If the Syrian rebels were half as good at fighting Assad as they are at reorganizing themselves into new combinations, the war would’ve been over two years ago. My innate cynicism aside, though, this reorganization might be a big deal:
A statement posted online said Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, Suqour al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Haqq, Ansar al-Sham and the Kurdish Islamic Front had agreed to a “gradual merger”.
It said the new Islamic Front will be an “independent political, military and social formation” to topple the Assad regime and build an Islamic state.
The new group, Jabhat al-Islamiyah in Arabic, has a Facebook page, because of course it does. Anyway, these are actually some heavyweight groups; Liwa al-Tawhid has been leading the fight against Assad in and around Aleppo and seems to have helped organize that joint statement a couple of months ago in which several of the larger Islamist rebel groups rejected the Syrian National Coalition’s authority. Ahrar al-Sham probably has more fighters under its banner than any other single rebel group. Jaysh al-Islam is itself only a couple of months old, having been formed when dozens of smaller brigades came together, united over their love of Saudi money. The new coalition has a lot of men at its disposal and may threaten the primacy of the more extremist groups (ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusrah) as well as whatever shreds of authority the SNC might still have:
“This is an extremely significant development, both in terms of symbolism and the military effect it will likely have on the ground,” said analyst Charles Lister of IHS Jane’s in London, who estimated the Front’s forces might number at least 45,000.
The Front would better represent forces on the ground and so undermine the exile leadership of the Syrian National Coalition, Lister said. And while he did not expect the Front to wage war on the Qaeda allies, its formation could draw Syrian Islamists away from ISIL and Nusra, where foreigners have a bigger role.
There’s a lot of observation and analysis that will have to be done about this group. For one thing, who’s the senior partner? Is it Jaysh al-Islam and its Saudi backers? Liwa al-Tawhid and its Qatari/Muslim Brotherhood supporters? Ahrar al-Sham, the largest of the constituent groups? The leader of the group is Ahmad Issa Al Sheikh, head of Suqur al-Sham, another group active in the Aleppo region, and he may have been a compromise pick but it’s also worth noting that he’s also a member of the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council, so he may have been put in charge to try to increase coordination with the remnants of the FSA (which is not the same thing as coordinating with the SNC). ISIS and Nusrah are definitely not in, even though Nusrah participated in that late-September joint statement with Liwa al-Tawhid and Ahrar al-Sham; the groups that formed Jabhat al-Islamiyah are Islamist but not takfiri, as Nusrah and ISIS are. Is this new group really prepared to work with the FSA? Is there any hope of coordinating between these guys and the SNC? Can these guys be talked into participating in a peace conference? What will the new group’s relationship be with Nusrah (everybody pretty much seems to hate ISIS), which has cooperated with some of these organizations in the past but is considerably more hardline than most/all of them?
Also of interest: does the shifting allegiance of groups like Suqur al-Sham and Liwa al-Tawhid from the Qatari-financed Syrian Islamic Liberation Front to this new, heavily Saudi-backed, group signal that Saudi Arabia has assumed full control over the international Sunni effort to get rid of Assad?
(Takfir, for those who don’t know, is the act of declaring another Muslim to be an unbeliever, which then allows you to justify killing them. It’s a radical position, since most Muslims would argue that only God, or maybe the community of religious scholars, has the authority to declare someone an unbeliever, and one of the hallmarks of the really radical/AQ-affiliated groups is that they’re takfiri, whereas most of these other groups won’t go that far. Liwa al-Tawhid has officially called for an Islamic state “with consideration for all the groups of Syria,” and Ahrar al-Sham (and the Syrian Islamic Front that it led before this new merger) don’t seem to have embraced takfir either. These groups are Salafi, so they don’t care much for non-Muslims or non-Sunnis (and it wouldn’t be great news for Alawites, Druze, Christians, etc. if these guys came to power), but they don’t appear to be looking to massacre non-Sunnis, nor are they attacking other Sunnis for insufficient piety or zeal. Now, it’s quite possible that they’d change their tune on this point if Assad were toppled, but they haven’t demonstrated a takfiri bent yet, unlike Nusrah and ISIS.)
Speaking of ISIS and Nusrah, who seem to be working together a lot lately despite their leadership disputes (which have led to clashes in the past) and Nusrah’s greater willingness to collaborate with other rebel groups, I may owe an apology. I just got done saying that their suicide bombing response to Assad’s capture of Qara wasn’t going to actually change anything on the ground unless they followed up with a real attack to take and hold some territory, and lo and behold it seems like that’s exactly what they did:
Rebels in Syria seized a key town Friday in Qalamoun province that has been under army control since the outbreak of the conflict, a monitoring group and the opposition said.
Hundreds of rebels now control most of Deir Attiyeh, with the exception of the Bassel hospital and a small hill, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The majority Christian town north of Damascus is home to 10,000 people and is situated on the strategic route linking the capital to Homs in central Syria.
Now, the government denies that the rebels have taken Deir Attiyeh over, and even if they have taken it who knows if they can keep it, but it seems like I might have underestimated these guys a bit.