Maya Gebeily

Syrian Islamists split and merge

Liwa al-Tawhid, pictured here, is one of the largest of the signatories to the new “Islamist Alliance.”

Late on Tuesday evening, over a dozen rebel groups in Syria joined hands to declare their rejection of the Syrian National Coalition and to pledge their allegiance to work under an “Islamist framework” to bring about the fall of the regime. Signatories to the statement include a number of the largest fighting forces on Syria’s battlefield today, namely: Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, the Tawhid Brigades, the Islam Brigades, and Suqour al-Sham. If, indeed, this proves to be the dawn of a new, more cohesive opposition structure in Syria, it will have significant ramifications for the country’s ongoing conflict.

The simultaneous merger-and-split seems to have taken place at this particular time for a number of reasons. Primarily, the statement seems to be a direct response to the SNC’s irrelevance on the ground, and particularly its apparent helplessness in the face of the current progress in U.S.-Russia diplomacy on Syria. Ahmed al-Rayyes, member of the Syrian Media Center, told NOW that another driving factor is the Islamist factions’ anger toward the SNC for its recent concessions to Syria’s Kurdish parties – even going so far as agreeing to drop “Arab” from the Syria’s formal title as the Syrian Arab Republic. In addition to concerns about the SNC’s relevance on the ground, Islamist factions now worried that the SNC was dividing up Syria, said Rayyes.

The document may also be a jab at other extremists; given the recent instability between Jabhat al-Nusra – listed as the first signatory on the document – and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), its sister al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, the exclusion of ISIS from the statement may indicate an attempt to marginalize it. “There have been increasing levels of rumor within Islamist militant circles in Syria this week that moves were underway to isolate [ISIS],” says Charles Lister, analyst at IHS Jane’s, “and this may well represent the outcome of such apparent plans.”

The move could have an enormous effect on the military dynamics in Syria – but “could” is the operative word, says Aron Lund, a Syria analyst who has followed these groups closely. If it’s the real deal, it could prove to be the biggest development in Syria’s military opposition for some time. According to Lister, the groups who have signed the document “represent Syria’s most sizeable and powerful insurgent organizations.” Some of these groups, like Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Islam, and Suqour al-Sham, are members and allies of the Supreme Military Council (SMC), the Western-backed group often described as the military arm of the now-rejected SNC. This new statement, then, has put into question the relationship of its signatories with the SMC.  

“If groups like Suqour al-Sham and the others break with the SMC as well, this is a much bigger deal than just the National Coalition,” says Lund. “The National Coalition and its exile government was kind of a lame duck structure anyway.”

Notably, the issued statement does not actually mention the SMC or what kind of ties this new “Islamist Alliance” would have with the Western-backed group; Lund told NOW that he expects follow-up statements to clarify the issue. NOW contacted the Tawhid Brigade, one of the document’s most well-known signatories. Tawhid’s spokesperson told NOW to expect no changes in the relationship between Tawhid and the SMC. “Nothing will change, especially since Abd al-Qader Saleh [the head of the Tawhid Brigade], is himself a member of the SMC’s staff for the northern front.”

The SMC itself wasn’t so sure. One of the council’s staff, on condition of anonymity, told NOW that SMC members “had been hearing chatter about this kind of agreement, but we didn’t know what it would look like, or that Nusra would be involved.” He told NOW that the SMC had yet to issue a formal response to the announcement because they were in contact with various brigades in order to try to “cut their losses.”

When asked about the potential for additional signatories, Tawhid’s spokesperson told NOW, “We welcome anyone who would like to join us, because we’re looking to unite different factions under clear goals, the most important of which is the fall of the regime.”

The “Islamist Alliance” statement has repercussions beyond the battlefield; its very first point declares the need for the establishment of “shari’a as the only authority” in Syria. When asked about this point, the Tawhid Brigade’s spokesperson told NOW, “They’re not looking to govern these areas; they’re looking to administrate them by applying moderate shari’a law that would rule over people with righteousness and justice no matter their religion.”

Lund explains that the commitment to shari’a should not be alarming. “Most of these factions already were on record as saying that, and for most of the others, it’s more like a slight tweak of language,” he said. “Bottom line, they were all Islamist anyway. And, of course, they can still mean different things when they talk about shari’a.”

For Washington, the “Islamist Alliance” statement means that its options have become increasingly limited. “While the debate within Western political circles regarding the potential provision of military assistance to the SNC/SCM is ongoing, the scope for Western influence over the Syrian opposition has now been diminished considerably,” said Lister. A depleted SMC does not make for an attractive partner on the ground for Western countries seeking to gain leverage.   

Since the announcement late Tuesday, there have already been amendments. The Furqan Brigades and the Haqq Brigade, whose signatures appeared on the scanned document being circulated after the announcement, are actually not party to the new “Islamist Alliance.” Lund told NOW that this development “makes it more northern and Aleppine than it would have been if these two groups were onboard.”

Given that there have already been follow-up announcements, more declarations are sure to come, Lund told NOW. “I think it's definitely worth keeping a close eye on, but let's not assume this is a new joint leadership until we get some real evidence of that. So far there's really nothing except a few vague hints about more statements coming. So it seems better to wait for these statements, than jump to conclusions.”

Local commanders and members of Aleppo's most important rebel unit, the Liwa al-Tawhid brigade, gather for a daily meeting in their headquarters in late 2012. (AFP)

"If groups like Suqour al-Sham and the others break with the SMC as well, this is a much bigger deal than just the National Coalition. The National Coalition and its exile government was kind of a lame duck structure anyway.”

  • FG

    A common pattern shows why the Assad regime is doomed militarily, as I explain in my daily Syria roundup at Iranian.com. It appears near the bottom of my lead post there under the subtitle, "Mind Boggling Developments in This War When You Look Closely." The first link is to today's roundup. Since monitors may be off for many hours due to time zone differences it may not appear until much later. The second link is to earlier roundups but contains lots of news, analysis, etc. http://iranian.com/posts/view/post/21628 http://iranian.com/FG3049

    September 28, 2013

  • FG

    Losing ISIS benefits the rebels more than it hurts them. ISIS spends more time targeting the FSA and Christian minorities than fighting the regime. Its ties to Al Queda ties has hurt support for all rebels abroad whereas conflict between ISIS and the FSA makes the latter look good. JENAN MOUSSA now reports: “ISIS in no mood to give up control over border town Azaz. They brought reinforcements: around 40 vehicles &2 tanks. They fully control town.” CHARLES LISTER of Jane’s tweets: “No doubting that the 3 major SNC/SMC groups who recently denounced SNC leadership have been expanding their presence geographicall. Liwa al-Islam has subsumed new groups in both Idlib & Aleppo in the last 72hrs. Liwa al-Tawhid has upped its operations into HAMA.” See my

    September 28, 2013

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Where are Hussein Ibish, Hussain Abdul-Hussain, Tony Badran and their warmonger acolytes to explain to the Obama Administration how simple it would be to navigate this maize of Islamic garbage that make up the bulk of the Syrian Free Army? Not only will the Americans and the West have to deal with a Syrian civil war, but we are all looking now at the abyss of a civil war within a civil war: a cryptic "secular" wing of the FSA versus the overwhelming Islamic wing of that same FSA. In essence, one can argue that if this intra-Civil War inside the FSA were indeed to occur, then Assad would have won (because of the weakening of the rebellion), but also Obama would have won because he knew all along that this is where things were going to end, with or without American soldiers on the ground, and that his refusal to intervene was justified. Two conditions obtain to end the Syrian mess 1- The rebellion must be united (nowhere near to happen now). 2- The Arabs (whatever that means) should themselves clean up Syria, and just like the African Union sends troops to restive African countries, the Arab League should - and can - do the same: Saudi, Algerian, Moroccan, Kuwaiti, Egyptian, Tunisian, Yemeni, Omani...soldiers would be much better equiped - culturally and otherwise - to bring peace to Syria. After all, they claim to be all Arab and Muslim "brothers". Wouldn't they be better that the Christian and Jewish infidels of Western armies?

    September 26, 2013