The seven sisters of Syria’s newest rebel alliance

BEIRUT: The newly formed Islamic Front alliance of seven large militias and movements active in the Syria war issued its political manifesto this week, situating it squarely as an anti-secular and anti-democracy grouping that seeks to establish an Islamic state.

The merger was announced last Friday, when weekly nationwide protests were held under the slogan “The Blood of the Martyr Unites Us.” This was a tribute to the late Abdel-Qader Saleh, the Aleppo-based military commander of the Islamist Tawhid Brigade, fatally wounded in a battle with regime troops days before – Saleh was, among other things, an advocate of inter-militia unity to topple the regime.

Tawhid was one of the seven groups that liquidated its ties to other, earlier Islamist rebel alliances that had failed to achieve dramatic progress on the ground, and declared the latest attempt at “unity,” the Islamic Front.

Will this group bring about changes to the political or military scene?

In a 10-page, bullet-point presentation, the Front lays out its unsurprising goals, such as toppling the regime of President Bashar Assad and establishing a state dedicated to justice and prosperity, under a fully Islamic legal order.

The groups were already advocates of such a path for the country but the manifesto offers a clear statement of purpose in the run-up to scheduled Geneva peace talks next year, a process that the individual brigades had already categorically rejected.

What an Islamic state means in practice isn’t spelled out in any detail in the booklet. One phrase, “[Political] rule belongs only to God,” signals a quasi-8th century Kharijite ideology – uncompromising Puritanism that stresses everything must conform to the Quran, without spelling out how this will be institutionalized.

However, the groups in the front are broadly conservative Salafists and not radical jihadists; they do not explicitly support takfir, the practice of persecuting and summarily executing Muslims who aren’t sufficiently pious. Instead, they advocate a more bureaucratic, Quranic-based legal system to correct society’s behavior.

The groups also stress that they don’t intend to replace the Baath regime with another oppressive, authoritarian one, although this promise doesn’t attract significant support from the mainstream, non-Islamist opposition.

The document is empty of any detailed stances on economic or foreign policy – it includes the derogatory term “Safavid” to refer to Assad’s ally Iran – and it explicitly condemns parliamentary democracy and secularism as anti-Islamic.

A brief mention of the country’s ethnic and religious minorities says nothing about their status under an Islamic state, and can be read as almost patronizing.

If the document’s release was meant to attract any potential allies, the only arena that contains a positive signal is the Kurdish one. The front uses the term preferred by the Kurds, “Al-Kourd,” rather than the more objectionable “Al-Akrad,” and says they deserve full cultural and political rights in an undivided Syria.

While the mainstream opposition-in-exile, the National Coalition, has a similar stance on Syria’s Kurds, it only recently brought in the mainstream Kurdish National Coalition grouping into its ranks.

The KNC and other Kurdish parties have been at loggerheads with the National Coalition for much of the uprising because it wouldn’t commit to moves such as dropping “Arab” from the country’s official name, the Syrian Arab Republic, in a post-Assad scenario, while the rebels’ strong connections to Turkish authorities also prevented a close alliance with mainstream Kurdish groups.

In contrast, one section of the Islamic Front’s manifesto refers to the “Arab nationalist lie,” of the Baath regime, signaling that it would be unlikely to favor the word “Arab” in the official name of post-Assad Syria.

The document, in essence, marks the boundary between it and the political opposition and rebels who are non-Salafist, and less cohesive, and who favor a civil, democratic state, based on parliamentary elections. These include leftists and other proponents of secularism, Arab nationalists, liberals, the Muslim Brotherhood, and independent moderate Islamists, such as Ahmad Moaz Khatib and Ahmad Sayasineh.

On the other side of the Islamic Front are two jihadist groups, the Nusra Front, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

The members of the Islamic Front have often cooperated with these two organizations when it comes to fighting battles, but differed with them when it comes to how to manage civilian populations.

In outlining its stance on the thousands of hard-core jihadists in the ranks of the rebels, the Islamic Front document uses the term “muhajirin,” which in this sense means non-Syrian fighters, who are widely believed to be more prevalent in the ranks of ISIS than Nusra.

The front favors good treatment of the non-Syrians and pledges to aid “their jihad,” which might be read as a polite way of saying please move on when the war ends, and we’ll try to help as best we can.

Seven groups have announced their membership in the front: the Tawhid, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam, Suqour al-Sham, Al-Haqq and Ansar al-Sham Brigades, and the Kurdish Islamic Front.

The political implications of the merger of a large, Islamist bloc of rebel brigades are linked to the military ones, and experts believe that much will have to change before the Islamic Front achieves any kind of dominance.

A secular activist who follows developments in both the civilian and armed opposition said that the front’s ambition to be the largest cohesive bloc on the ground would likely encounter the usual problems of infighting.

The “merger,” as it is, has yet to eliminate the separate identities of groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, the Islam Army or Suqour al-Sham, and the activist pointed out that a whole range of other Islamist battalions have yet to join the ranks of the Islamic Front.

“The unification will probably have some repercussions for developments on the ground, but the talk that the front represents 70,000-80,000 fighters is probably exaggerated; it might be closer to 40,000-50,000,” said the activist, who requested to speak anonymously.

If this is accurate, its ranks would approximately equal the Islamist and non-Islamist FSA units, which are much admittedly less cohesive.

The activist described the front as being as hard-line in practice as the jihadists of the Nusra Front and ISIS, but “for now, they’re not showing their bad side.”

The current offensives underway in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus and the mountainous region of Qalamoun, he continued, might give the impression that the Islamic Front is the most formidable force on the ground. But the reality, the activist said, is that smaller, local militias and FSA-aligned units are also heavily involved in the fighting.

Some of the campaigns now underway in Aleppo, Damascus and elsewhere, he continued, are more about individual groups trying to exert control over lucrative checkpoints or seizing weapons caches, to strengthen themselves and not directly take on the regime’s forces in pitched battles.

In the view of Jeffrey White, a Defense Fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “all this talk of joining forces is only relevant if an improved effectiveness on the ground is seen.”

The rebels of the front and other groups, White said, still lack a clear strategy for defeating the regime, or a truly unified operational command structure.

“Fighting coalitions come and go, they are there one day and not the next,” he said, describing the fluid situation. “The political impact of the [unification] is hard to tell. If you can put together a fighting coalition that acts in concert against regime forces, that could be significant. But it remains to be seen if this can be done.”

For now, according to various sources, the Islamic Front will likely isolate the ultraextremist ISIS even further, with the Nusra Front enjoying usually good relations with the seven large Islamist brigades.

In Syria’s east, four groups – the Shariah Committee of Deir al-Zor, the Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam – recently issued a public call to ISIS to send a representative to attend meetings aimed at settling a dispute over the Conoco gas field.

The document signals how the new political-military “alliance” doesn’t cover the entire country, and how Nusra, for now, enjoys significantly better relations with its members than ISIS.

The head of the Turkey-based leadership of the FSA Gen. Salim Idriss praised the formation of the Islamic Front and claimed that “many” of its members were represented in his Supreme Military Council, although they have long distanced themselves from the FSA and the coalition.

In an interview with a pro-opposition Al-Aan television station this week, Idriss said he “blessed” the front’s efforts, while adding his group’s objection to the more extremist acts of the jihadists of Nusra and ISIS. The stance reflects the FSA’s preference to avoid side battles with other rebel groups before the confrontation with the regime is settled.

In the end, only a decisive military victory on one of the major fronts, as well as proof that the Islamic Front’s merger was involved in tipping the balance, are likely to add to the prestige and clout of the latest rebel alliance.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 30, 2013, on page 10.




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