Islamic Front rejects rival’s caliphate, as well as proposed emirate in Syria

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The Islamic Front, a coalition of several leading insurgency groups in Syria, has released a statement rejecting the caliphate announced by its rivals in the Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot, in late June.

And the Islamic Front also says that any proposed emirate (state) or other government that is not agreed upon by the “people of power and decision” is unacceptable. The latter objection is almost certainly intended as a warning to the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria.

Earlier this month, an audio recording of a speech by Abu Muhammad al Julani, the Al Nusrah Front’s emir, was leaked online. “The time has come … for us to establish an Islamic emirate in the Levant, to implement the limits and punishments of God Almighty, and his laws in every sense of the word, without compromise, complacency, equivocation, or circumvention,” Julani says in the recording.

Julani’s words were widely interpreted by jihadists and other Islamists in Syria, as well as observers outside of the country, as indicating that the Al Nusrah Front was going to announce the creation of an emirate soon. This anticipated move was seen as a natural response to the Islamic State’s caliphate, which Al Nusrah fiercely opposes.

The audio of Julani’s speech created so much buzz and controversy in jihadist circles that the Al Nusrah Front was forced to issue a “clarification” shortly after it was leaked. In a statement, Al Nusrah said it had “not announced the establishment of an emirate, yet.” Julani’s group added: “When the time comes and the sincere mujahideen and the pious scholars agree with our stance, we will announce this emirate, by the Will of Allah.”

The audio of Julani’s speech had the potential to upset relations between the Al Nusrah Front and other insurgent groups. Al Nusrah has positioned itself as an acceptable jihadist alternative to the Islamic State, led by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who is now called “Caliph Ibrahim” by his supporters.

Both the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic Front have battled Baghdadi’s Islamic State for months. Indeed, Al Nusrah has been especially close to Ahrar al Sham, an al Qaeda-linked group that is one of the most powerful organizations inside the Islamic Front. (Some in the West have argued that the Islamic Front is a relatively moderate rebel coalition, but its ties to al Qaeda undermine this claim.)

The Al Nusrah Front and its allies in the Islamic Front have consistently rejected Baghdadi’s unilateral claim to rule. But the leaked audio of Julani’s speech can be interpreted as meaning that Al Nusrah intends to declare the establishment of an Islamic emirate without the blessing of other leading factions in the insurgency. That is, some jihadists fear that Julani could be heading down a path similar to Baghdadi’s.

In its newly-released statement, the Islamic Front makes it clear that any such initiative will be rejected. The statement was released in both English and Arabic on the group’s Twitter feeds. A screen shot of the Islamic Front’s English language Twitter page can be seen above.

“Any announcement of a caliphate or emirate or government that is not chosen by the people of the Levant and not accepted by ‘Ahl Al-Hal wa Alaqd‘ (people of power and decision)…is a rejected announcement and belongs only to the people who made it,” the Islamic Front’s statement reads. “The murderer Assad regime depends on the consequences of such announcements, and on the infightings resulted from them to stay in power; so we should not give it the opportunity through showing great amount of wisdom and responsibility.”

The Islamic Front goes on to warn that no group should “consider itself a legitimate ruler” at the expense of others, “because this would lead to a fitna (strife or infighting) and shedding of blood that may lead to failing the revolution of the people in the Levant, and taking away their hopes of winning this war after hundreds of thousands have been killed and injured, and millions displaced.”

Bashar al Assad’s “regime should be overthrown” before the establishment of an Islamic government, the Islamic Front argues, and the “complete system of operating a country, providing the basics, and carrying out the hudud [punishments according to sharia law] could not be achieved by a single group.”

Instead, according to the Islamic Front, the “legitimate” Islamic bodies should be supported in each “liberated” area and the “people of knowledge should be asked to determine what should be handled immediately without any delay.” In other words, neither the Islamic State, nor the Al Nusrah Front, should impose its will on the other jihadist and Islamist groups overseeing territory won from the Assad regime.

This is not the first time that there has been tension between the Islamic Front and Al Nusrah. In May, the Islamic Front and other allied groups released a “revolutionary covenant” that was intended to allay concerns about the role of extremists in the Syrian rebellion. The Al Nusrah Front swiftly rejected the covenant, arguing that it was not sufficiently rooted in religious principles and was too nationalistic in its focus.

Despite these disagreements, the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic Front continue to jointly conduct operations.

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

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