Haid Haid

Why did Jabhat Fatah al-Sham fail to merge with Syrian rebels?

Ideological differences and worries over the reaction of Western-backers have given rebels pause over unification

Fighters from the former Al-Nusra Front—renamed Jabhat Fatah al-Sham after breaking from Al-Qaeda—advance at an armament school in Aleppo on August 6, 2016. (AFP/Omar Haj Kadour)

Over the last several weeks, a number of reports have come out of Syria predicting an imminent merger between Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the rebranded former Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and other powerful rebel groups. These reports came in the wake of a number of high profile meetings between group leaders to discuss the possibility and the details of such a merger. Lending credence to the reports, Abou Youssef al-Muhajir, the military spokesman for the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham movement, released a video statement, which was widely circulated by activists on social media, in favor of such a merger. “Preparatory sessions for major integration projects on the Syria-wide level are underway,” Muhajir claimed, adding “There will be unification and mergers among the biggest Syrian revolutionary groups, and the results will come very soon.” However, despite the serious efforts that apparently went into merger negotiations, predictions of an imminent unification are jumping the gun and underestimate the internal and external challenges that hinder such a move.


Rebel groups have been trying for years to overcome their differences and form a united front against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Most of these attempts adopted a graduate integration strategy, as was the case with the Islamic Front and the Levant Front. Other smaller rebel bands have opted to be absorbed into more powerful groups, such as when Suqour al-Sham members joined Ahrar al-Sham. Jabhat al-Nusra had pursued a similar strategy, hoping to entice Ahrar al-Sham and other groups within Jaysh al-Fatah, an alliance of Islamist militant groups, into a merger. However, Nusra’s constant refusal to split with Al-Qaeda hindered such attempts. The rebranded Jabhat Fatah al-Sham’s decision to publicly sever ties with Al-Qaeda in August and better integrate within Syrian rebel groups gave new impetus to such merger efforts. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, Faylaq al-Sham, Nour al-Din al-Zenki and several other groups within Jaysh al-Fatah were among the groups that were predicted to be part of the new, united fighting unit. While mergers among rebel groups in the past have been widely welcomed in opposition circles as moves to strengthen rebel unity, any possible unification with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham remains a highly divisive issue.


There are major differences among rebels about if and when a merger with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham should take place, which groups should be included in it, and the vision of the hypothetical new, united front. According to El-Dorar al-Shamia, a pro-opposition news outlet, a number of rebel leaders told the network that the ongoing talks, led by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, are just exploring the different views on a merger among the various groups. The network also added that these talks were not able to reach a clear agreement on a political and a military merger and that the media reports confirming such a move were based on wishful thinking more than what has been achieved in reality. “The groups involved in the talks have different views on what a newly merged force should look like.  Will it be an Islamic Emirate, a government, local administrations, or just a political and military body? There is also disagreement over their vision for Syrian’s future, which makes such a merger even more difficult,” said Mustafa al-Abdullah, a media activist in northern Aleppo.


Differing views regarding the proposed merger have also caused disunity within some rebel ranks. “For such merger efforts to be successful, the differences between rivals should be solved by dealing with the pending accusations and grievances among them. We have to adopt an inclusive project that should be based on revolutionary similarities, not ideological ones, taking into account our Islamic identity. We also have to remember that we are all equal,” wrote Ahmed Issa al-Sheikh (aka Abu Issa), the former leader of Suqour al-Sham, in a tweet. Suqour al-Sham reportedly separated from Ahrar al-Sham earlier this month after their 18-month merger.  News about this divorce was not widely circulated, but the fact the split was reported by El-Dorar al-Shamia, a network considered close to Ahrar al-Sham, lends credibility to the report.


Molham Ekaidi, a deputy leader of the Free Syrian Army Fastaqim Kama Umirt unit, also laid out concerns about a possible merger in a series of tweets. “It’s a mistake to think that such a merger would be a magical solution, and therefore establishing a clear judicial system is essential. Establishing a unified Shariah and educational discourse and having a clear future vision are also crucial for the success of such a merger.”


The fact that a unified rebel front under Jabhat Fatah al-Sham would likely lose Western support and put a bigger target on its back adds yet more obstacles to a future merger. The US and Russia recently reached an agreement to reduce violence in Syria and begin targeting Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, demonstrating that the group currently is, and will likely remain, a major military target for both countries in the Syria conflict. The fact that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham senior commander and co-founder Abu Omar Saraqeb was killed in an airstrike in rural Aleppo earlier this month, which some rebels claim was carried out by US forces, only highlights the possible dangers of unification.While the US and others powers still regard Jabhat Fatah al-Sham as extremists and an Al-Qaeda affiliate, rebels are unlikely to jump into bed with a group that would make it more difficult and dangerous to operate militarily.


It is difficult to say with absolute certainty that the rumored merger between Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and other rebel groups is dead. Such a move could theoretically strengthen rebel unity and increase their fighting efficiency against the regime, but it would also come with a heavy price, possibly putting themselves in the crosshairs of the most powerful militaries in the world. Therefore, even if some groups come out in favor of such a merger, many others rebels will refuse to follow, as the benefits to unification do not seem to outweigh the likely negative consequences.

Fighters from the former Al-Nusra Front—renamed Jabhat Fatah al-Sham after breaking from Al-Qaeda—advance at an armament school in Aleppo on August 6, 2016. (AFP/Omar Haj Kadour)

While the US and others powers still regard Jabhat Fatah al-Sham as extremists and an Al-Qaeda affiliate, rebels are unlikely to jump into bed with a group that would make it more difficult and dangerous to operate militarily