A cross-section of Islamist rebel forces in Syria

Article Summary
Syria’s splintered opposition has become dominated by disparate Islamist factions.

A week ago, the Islamic Front in Syria, which brought together the largest and most important factions, was established. The Front includes the Army of Islam, Ahrar al-Sham, Suqour al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Haqq, Ansar al-Sham and other brigades and battalions.

Questions were raised regarding the goal behind rallying these forces at this time. Is their unity the product of a shared ideological conviction or is it part of the military tactics during this stage? Does the rallying aim at changing the opposition forces’ military balance on the ground before Geneva II?

Undoubtedly, rallying these forces is an important step, but what is more important is understanding how these Islamic brigades started to form early on and how they sought to organize themselves and join wider military formations. How were different fronts — such as the Islamic Front in Syria, the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front and the Army of Islam — gradually formed? How did they end up uniting under the Islamic Front, and what is the latter’s significance?

It's evident that the new Islamic Front regroups most, if not all, moderate Islamic forces in Syria. In light of this, we have set up this brief map which shows how the Islamic factions, brigades and battalions started during the past two years to unite under one umbrella. We resorted to live meetings and several visits to the battlefields to prepare the map in order to know the importance of the nascent front at this stage.

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1. Ansar al-Islam Gathering

Perhaps the first gathering took place in Damascus, Syria and its suburbs in 2012. The formation was dubbed the “Ansar al-Islam Gathering” and included Liwa al-Islam, led by Zahran Alloush, the Al Sahaba Brigades, the Al Habib Mustafa Brigades, the Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigades, the Al Furqan Brigades, and the Hamza Bin Abdul Muttalib Brigades, led by Abu Adnan al-Zabadani.

The gathering executed qualitative operations against the Syrian army. The most significant was the national security headquarters’ bombing in July 2012 that saw the seizure of the Marj al-Sultan Airport in Ghouta.

A few months later, Abu Muaz al-Agha implemented a smooth coup that toppled Abu Adnan and Zahran Alloush, and he declared himself president of the Ansar al-Islam Gathering Council. This declaration was made in collaboration with several brigades and battalions included within it (the Al Sahaba Brigades, the Al Habib Mustafa Brigades, the Al Furqan Brigades and the Al Sham Shield Brigades). 

2. Zahran Alloush and the Army of Islam

Chief of the Islam Brigades Sheikh Zahran Alloush, born in Douma, reinforced his brigade and managed to get dozens of battalions to include themselves under it. A few months ago, he declared the formation of the Army of Islam, which included around 50 military brigades and detachments. The Army of Islam is mostly powerful in eastern Ghouta and in the Damascus suburbs, especially Qalamoun. The number of its soldiers is estimated at 25,000 militants.

 3. The Syrian Islamic Front

Sheikh Zabadani, who's known for his power in Damascus and its suburbs, has always loved leading battles himself. He is also reluctant to make media appearances and is inclined to stay away from positions. His brigades merged with the Ahrar al-Sham Brigades, led by Hassan Aboud.

Ahrar al-Sham includes about 90 detachments and is present on most Syrian territories. It is powerful in the Damascus suburbs and Idlib. Its militants range between 10,000 and 12,000

At first, Ahrar al-Sham was made up of four battalions: the Al-Ahrar Battalions, Jamaat al-Talia al-Islamiya, Al Iman Fighting Brigades (in Damascus and its suburbs) and the Al Fajr Islamic Movement (in the Idlib suburbs and in Aleppo and its suburbs). Later, the Hamza Bin Abdul Muttalib Brigades (in Damascus and its suburbs), the Musab Bin Umair Battalion and the Special Tasks Battalion joined the movement.

Abboud and Zabadani, along with other brigades and battalions, formed the “Islamic Front in Syria,” which comprised 13 factions on the ground. The front’s militants are estimated at 20,000.

The Syrian Islamic Liberation Front

In the north, specifically in Idlib, the Suqour al-Sham Brigades, led by the sheikh known as Abu Issa, were formed since the beginning of the military action. Suqour al-Sham includes three different brigades and 12 detachments, mainly Fajr al-Islam, Souyouf al-Haqq Brigades and Daoud Brigades.

Suqour al-Sham liberated Jabal al-Zawiya and blocked the supply line from Jabal al-Zawiya to Idlib. Its militants range between 8,000 to 10,000.

In the neighboring province, a strong brigade named Ahrar al-Shamal was formed in 2012, and it included six battalions: Andan, Mare, Huriyatan, Azaz, Al Bab and Tell Rifaat.

A few months later, after the Ahrar al-Shamal Brigades succeeded in taking over the northern Aleppo suburbs, they had their eyes set on the city of Aleppo. Yet it was necessary to join efforts to enter the economic capital of Syria.

Abdul Qader Saleh, who was killed on Nov. 17, in a raid that targeted the Al-Mushat School in Aleppo, and Abdul Aziz Salameh, general chief of al-Tawhid Brigades who was also wounded in the raid, succeeded in regrouping most forces and brigades in Aleppo and its suburbs under the new al-Tawhid Brigades. The latter included 30 military regiments and more than 10,000 militants.

Suqour al-Sham chief Ahmad al-Sheikh, the al-Tawhid Brigades chief Saleh and the Ansar al-Islam Gathering besides other brigades united on Sept. 12, 2012, under the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front.

The front’s main formations include Suqour al-Sham Brigades, the al-Tawhid Brigades, the Amr Ibn al-Aas Brigades, the Fateh Brigades in Aleppo, the Ansar al-Islam Gathering in Damascus and its suburbs, the Farouq Brigades in all provinces, the Ebad Al Rahman Brigades in Maarat al-Naaman, the Furqan Brigades, the Deir al-Zor Revolutionary Council, the Kurdish Suqour Brigades in Qamishli, the Iman Brigades in Hama, the Istiklal Gathering in Latakia and Banias and the Tartous Military Council. The front is led by Ahmad al-Sheikh, and it has 30,000 to 35,000 militants.

Today, these three large forces have united with other Islamic brigades and battalions under the name of the Islamic Front, which consists of about 100,000 militants. This unity indicates that the supportive regional forces perhaps united in their vision and goals and are seeking to go to Geneva II with more resolve and organization.

Perhaps one of the key messages of this bloc is to reassure the regional and international forces that the power in Syria is in the hands of moderate Islamists rather than al-Qaeda which is represented by Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). 

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Found in: al-qaeda, syrian opposition, syrian crisis, syria civil war, syria, jabhat al-nusra, islamists, islamic state of iraq and al-sham, damascus
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