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Analysis: Formation of Islamic Front in Syria benefits jihadist groups


Yesterday a new Islamist group emerged in Syria, a coalescence of seven major Islamist fighting forces in Syria now calling itself the Islamic Front. Estimated to consist of about 45,000 fighters, the group includes the Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, Suqour al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Haqq, Ansar al-Sham, and the Kurdish Islamic Front. Its stated aim is to "topple the Assad regime. . . and build an Islamic state," according to the new group's leader, Ahmed Issa al-Sheikh, of Suqour al-Sham.

Issa has been leading the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF), an Islamist coalition aligned with the Free Syrian Army's Supreme Military Council. He will be joined by Abu Omar Hureitan of Liwa al-Tawhid, Zahran Alloush of Jaish al-Islam, and Hassan Abboud of the Syrian Islamic Front, the BBC reports.

Zahran Alloush and Jaish al Islam

The Islamic Front's designated head of military operations, Zahran Alloush, was previously chosen to lead the Jaish al-Islam, or Army of Islam, a coalition of Islamist fighting groups formed in September with backing from Saudi Arabia and also the support of Qatar and Turkey. According to a description of JAI in the Guardian on Nov. 7, the coalition excluded the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (or Levant), "but embraces more non-jihadi Islamist and Salafi units" -- arguably a distinction without a difference.

Alloush, now military head of the Islamic Front, and previous head of the Army of Islam, a coalition of some 43 Syrian fighting groups with total membership earlier estimated at up to 50,000, is a Salafist who served formerly as head of the Liwa al-Islam. In late September, Liwa al-Islam joined with the Al Nusrah Front and a number of other powerful Islamist brigades in issuing a statement opposing the Syrian National Council and calling for the imposition of sharia in Syria. [See LWJ report, Free Syrian Army units ally with al Qaeda, reject Syrian National Coalition, and call for sharia.]

The son of a Saudi Salafist cleric, Alloush is not known as a moderate. His forces have been flying al Qaeda's black flag, and he claimed after the formation of Jaish al Islam in late September that the merger would not put pressure on ISIS.

In late October, Jaish al Islam published a video on YouTube showcasing its successes in the Syrian conflict. Featured in the video was footage of two Syrian L-39ZA Albatros fighter aircraft captured from a base in Aleppo in February, the Times of Israel reported. The aircraft had been seized by "Islamist factions," after a major assault on the al-Jarrah airbase by the Al Nusrah Front and the Ahrar al Sham Brigades [see LWJ report, 'Islamist factions' seize Syrian airbase].

More recently, on Nov. 7, Alloush advertised for foreign fighters for Jaish al Islam, posting a message on his Twitter account about the opening of the "Office for the Recruitment of Emigrants," and giving Skype contact information, according to the SITE Intelligence Group.

Several groups in the new Islamic Front have called for Islamic state and fought with al Qaeda forces

Notably, several of the groups that repudiated the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition and called for sharia are among those now forming the new Islamic Front: Jaish al Islam, Ahrar al Sham, Suqour al Sham, and Liwa al Tawhid. All four of these outfits frequently fight alongside the Al Nusrah Front and ISIS in Syria. The Kurdish Islamic Front, another member of the new group, has fought alongside the Islamist Ahrar al Sham against Kurdish YPG forces.

Over the past several months, mentions of the Free Syrian Army and its Supreme Military Council have become infrequent, and news of the Islamist fighting forces, especially ISIS and Al Nusrah, have come to predominate the daily reports.

The burgeoning Islamist influence among the rebel ranks has frightened off Western support for the Syrian opposition, and at the same time encouraged an increasing number of foreign jihadists to travel to the conflict zone. Most of these foreign fighters have entered through Turkey, which recently protested that it has little or no control over the millions of "tourists" who come into the country.

Western governments attempting to track those who head to Syria for jihad have had little success in doing so. An estimated 800 to 900 European fighters have traveled to Syria, mainly from Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany, according to a recent Washington Post report. There is a very real concern that these fighters will return to their home countries battle-hardened and further radicalized.

Latest Islamist fighting bloc not clearly separable from al Qaeda forces

It was reported by Agence France Presse that some activists described the news of the formation of the Islamic Front, Syria's largest rebel fighting group, as bad news for al Qaeda in Iraq (ISIS). Others suggested that the creation of the new group was largely engineered by Qatar to develop an alternative to the two dominant Islamist fighting groups in Syria today, al Qaeda's Al Nusrah Front and ISIS.

But the notion that the emergence of a massive Islamist fighting bloc in Syria will somehow curb the power of al Qaeda forces in the region is not persuasive.

The new group consists largely of hardline Islamist groups with goals similar or identical to that of ISIS and Al Nusrah: the creation of an Islamic state and the imposition of sharia law. Furthermore, these Islamist groups have fought alongside the two al Qaeda branches in Syria, and continue to do so to this day. If anything, the emergence of this powerful Islamist force further vitiates the already tottering Western-backed Free Syrian Army.

And as Islamic Front spokesman Abu Firas noted yesterday, the new coalition will be "open to all the military factions, and a committee is working to study the entrance of all groups that also want to join." According to the Associated Press, the Islamic Front's spokesman also said that the Al Nusrah Front wanted groups to join under its banner.

It is not unthinkable that Al Nusrah and/or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham would welcome the Islamic Front into the fold. Despite much-ballyhooed differences between them, the two al Qaeda branches in Syria have shown much more cooperation than enmity, and regularly fight alongside each other in various provinces in Syria. There is no reason to think that the situation would be vastly different insofar as the Islamic Front is concerned. All three entities have similar goals.

This new development should give one pause. The forces of the Islamic Front, said to now embrace at least 45,000 fighters, if combined with al Qaeda-linked forces in Syria, said to number at least 15,000, amount to over 60,000 Islamist fighters. Such a force vastly outnumbers the 10,000-plus al Qaeda fighters in Iraq at the height of the Iraq war.

As Thomas Joscelyn pointed out earlier this month, al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria now presents a "transnational threat." Its members are already talking about external operations, according to Rep. Mike Rogers, the head of the US House Intelligence Committee.

The emergence of a new unified Islamist force in Syria with ideology and goals nearly identical to al Qaeda's does not bode well for Syria or for the West. While the headlines from Syria veer wildly between regime successes like last week's and rebel wins like today's capture of Syria's largest oil field by al Qaeda-led forces, the fact remains that whether Assad holds on or the rebels prevail, the largest assembly of jihadist fighters to date has converged in Syria.



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READER COMMENTS: "Analysis: Formation of Islamic Front in Syria benefits jihadist groups"

Posted by Mark Rcca at November 24, 2013 12:20 AM ET:

Good thing they're battling Assad and by proxy, Iran and Russia, who are formidable opponents by good measure. That should keep them busy from attacking the West and continue to deplete their strength and resources.

Posted by Celtiberian at November 24, 2013 7:05 PM ET:

Mark,

Actually, the jihadist battle against Syrian government is not depleting their strenght. It's just the opposite. Two years ago this jihadist paradise didn't exist. It has been the battle against Syrian army, the media coverage and the big rebel succeses which has unleashed:
1. vast terror funding from Gulf countries
2. jihadist control of key economic resources in Syrian eastern and northern provinces
3. a never ending flow of young idiots from all around the world who have just discovered their vocation for jihad watching Al-Jazeera

Syrian army eliminate a lot of jihadists weekly but they grow at a faster pace. The chaos of syrian civil war is a perfect breeding ground for them and syrian army is not strong enough to erradicate them. The threat is growing.

Posted by Gaz at November 24, 2013 11:44 PM ET:

Regarding the distinction without a different between the islamists and the Jihadists, the main one is that groups like Liwa tawhid and suqour al sham aren't a threat to the west, ISIS is.

How they will relate to each other is unclear, but ISIS supporters have reacted very hostilely to the announcement, with it's online fans regarding it as a Saudi puppet.

Posted by Sarah at November 25, 2013 7:51 AM ET:

I am not sure whether the possibility of a joint Al-Nusra Front and ISIS force, as they are in rivalry against each other and have been in frequent battles against each other in northern Syria where ISIS is active. They are in disagreement with each other's policies and ways of dealing with the towns they seized. Jabhat al-Nusra seems to have previously cooperated with various (including moderate) rebel groups in many joint operations, but ISIS seems to be a little more agressive and repressive.

Posted by Jack Barclay at November 25, 2013 9:39 AM ET:

As always, an excellent and protein-rich summary of developments!

But I think this analysis needs to be stood on its head.

The fact that a wide range of 'Islamist' groups has coalesced into a political entity that notably excludes the two AQ- aligned organisations in Syria could be very significant. The declaration in September of an 'Islamic Coalition' (which included Jabhat) appeared more a broad statement of policy / intent, and a denunciation of the SNC, that an actual entity with joint strategy and plans. Which is what makes the announcement of the Islamic Front VERY different and more significant news - and ISIS and Jabhat are notably excluded. Why? It may say something important about differing ideology and strategy between a host of the most powerful Syrian Islamist groups and the AQ- aligned organisations. I wonder what's really going on there? What might be the key issues of disagreement? That's what makes me suspicious of the 'distinction without a difference' conclusion that you draw. Jabhat and ISIS are outside the tent for a reason.

I think that what often hampers our ability to look at the developing picture re. inter-group relations in a more granular way is that way too much has been read into many of these groups' battlefield cooperation with ISIS and the Jabhat, which in itself says little about the extent to which they may share an ideology, a vision for the future of Syria, or indeed a strategy for how to get there. In the meantime, of course they're cooperating on the battlefield right now - why wouldn't they?

But connecting up all "Islamist", "Salafist" and "Jihadist" fighting groups together based on some broad conclusion about a purportedly common ideological DNA and strategic vision (i.e. they're all "Islamist" and they all want an "Islamic state" - well, I bet they all have different ideas of what that 'state' would look like...), is precisely what we DON'T want to be doing right now as analysts in order to best understand the dynamics and fault lines within the most powerful and influential groups in the insurgency. And if, for argument's sake, influencing the outcome is in some way possible or desirable, we won't have a hope if don't look more closely at the variations in the ideology, strategic discourse, and rhetoric of these groups, and how this landscape may change as circumstances change on the ground.

Admittedly, apart from occasional indicators in the different groups' social media output, the faultlines may not be easily visible just yet - it hardly benefits these groups to be seen to be disagreeing over ideology and strategy when they're supposed to be fighting for their lives and defending the Syrian people. But depending on how the conflict progresses,in time these important fissures may become much more visible. Provided, that is, we're looking for them.

Posted by KaneKaizer at November 26, 2013 2:31 PM ET:

I can't imagine JAN would merge with any other group (unless they were placed in charge, just as AQI heads the ISIS) as long as Golani is its leader, as he seems keen on consolidating his own power. ISIS would never join any other organization either. They want other factions to join their "Islamic State", not the other way around. Still, that could prove to be their fatal Achilles' heel just as it was in Iraq.

I'm still not counting on any infighting between the two groups themselves, though. My guess is that the still relatively few instances in which they've attacked one another had something to do with former, more nationalistic FSA fighters who joined JAN clashing with foreign ISIS radicals.

Posted by Matt at November 28, 2013 12:28 PM ET:

You work with the meat you are given, you go to war with the, army you have not one you would wish for. And it is true and I would not worry it is a one way trip, the fighters are not going to Syria for training to return. They are going to be martyred. Most FSA brigades have defected but it makes no difference as each brigade was autonomous as there was no command and control only generalized directives issued. The power of the Islamist brigades is not only due to money etc. It is the command and countrol and ability to coordinate operations the FSA never had that when it was formed due to the situation on the ground. The other issue was a lot of the defecting officers in the ranks of command and control and the SNC were Assad sleepers sent and used to undermine the brigades so it led to defections from the FSA to other factions that is another reason why they have be more affective on the battlefield.