On Friday, Nov 22, seven of the largest rebel groups in Syria announced their merger into the Islamic Front, or Jabhat al-Islamiyya. The signatories of the new alliance are Harakat Ahrar al-Sham, Suqur as-Sham, Liwa at-Tawhid, Jaysh al-Islam, Jabhat al-Kurdiyya, Liwa al-Haqq, and Ansar as-Sham.
Jaysh al-Islam is a newcomer to the Syrian civil war, being a Saudi-backed merger of several other Islamist groups, centered around Liwa al-Islam. Liwa at-Tawhid has been in the news lately, as their commander, Abdul Qadir al Saleh, was killed in a government airstrike only a few weeks ago. In light of speculation at the time that Liwa at-Tawhid would possibly fragment without Saleh’s leadership, this recent merger appears to reflect how far off those speculations were.
While neither the al-Nusra Front or the Islamic State in Iraq and as-Sham are signatories, the new group’s charter, published on their Twitter account on Nov 26, speaks at length about the need for unity among Islamic groups. It’s charter states, “This independent political, military and social formation aims to topple the Assad regime completely and build an Islamic state where the sovereignty of God almighty alone will be our reference and ruler.”
They go on to state that they are “an independent entity established in Syria [that is] is not subordinate to any foreign party, be it an organization, state, or [political or ideological] current.” This might be construed as a rejection of Al Qaeda, but further along in the charter, they state their willingness to work with all other Islamic groups toward the goal of the overthrow of Assad and the setup of a shariah state in his place.
The charter even makes reference to the “Muhajireen,” the foreign fighters: “They are our brothers who supported us in jihad. Their jihad is appreciated and thanked. We are obligated to preserve them, their dignity, and their jihad…. They are owed what we are responsible for and they are responsible for what they owe us.”
The Islamic Front is estimated to number at something close to 45,000 fighters. The leadership is drawn from all seven signatory groups. The Shura Council Leader is Abu Issa al Sheikh, of Suqur as-Sham, formerly the head of the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front. The Deputy Shura Council Leader comes from Liwa at-Tawhid, Abu Amr Zeidan Haji al-Hreitan. Zahran Alloush, of Jaysh al-Islam, has been named the leader of military operations, while Hassan Abboud heads up the political bureau. Abboud is the head of the Syrian Islamic Front, another independent Islamist coalition, of which Harakat Ahrar al-Sham, his own faction, is the largest member.
Ahrar as-Sham, Liwa at-Tawhid, and Suqur as-Sham were all signatories to the September agreement that formed an alliance of Islamist groups and rejected the FSA and the Syrian National Coalition. How many of the other signatories to that agreement have been pulled into the Jabhat al-Islamiyya through the other various mergers and alliances since is unclear. But the trend is beginning to show; the FSA, for all its initial position as the center of the rebellion, is facing increasing irrelevance as the Islamists cement their position as the heart of resistance to Assad.
As Pieter Van Ostaeyen points out, this new organization doesn’t include “Syria” anywhere in their name. This is relatively new, as most of the Syrian rebel groups have taken pains to emphasize their nationalistic nature, pointing out that they are focused on Syria and Syria alone. Whether this means that Jabhat al-Islamiyya has trans-national Islamist goals or not has yet to be seen. Their professed friendship and promises of mutual support with the Muhajireen does raise questions of what happens after the Syrian Civil War ends (whenever that may be).