On Feb. 27, a newly-formed jihadist group in Syria issued a two-page statement calling for the defense of eastern Ghouta. Bashar al Assad’s regime is laying siege to Ghouta, pounding the area in Damascus with air strikes. The new group, named the “Guardians of the Religion” organization, decried the situation, arguing that the insurgents in Syria should stop fighting one another and concentrate their forces on Assad and his allies. “Guardians of the Religion” warned that if the factions failed to set aside their differences and fight for Ghouta now, then they could suffer similar losses elsewhere.
The statement echoed the theme in recent messages from al Qaeda’s senior leadership. Indeed, “Guardians of the Religion” was quickly endorsed on al Qaeda-affiliated social media pages.
Earlier today, three groups announced that they have officially joined the venture. The three factions — Jaysh al-Malahim, Jaysh al-Badiya, and Jaysh al-Sahel — appeared as independent entities in recent months. They were established as a result of the jihadists’ ongoing leadership crisis in Syria.
Jaysh al-Malahim and Jaysh al-Badiya both defected from the Hay’at Tahrir al Sham coalition late last year, and Jaysh al-Sahel announced its formation earlier this year. All three are now part of the “Guardians of the Religion” organization. It is possible that other factions will join as well.
Although al Qaeda’s senior leaders have consistently called for “unity” in Syria, jihadist and Islamist solidarity has been elusive. Until July 2016, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria was known as Al Nusrah Front. That month, Al Nusrah was rebranded as Jabhat Fath al-Sham (JFS). Then, in Jan. 2017, JFS and several other groups merged to form Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), or the “Assembly for the Liberation of the Levant.”
HTS has been at the center of controversies in jihadist circles since then.
Some of the entities that initially agreed to participate in the joint venture have broken off. A prominent al Qaeda-linked cleric, Abdullah al-Muhaysini, left HTS in Sept. 2017 as well. Abu Muhammad al-Julani, who led Al Nusrah and now heads HTS, has been accused of breaking his bayat (oath of allegiance) to al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri. Beginning last year, Zawahiri has released a series of messages implicitly criticizing HTS and anyone who thinks that the bayat to al Qaeda has been negated. HTS also detained two senior jihadists loyal to Zawahiri, but eventually agreed to release them as part of an arbitration agreement. There have been doctrinal, tactical and personality disputes as well. And HTS has fought other jihadists and Islamists in northwestern Syria.
Al Qaeda-linked social media feeds have tied Abu Hammam al-Shami, an al Qaeda veteran who served as a senior Al Nusrah military commander, to the “Guardians of the Religion” organization. Al-Shami rejected Al Nusrah’s relaunch in mid-2016 and has been critical of HTS. He was also a party to the aforementioned mediation that took place earlier this year.
On Feb. 19, a statement attributed to al-Shami was circulated by pro-al Qaeda media channels. Al-Shami invited the mujahideen to save Syria and Ghouta. He said the mujahideen should “unite our efforts” and point “our weapons towards the enemy” in order to defend eastern Ghouta.
Al Qaeda issued a similar call just days later, on Feb. 23, in its An Nafir Bulletin. The 24th issue of the newsletter was entitled, “Ghouta and the Holocaust.” An Nafir’s editors argued it was “incumbent” upon Islamic groups to “unite” their “efforts and coordinate” against their common enemies, because the carnage in Ghouta could be followed by travesties elsewhere. Specifically addressing the “mujahideen” in Syria, An Nafir’s authors argued it was time to “forget your differences,” as the “situation is critical” and the Ummah (worldwide community of Muslims) “is watching.” Furthermore, the mujahideen should “not let your people in Ghouta down.”
Then, on Feb. 27, the “Guardians of the Religion” released its own statement calling on jihadists and Islamists to unite in defense of Ghouta.
In the middle of these messages, An Nafir (Feb. 19) encouraged “sincere” scholars to set up “councils” and “organizations” to settle the jihadists’ differences in Syria. And Zawahiri weighed in with a message on Feb. 20, once again urging the mujahideen to unite for guerrilla warfare against their common foes.
It is not clear how many fighters the new group has, and there is uncertainty concerning its leadership and structure. However, the three announced member factions have been actively fighting in Syria in recent months.
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