A new phase of sorting and restructuring has started among Syria’s jihadist groups. If the headline of the preceding phase was the divorce between Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State (IS), then the headline for this phase will be yet another divorce — this time between Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham. This will mark the end of the alliance known as the Islamic Front after it lost its regional cover to continue.
Jaysh al-Islam, led by Zahran Alloush, is taking steady steps to complete the split with Ahrar al-Sham, after the two allied under the umbrella of the Islamic Front in response to a Saudi demand. Through this alliance, Riyadh wanted to stand in the way of the Geneva peace talks and prevent it from being used as a platform to declare a "war on terrorism" as per the request of the Syrian and Russian delegations.
Before the Geneva Conference, excluding IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the main armed factions were part of two main fronts: the Syrian Liberation Front, which included Jaysh al-Islam and Suqour al-Sham Brigades, and the Syrian Islamic Front, which was dominated by Ahrar al-Sham and included Liwaa al-Haq. It seems that things are tending to shift back to this former structure, with the changes being imposed by on-the-ground developments and the confusing military challenges on the Syrian scene.
Only 24 hours after announcing that Jaysh al-Islam and Suqour al-Sham Brigades had joined ranks completely, it appeared that the integration was only a prelude to a more conclusive step that aims to widen the rift between the members of the Islamic Front and lead them to a second division — the first being between IS and al-Qaeda. This step was embodied Aug. 3 by the declaration of the birth of a new military alliance which included 18 of the biggest factions on the field.
Notably, this new alliance doesn't hide its quest to be the new leader for the unified military action in Syria, to take over the name of the Syrian revolution and work under it. Nevertheless, many prominent factions, such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, are not represented in this alliance.
The first clause in the agreement between these factions set forth “the formation of a leadership council for the Syrian revolution that constitutes the unified body for this revolution.” The agreement also determined a deadline of 45 days to choose a council leader and to build the related offices, especially the judicial and military ones. The formation of the new council will be distributed according to the fronts that were used to form the Free Syrian Army General Staff. The fronts are the northern, eastern, southern, western and central. Each front will be led by a branch formed of representatives from all factions participating in forming the leadership council.
The main factions that signed the agreement include Jaysh al-Islam, Suqour al-Sham Brigades, Syria Revolutionaries Front, Hazem Movement, Jaish al-Mujahideen, Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union, Noureddin al-Zinki Brigades, Sham Legion, Liwaa al-Haq and Shields of the Revolution as well as others. Jabhat al-Nusra’s absence from the agreement seems natural. As it did not officially join any general alliance in the past, it is unlikely but not impossible for that to happen. Ahrar al-Sham is under a lot of pressure and is torn between its al-Qaeda-style approach and the requirements of the field and the subsequent alliances that oppose its approach. As a result, internal conflicts have broken out many times between the leadership of the movement and its military bases.
Ahrar al-Sham has given in to pressure before and agreed on some accords and charters that it normally refuses. For instance, the movement signed the Charter of Revolutionary Honor, which sparked wide controversy and finger-pointing between Jabhat al-Nusra and IS. The reason for this was that the charter brought up the issue of expelling foreign fighters by affirming the Syrian component in revolutionary work.
A source from Ahrar al-Sham told As-Safir that the leadership of the movement refused the charter when it was first shown because it included articles that deviated from its values and approach. However, the movement then approved the charter without any amendments due to the developments on the field.
The available data indicate that Ahrar al-Sham movement does not only rely on the developments on the ground to determine its stance. Funding also plays a major role in that regard, especially after it lost the biggest part of its financial resources from oil wells in the eastern region and some border crossings that it used to manage, like Tal Abyad crossing in the Raqqa suburbs. The movement finds itself at the mercy of funding from the donations of Gulf businessmen, mainly Kuwaiti and Saudi, who work according to the intelligence services of their country.
With that, Alloush would have succeeded in cornering Ahrar al-Sham and giving them an ultimatum. They could tag along with him in his new alliance, abandon their old approach and values and suffer the subsequent dissidence, or they could refuse him and risk losing another source of funding. This could weaken the movement’s effectiveness on the ground and put it up against new challenges.
In any case, whatever the decision of Ahrar al-Sham might be, these developments signify that the Islamic Front might have reached its end, after only eight months since its formation, and that the divorce between its components might give rise to new conflicts and battles in the next stage.