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.