military operation, south to Idlib, were launched in coordination with Islamic Front, Jabhat al Nusra and FSA.

The last, Ajnad al-Islam coalition, is an islamist umbrella organisation and military room for dozens of brigades and battalions based in Damascus and its suburbs (and also few parts in Quneitra governorate). They are mostly engaged in Western and Eastern Ghouta, and also in Jobar (Damascus). For the moment, Ajnad al-Islam don’t have capacities to be in rivalry with the Jaysh al-Islam.

From left to right : Jaysh al-Mujahideen, Ajnad al-Islam, Jabhat al-Islamiyya (Islamic Front) and Jaysh al-Sham.

From left to right : Jaysh al-Mujahideen, Ajnad al-Islam, Jabhat al-Islamiyya (Islamic Front) and Jaysh al-Sham.

The FSA come back, a moment to question

After this revendicated-islamist organisations panorama, salafis to moderates, we should consider the Free Syrian Army come back. But not a good come back. Because FSA is now doing what islamists did in the early last year. Far to be back in a unified army dream, organized by fronts (north, south, east…), we are observing an explosion of coalitions. And some in the same governorate. It’s the case for the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF) and the Hazzm movement, in Idlib governorate. The first is led by Jamal Maarouf and Qassem Saaedine, with a contest on FSA Syrian Military Council leadership. The second was launched by the SMC leader himself, General Selim Idriss, on January 26 of this year. Both are engaged in military campaigns since last weeks (Khan Shaykhun, International Road, …). Both fighting in same areas but not allied.

The Syrian Revolutionaries Front and the Hazzm movement.

The Syrian Revolutionaries Front and the Hazzm movement.

On February 13, the Southern Front, composed of almost 50 rebellion forces of Daraa, Damascus, Quneitra, and Suweydah, was proclamed. Its leader, Bashar al-Zoubi, Liwa al-Yarmouk commander, is a man working for long with Jordan, US and Saudi intelligences. He integrated local FSA-linked brigades and also some islamist forces as Liwa al-Muhajireen wa Ansar, attracted by money and weapons. Until now, the Southern Front is the biggest and most important FSA coalition active in the war against the regime, also making a successful campaign in Daraa and Quneitra governorates.

Some FSA groups appeared only by common interests. The Jabhat al Tahrir al-Furat al-Islamiyya, based in Aleppo governorate eastern part and in Raqqa governorate, is a FSA anti-ISIS coalition only based on brigades who lost their strongholds against ISIS : Ahfad al-Rasul for Raqqa, Kataeb Shahid Abu Furat for Jarablus (al-Jadir family battalions), … Its a « losers revenge front » very active in the battle against ISIS. They retook some kurdish and arab villages near Manbij and Jarablus in February and are trying to retake both cities.

We can also talk about the Jabhat al-Anqad al-Thawriya al-Islamiyya, created for Deir ezzor governorate, another assembly of little brigades and battalions, still claiming to be FSA linked, but without influence on the battlefield in front of Harakat Abna al Islam and Jabhat al-Nusra central command.

 Jabhat al Tahrir al-Furat al-Islamiyya and Jabhat al-Anqad al-Thawriya al-Islamiyya.

Jabhat al Tahrir al-Furat al-Islamiyya and Jabhat al-Anqad al-Thawriya al-Islamiyya.

FSA is not gaining this game until now

In conclusion, the FSA come back can be questioned on its real military impact as political influence. As the Islamic Front is transforming itself into an umbrella-style organisation, all new islamist coalitions are giving arguments to see that, in fact, the islamist side isn’t down. No. Contrary to this statement, the islamist side is more and more coordinated, organized and strong. And the loser in Syria, except for southern part of the country, is FSA. All new FSA fronts and coalitions seen are only FSA-linked brigades and battalions who were still acting under FSA name. More important, some former FSA-style brigades are now part clearly, since three months, of Ajnad al-Islam in Damascus or Jaysh al Mujahideen in Aleppo, both organisations with important salafi parts.

We forget a last element : the radical side of the rebellion. Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda for Bilad ash-Sham, is still strong (the war on ISIS is a clear problems in its ranks about engaging a battle with others jihadis) and now ruling the most great part of Deir ezzor governorate, fighting for Hasakah and Raqqa governorates. In the Qalamoun, the Unified Military Command is led by local leaders but Jabhat al-Nusra is taking the upper hand on it : first time where FSA local brigades agree to be led in battle by al-Nusra in fact. In the same time, in the Hama governorate, the Alliance of Muhajireen wa Ansar (a salafi jihadi coalition based mainly on Jund al-Aqsa and Liwa al-Umma) and became one of the leading forces against the regime. In the Aleppo governorate, the Kweres airbase is now besieged by some salafi jihadi organisations as Katiba al-Khadraa (mainly Arabia peninsula fighters) and Suqur al’ Izz. In this panorama, the new face of the rebellion is clearly islamist and the FSA is still losing ground, taking no profit of the war on ISIS. The Southern Front is maybe the last hope to revitalize FSA dream, with the possibility of a temporary alliance between SRF and Hazzm movement in Idlib governorate.

March 5, 2014

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