Friday, October 4, 2013

Developments in Syria’s Armed Opposition

by Valerie Szybala

On September 24, 2013, a document entitled “Statement No. 1” was published on al-Tawhid’s website in which 11 fighting groups – including a number under the umbrella of the SMC and the al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra – announced a call to unity under an Islamic framework based on Sharia law, rejecting the transitional government of the Syrian National Council under the leadership of Ahmed Tohme (detailed in a previous post).  While this “Islamic alliance” itself does not appear to have materialized into a tangible coalition, the move did spark a flurry of behind-the-scenes maneuvering that may have very real implications for the rebel forces and for the future of Syria.
  • In the days immediately following the announcement on September 24, there was a notable lack of public reaction from many key players, including Jabhat al-Nusra, General Salim Idris, and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). 
  • On September 26, SMC head General Salim Idris announced he would end his visit to France early to head to Syria to “follow up with the field commanders and work toward unifying all the ranks,” referring to the eleven rebel leaders who signed the document.
  • The next day, Jabhat al-Nusra renounced its participation in the Islamic alliance statement, noting that although an ISIS local commander signed the document, it was not approved by their central leadership, and that they rejected the attempt to create controversy between them and ISIS.
  • On September 29, 2013 a new coalition was formed, called Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam). In a professionally-produced ceremony in the Damascus area, the leaders of 50 brigades pledged allegience to Sheikh Zahran Alloush, the leader of Liwa al-Islam, and a complete list of the 50 brigades consolidating under Jaysh al-Islam was published in both Arabic and English. Although many of these units were already operating under the leadership of Liwa al-Islam, this move reinforced their status as one of the strongest fighting groups in Syria. Jaysh al-Islam does not include the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, and rejects the leadership in exile of the SNC. Liwa al-Islam, and by extension Jaysh al-Islam, is backed by Saudi Arabia. 
  • Shortly after Jaysh al-Islam was announced, Ahrar al-Sham (the leader of the non-FSA Syrian Islamic Front and also one of the strongest fighting groups in Syria, which is not part of the newly-formed Jaysh al-Islam) – published a statement that along with two other brigades it was withdrawing from a Damascus Operations Room that had been formed only a week earlier among six groups, under the leadership of Zahran Alloush of Liwa al-Islam. This operations room was made possible through funding provided by a group of Kuwaiti Sheikhs called the Council of Supporters of the Syrian Revolution in Kuwait. Ahrar al-Sham's announcement pointed to the existence of tension between Operations Room's six members over their leadership structure and decision-making process, indicating a struggle for dominance. 
  • On September 30, Abu Muhammad al-'Adnani, spokesman for ISISreleased an audio speech entitled, "May Allah be with you, Oh Oppressed State." In the speech Adnani accused the media of conspiring against ISIS by launching false accusations, making ISIS look more ruthless than it is, and downplaying the group’s victories. It seems clear from this defensive and angry statement that ISIS is feeling the impacts of political criticism and more direct measures being taken against it on the ground.
  • On October 2, a statement was released by six of Syria’s most powerful brigades regarding the fighting that has been going on in Azaz between ISIS and the FSA-linked Asifat al-Shamal. Notably, the signatories included rebel power players Liwa al-Tawhid, Ahrar al-Sham, and the newly consolidated Jaysh al-Islam. The statement called for a ceasefire, for ISIS to withdraw to their headquarters, and for the matter to be handled by a Shari’a court in Aleppo. Thus far there has been no indication that ISIS is complying with the statement, and it is not clear if the signatories intend to take action to enforce it. But the fact that these units have coordinated their messaging is notable, and the anti-ISIS sentiment seems to be emerging as a coherent thread throughout the continued shifting and reorganization of rebel groups within the armed opposition.
  • Also on October 2, we saw another notable reorganization as four brigades in the eastern part of Syria in Deir Ez-Zor broke ties with the FSA to form Jaysh Ahl al-Sunna. With a logo that closely resembles that of the new Jaysh al-Islam, it seems likely that they are closely linked.

There are several key takeaways that we can glean from this past week of shifting dynamics within Syria’s armed opposition:
  • The Western-backed political opposition leadership is in trouble. Though the Islamic alliance announced by al-Tawhid on September 24 may not have amounted to much, it seems to have ignited chorus of rejection by fighting groups of the Syrian National Council leadership in exile. Of the recent groups to have rejected the SNC leadership, Jaysh al-Islam and its affiliate in Deir Ez-Zor are likely to have staying power as they are already active in major offensives on the ground.
  • Syria’s rebels are following the money. This burst of reorganization seems to be propelled in part by influential sources of support coming from the Gulf. Saudi Arabia in particular has been active behind the scenes in the past week. Publicly, their frustration with the weak response by Western allies bubbled to the surface when they took the unprecedented step of canceling their speech at the UN General Assembly.
  • Rebel alliances are forming which, while not yet explicitly opposed to the two al-Qaeda linked groups in Syria, have in practice demonstrated the will to address ISIS in Azaz with the statement released on October 2. Jabhat al-Nusra has a better track record of cooperation with other members of the armed opposition, so it is encouraging that they are not a party to the most recent alliances and were quick to back away from the September 24 Islamic alliance statement which gave the appearance of grouping them in with other fighting groups as opposed to ISIS.