Michael Weiss

Mergers and Acquisitions

Jaysh al-Islam is joining the Supreme Military Council

Liwa al-Tawhid members in Deir Ezzor.

A major new reboot of the Supreme Military Council (SMC) of the Free Syrian Army, the body recognized and supported by the United States, is now underway. According to several sources, the SMC, which appeared all but dead a few weeks ago, is set to incorporate a splinter Islamist umbrella group that was formed in late September, largely in protest of America’s cancelled intervention. Although this consolidation effort is being led by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, it also includes the input of the US State Department and comes as an unexpected lifeline to the heavily vetted moderate rebel force. How this development will progress, or whether or not it will even succeed, is as uncertain as everything else in Syria.


On September 24, a number of Islamist rebel groups rejected the Syrian Opposition Coalition. Five days later, 50 more salafi groups located mainly in Damascus and the outlying suburbs announced their merger under a new umbrella organization: Jaysh al-Islam (the Army of Islam). That effort was spearheaded by Liwa al-Islam, one of the most formidable rebel groups in Syria, which claimed credit for assassinating three senior figures of Assad’s “crisis management cell,” including security bigwig Assef Shawkat in July 2012.  And leading both Liwa al-Islam and the merger itself was Zahran Alloush, the son of a well-known Saudi religious cleric and someone seen as quite close to Riyadh.


Indeed, there were three main takeaways of Jaysh al-Islam’s formation several weeks ago:


1. Both the US-backed political and military wings of the Syrian opposition – the Coalition and the SMC – were now marginalized and irrelevant as far as the heavy-hitters on the ground were concerned.


2. Saudi Arabia had decided that it was done waiting for Barack Obama to discover a strategy for Syria and was more than willing to inherit the war on its own and fashion a rebel army to its own specifications. This point was further clarified when the Saudis cancelled their address at the UN General Assembly in September, then declined a rotating seat on the Security Council for which they had jockeyed for two years. Prince Bandar, the Saudi intelligence chief, has left no mystery about his opinion of the Obama administration: He reportedly told diplomats that he intended to scupper all work with the US on Syria in favor of strengthening the kingdom’s partnership with Jordan and France.


3. Jaysh al-Islam was also an attempt to isolate al-Qaeda forces – Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham – by uniting under a single chain of command, thus ridding the wider war against Assad of extremists and laying the groundwork for a salafi-led sahwa, or Sunni awakening.


Following the formation of Jaysh al-Islam, almost every significant FSA group joined ranks with it, expanding its geographical purchase well beyond Damascus and into Idlib and Latakia, and leaving what remained of the SMC hollowed out and on the verge of disintegration. I was in Washington, D.C. shortly after this development and can attest to how dire the mood was among supporters of Gen. Salim Idris, the SMC’s chief of staff. The rumor was that Idris was facing a come-to-Jesus moment with Ahmad Jarba, the Saudi-backed head of the Coalition, who, with his own stature among rebels now seriously diminished, was planning to reconfigure the council.


That is happening, though not in the way most analysts anticipated.


I have recently seen communication from one Arab diplomat indicating that the SMC is indeed being overhauled or reshuffled, although with Idris remaining at the helm. A week ago, a high-level meeting was held between and amongst the Saudis, Qataris, and Turks at which it was decided that Jaysh al-Islam would be incorporated into the current SMC structure, making it subservient to Idris’ authority. The current 30-member command of the SMC will be altered to allow for Jaysh al-Islam leaders to join. The rationale is twofold: to help the larger groups, such as Liwa al-Islam and Liwa al-Tawhid, the “super-brigade” in Aleppo, feel better represented at the top of the military command, and to enable Ankara, Doha, and Riyadh to continue to support their individual client brigades in Syria without rivaling the SMC or completely alienating Washington.


Two things happened to change the original plan of scrapping the SMC. First, al-Nusra and the Islamic State attempted to recruit some of the more ideologically-sympathetic salafis within the new army into their own orbit, making the closing of ranks more difficult. Second, the Saudis, Qataris, and Turks realized that tearing everything up and starting again would only further imperil the Syrian opposition in the long term, particularly if Washington decided to undermine these efforts by blacklisting certain salafi factions within the army as terrorist entities. Not even Prince Bandar wants the US State Department to cut off all ties to the rebels, even if they yield nothing of substance, although the Qataris are said to have been the ones to initiate this proposal.


“Whether or not the Gulfies came to that realization on their own or with a little nudging from State and our intelligence agencies, I’m not so sure,” said a source familiar with the SMC reshuffle. (However, I’ve also seen evidence that the idea was only proposed to Secretary of State John Kerry at the so-called “London 11” meeting on Syria last week.) US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford and his team are currently in Turkey meeting with representatives of each government to vet the proposed members of the reconstituted SMC. A meeting was held in Reyhanli on Monday with the Qatari Foreign Minister in attendance. Idris’ leadership position was spoken of as “non-negotiable,” but there were no further details about any other concrete decisions yet taken.


The big question is what role Zahran Alloush will now have in the rebooted organization. He’s known for not getting on with Idris, which would make a shared and equal authority just as fraught as Alloush’s subordination. Alloush also downplayed the body he’s about to join back in September in an interview with Al Jazeera, saying that its aid was negligible and not even worth mentioning. But he’s not so brazen as to forget who controls him. “Alloush had a meeting with [Prince Bandar] two weeks ago in Buraidah,” a rebel source who has details of the SMC reshuffle told me this week. “Most of the wealthy Saudi businessmen supporting the salafis were there. The purpose was to discuss coordination within the SMC.”


Also unclear is how even a participating United States can convince some of its old-new rebel partners to attend the US-Russian Geneva II conference. Yesterday, 19 Islamist groups said that Geneva amounted to “treason” and that any Syrians who attended would “have to answer for it before our courts.”

Members of an Islamist brigade in Syria earlier this year. (AFP Photo/Zac Baillie)

"Saudi Arabia had decided that it was done waiting for Barack Obama to discover a strategy for Syria and was more than willing to inherit the war on its own and fashion a rebel army to its own specifications."

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