The complicated alliances of the Syrian rebel groups are veering towards radical agendas.
Why Syria’s Islamic Front is bad news for radical groups
One of the mistakes analysts of the Syrian conflict often make is to assess rebel groups exclusively based on the slogans these organisations use. Many observers already recognise that hard-line Islamist rhetoric is more often than not used to attract funding. But in recent weeks, this rhetoric has become even more essential to prevent a deeply worrying trend: more Syrians have been drifting towards the orbit of radical groups such as Jabhat Al Nusra as a consequence of their efficiency and tireless focus on the battlefield.
This trend can be best examined by looking into the newly-formed Islamic Front, a Salafi-leaning alliance of at least seven of the most powerful rebel groups in Syria.
The nexus of this alliance was Jaish Al Islam, a merger of initially 51 groups led by Zahran Alloush from Damascus. Alloush’s alliance was seen by extremists as a Saudi scheme in lieu of the US-backed Military Councils. When Jaish Al Islam was formed in September, it started to face hostile criticism by supporters of radical groups, especially as the group lost ground in several areas around Damascus to the regime’s Iranian-backed militias. Alloush, according to sources, met senior members of Jabhat Al Nusra to contain the situation. He also recorded a video in which he praised Jabhat Al Nusra and its ideological proximity to Jaish Al Islam.
Maintaining ties with Jabhat Al Nusra has been practically unavoidable for rebel groups. Jabhat Al Nusra has successfully won hearts and minds of local communities through its efficiency not only on the battlefield but also in the delivery of aid to people. Fighters from other groups recognise its popularity and avoid confrontation with it.
The Islamic Front succeeded where Zahran Alloush failed: it convinced Jabhat Al Nusra that the alliance would work closely with it, but only quietly. The attacks against Salafi groups died down noticeably after the formation of the Front.
The closer relationship between the Islamic Front and Jabhat Al Nusra is a marriage of convenience, as the two groups increasingly view the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) as a menace.
For Jabhat Al Nusra, Isis threatens to sabotage the Al Qaeda project in Syria. For Salafi groups, and an increasing number of ordinary Syrians, Isis has been fighting on the wrong front, distracting fighters, and is busy building its imagined state. Isis has even alienated radical groups such as Ahrar Ash-Sham by killing some of its commanders and fighters. Isis has also clashed with Jabhat Al Nusra in many regions, lately in Deir Ezzor after it ambushed fighters affiliated to Jabhat Al Nusra to retake the Conoco gas plant in Al Mayadeen.
Ordinary Syrians are vehemently opposed to open fights among rebel groups, regardless of the reasons, and want them to focus on the real battle against the regime. For example, though Ahrar Ash-Sham’s rank-and-file fighters are boiling with anger against Isis, Ahrar and most other groups believe that the Iraqi scenario in which Sunnis fought each other should not be repeated in Syria.
Another point to emphasise about the relationship between Jabhat Al Nusra and the Islamic Front is that each side believes that it can eventually pull the other towards it. Jabhat Al Nusra, unlike Isis, is focused on battles against the regime and does not attempt to impose its own strict ideology.
In fact, according to informed sources, Alloush met Jabhat Al Nusra’s leader, Abu Mohammed Al Jolani, sometime in the autumn and tried unsuccessfully to convince him to publicly abandon Al Qaeda and join his rebel merger. Alloush said in a recent statement that he had met Jolani two years ago.
Jabhat Al Nusra, meanwhile, has started to distance itself from Isis. The rift between these two groups became clear a few months ago and Jabhat Al Nusra’s leader even considered rejoining Isis to contain the infighting until the downfall of the regime. But he was talked out of that by both Al Qaeda headquarters and individuals from the Gulf who recognise the bad reputation of Isis.
Regardless of the veracity of these claims – recounted to me by multiple informed sources – these alliances are fluid and each one of these groups can still be pulled into another orbit.
Contrary to claims made by observers of the recent mergers, the alliance of Salafi groups is bad news for Al Qaeda. The formation of this alliance has significantly halted the drifting of Syrian fighters by virtue of its Islamic rhetoric and pragmatism. These groups have already drawn Ahrar Ash-Sham, a long-time ally of Jabhat Al Nusra, towards them while avoiding a confrontation with the latter.
In conclusion, the Islamic Front and like-minded Salafi groups should be seen as an opportunity to counter Al Qaeda rather than a threat to Syria’s future. Additionally, it is worth mentioning that rank-and-file fighters are not completely in sync with their leaders in terms of ideology, including members of Jabhat Al Nusra.
The secular-leaning Free Syrian Army has failed miserably as a counterweight to radicals as it could not establish itself as an efficient force against the regime while it was seen as a puppet for outsiders.
The situation has deteriorated since then, and the second best thing is to support the latest powerful alliance. The alternative is simply to drive these giants towards Al Qaeda.
On Twitter: @hhassan140