Free Syrian Army units ally with al Qaeda, reject Syrian National Coalition, and call for sharia

Some of the largest Free Syrian Army brigades teamed up with an al Qaeda affiliate and other large Islamist groups to reject the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition and call for the establishment of sharia, or Islamic Law, throughout Syria. The move is a major blow to the US-backed Syrian National Coalition and Free Syrian Army, which the West has held up as the moderate faction of the Syrian rebellion.

Abd al Aziz Salamah, the leader of Liwa al Tawhid in Aleppo, announced that 11 rebel groups, including al Qaeda’s Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, signed a statement that called for sharia, denounced the Syrian National Coalition, and urged all groups to unite. Salamah’s video announcing the development was posted on Sept. 24 on YouTube. A translation of his statement was obtained by The Long War Journal.

“The mujahideen militant factions and forces that have signed this statement convened, consulted with each other, and concluded the following,” Salamah said, listing four points of agreement.

“These forces and factions call on all military and civilian organizations to unite under a clear Islamic framework, set forth by the magnanimity of Islam, operating on the basis that Sharia is the arbiter of governance and making it the sole source of legislation,” he said.

He said that only those serving on the front lines are able to represent the Syrian people, and that “all formations established outside the country without consulting those inside do not represent them and are not recognized by them ….”

“[T]he Coalition and the would-be government under the presidency of Ahmad Tu’mah [the leader of the Syrian National Coalition] do not represent the factions and are not recognized by them,” Salamah continued.

Additionally he called on “all militant and civilian organizations to unify their ranks and words, eschew division and discord, and put the interests of the Ummah [the global Muslim community] over that of any single group.”

Salamah then named the 11 groups that signed the agreement. The groups include the Al Nusrah Front, one of two official al Qaeda affiliates operating in Syria; three large Islamist groups that fight alongside al Qaeda — Ahrar al Sham, Liwa al Islam, and Al Fajr Islamic Movement; and two large Free Syrian Army formations — Liwa al Tawhid and Suqur al Sham Brigades – which also fight alongside al Qaeda [see a list of the groups below]. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, al Qaeda’s other affiliate that operates in Syria, did not sign the statement.

Syria’s insurgency becomes more radicalized

The statement released by Liwa al Islam’s leader points to an increasing radicalization of the Syrian insurgency. According to IHS Jane’s, nearly half of the 100,000-some rebel fighters are “now aligned to jihadist or hardline Islamist groups” [see Threat Matrix report, Islamists dominate Syrian insurgency]. Brigadier General Khalid al Hammud, a Free Syrian Army commander told Al Sharq al Awsat that “hard-line Islamic brigades … constitute 30 percent of the opposition fighters,” and also said the Free Syrian Army’s general command controls only 20 percent of the fighters on the ground. Free Syrian Army units often conduct joint operations or fall under the command of the ISIL or the Al Nusrah Front to launch attacks on heavily defended Syrian military targets.

Free Syrian Army fighters have also been defecting to al Qaeda’s affiliates by the thousands, according to reports from Syria. By the beginning of May, one FSA commander said that more than 3,000 of his fighters had joined the Al Nusrah Front. Just last week, two Free Syrian Army units in Raqqah joined the Al Nusrah Front, boosting the al Qaeda group’s ranks by more than 1,000 fighters. Geneeral Hammud also said that “a number of moderate fighters leave their brigades and join the Islamic brigades to obtain the privileges they provide.”

This picture is in stark contrast to one painted by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who in testimony to Congress in early September claimed that the Syrian insurgency is moderating.

“I just don’t agree that a majority are al Qaeda and the bad guys. That’s not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists …. Maybe 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys,” Kerry told Congress.

He praised General Salim Idriss, the head of the Free Syrian Army, for running “a real moderate opposition,” even though units nominally under his command either fight alongside al Qaeda’s affiliate or have been defecting en masse. Additionally, top Free Syrian Army leaders have praised the Al Nusrah Front as “brothers,” and senior Syrian National Council leaders have opposed the US government’s designation of the Al Nusrah Front as a terrorist group.

Groups that signed the statement opposing the Syrian National Council and calling for the imposition of sharia in Syria:
  • Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant – Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
  • Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement – Islamist group that leads the Syrian Islamic Front. It is estimated to have upwards of 20,000 fighters. Frequently fights alongside both the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
  • Liwa al Tawhid – A Free Syrian Army brigade that operates in Aleppo and frequently fights alongside both the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
  • Liwa al Islam -A Salafist Islamist brigade that operates in Damascus and belongs to the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front. It is known to conduct joint operations with the Al Nusrah Front.
  • Suqur al Sham Brigades – A Free Syrian Army brigade that frequently fights alongside both the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The unit seeks to establish an Islamic state. A member of the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front.
  • Al Fajr Islamic Movement – A large unit in the Syrian Islamic Front that frequently fights alongside both the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
  • Al Noor Islamic Movement
  • – An Islamist brigade that operates in Aleppo.

  • Noor al Din al Zanki Battalions – A Saudi-back Islamist rebel brigade that fights in Aleppo.
  • Fastaqim Kama Umirta Group – A unit based in Aleppo.
  • 19th Division – A Free Syrian Army unit that fights in Aleppo and is allied with Liwa al Ansar.
  • Liwa al Ansar – A rebel unit that fights in Idlib and Aleppo.

Correction, Abd al Aziz Salamah is the leader of Liwa al Tawhid, not Liwa al Islam, as originally reported.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Tony says:

    This is excellent analysis but the sub context is the Administration has only itself to blame for the radicalization of the Syrian opposition because it refused to provide any military aid early in the rebellion when the jihadists were not well represented Now it is too late to alter the outcome in a direction favoring the creation of a pro Western Syrian government
    The recent deal with the Russians on Syria’s chemical weapons is a guarantor that Iran’s quest for a nuclear bomb will be a reality very soon This will increase exponentially the contagion of violence erupting in the region
    I must say however the strengthening of the Sunni insurgency prolongs the civil war weakening both sides which actually assists U.S. Security interests and weakens Iran
    Optimal policy is to arm the insurgents to prolong the conflict insuring the death of Syrian soldiers, Hezbollah militants and
    Al Qaeda affiliate forces all enemies of the U.S.
    This is the sad reality that also will insure the continued
    carnage in Syria and the death of many innocents

  • Gaz says:

    The announcement was made by the leader of liwa Tawhid.

  • coz says:

    I have to be honest, this presents a problem. Especially since they are in the process of being armed. I would hate to look like an Indian Giver but cmon guys, cough up the small arms we originally gave to a neutral party or at least sign a waiver saying they will never be used against western forces at any later point but rather inter-tribe rivalries and Shia vs. Sunni squabbles.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Thanks Gaz, I have updated the article and noted the correction. Appreciate the assist.

  • Celtiberian says:

    Tony, I disagree with you in a pair of points:
    – The US-Russian deal on Syria could (may be) have the opposite effect on Iran. Right now, the Iran leadership seems more inclined to compormise than in the past, and their new president seems a lot more rational and less confrontational than the infamous Ahmadinejad. May be the diplomatic moves on Syria could have positive collateral effects on the Iran issue. Let’s see. Despite Iran’s staunch anti-West stance they are an enemy far more rational and prone to compromise than Al-Qaeda/sunni jihadists.
    – Your proposition to try to convert the Syrian war into a perpetual war of attrittion that should erode both Al Qaeda and Iran/Hezbollah is a very cruel proposition. You forgot the Syrian people? What about the civilians, the ordinary citizens, seculars, christians, minorities that are being slaughtered in this war? At least we should not fuel this bloody stalmate.
    Additionally, a protacted war in Syria wouldn’t diminish Al Qaeda forces, much to the contrary. Their war losses at the hands of the not-so-powerful syrian army may be far compensated by the increase in recruitment and the increase in resources. See how their success in Syria has allowed them to increase their pace in Iraq . This is just the begining. Right now large parts of Syria represent safe havens for AQ. Safe havens with abundant oil (income production) that is. And there seems that they have an endless flow of new recruits, fuelled by the powerful image that AQ shows in Syria. This stalmate situation is VERY beneficial to Al Qaeda.
    Now, their position is even more strenghtened with most major rebel groups accepting a formal alliance with AQ (Nusrah) and rejecting western-backed leadership.
    The sooner we (“The West”) act against this perfect storm being brewed in Syria the less onerous will be the confrontation in terms of lives, resources, and chaos spreading throughout all the region and the world.

  • Knighthawk says:

    In semi related news… you just can’t make this up
    Obagy has a new gig on McCain’s staff.

  • . says:

    The Free Syrian Army realizes that their future as an insurgency and political force in Syria requires them to ally with a larger and more organized group. Al Qaeda has the international funding, the logistics, the tactics, and experience to prolong the conflict in Syria.

  • john says:

    I’d point out that there were a large number of US citizens (many of them troops) objecting to any assistance to the “rebels” on the grounds that they were effectively the same group of people we had been fighting for the last 12 years across the globe. To say the administration caused this by not sending weapons sooner is ignorant. This turn of events was inevitable, as the strategy carried out by the forces behind the global Jihad was quite sound. Yes, the Syrian people were largely innocent, but also without much real power. They were the mob that was prodded into action to create the state of chaos which we are seeing daily. Ask yourself who is financing the “Islamists”? They get a lot of money and it isn’t all from misguided charity fundraisers. They also get a lot of direction from outside Syria, as evidenced in a number of news articles. From the US service member standpoint, being able to sit back and watch Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah fight is pretty good. Having to watch your government pay the same side that you are currently fighting is less than good. Contemplating being sent to directly support the same side that you have been fighting for the last 12 years is absolutely infuriating.

  • gb says: when do the arms shipments get diverted to Assad?….lol..US policy in this region is a disgrace. There’s no intuition as to the realities on the ground, and certainly no cohesive strategy in place to react to the multi variable outcomes that are possible over there in that mess. Time to back way off.

  • kimball says:

    Maybe, in the endgame it is Iran that will be the best
    friend of the West.
    Shias are hunted and killed at random in many countries now, there are a scary amount of rabid Sunnis preaching that Shias are fair game and a kill is a ticket to heaven.
    As far as Iran or Shias go, there have never been any shouting for a Kalifat in Europe but most IS are just
    waiting for the next disaster to happen in our backyard
    and that is in Europe for sure.
    Bush admin had the idea that it would be great to bring
    Turkey into EU (to weaken EU! ) well, a weak Europe affects US a lot and thank God for France and Germany. England is absolutely infested with down and out muslims with a chip on the shoulder.

  • Rob says:

    Why do so many western governments support arming even the Free Syrian Army when clearly this army is divided with many willing to fight on behalf of terrorists. I fully support the war on terror and Israel and all of that but I cannot blindly support action that appears to help or risk helping terrorists. I think that if Assad falls Syria will become like Libya which means it will be a violent hell hole run by a fundamentalist Government rather than being a fairly moderate country run by a supposed Dictator. And no I do not think Assad was responsible for the chemical weapons attacks.


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