Who supports who in Syria opposition?

There are hundreds of different groups fighting among the ranks of the Syrian armed opposition, and while the United States and Saudi Arabia have been selective when it comes to courting potential allies, Turkey has not.

al-monitor Soldiers loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stand outside a damaged hotel in Maloula village, northeast of Damascus, after taking control of the village from rebel fighters, April 14, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri.

Topics covered

turkey, syria, opposition, kuwait, jabhat al-nusra

Apr 16, 2014

Those wearing the hats of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) were once upon a time described as the driving engine of the situation in Syria. But they have now shifted either to the ranks of jihadist Salafists — who go strong with their “money, guns and ideology” formula — or have since become looting warlords, lost their effectiveness and were confined to their limited turf.

But the legend of “moderates” still persists. In my article on April 11 titled “Those becoming moderates with sarin gas,” I wrote that groups trained in Jordan by the Americans and Saudis were actually colluding with Jabhat al-Nusra, which the Americans had added to their list of terrorist organizations and many of whom adhere to al-Qaeda’s ideology.

I had also noted that the Syrian Revolutionary Front — one of the few groups the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) was able to establish links with — was cooperating with the Saudi-backed Army of Islam and Yarmuk Brigade, which were coordinating with Jabhat al-Nusra. This is not remarkable as such. Former SNC head Moaz al-Khatib, once considered a potential head of the Syrian state by Washington, was also upset when Jabhat al-Nusra was branded a terrorist group. Jabhat al-Nusra, which got its first taste of war in Iraq in the ranks of the Islamic State of Iraq, is the Syrian extension of al-Qaeda. It's now accused by Seymour Hersh as being behind the chemical attack on Ghouta.

The common enemy of all these organizations is the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which has been seen as a tool of the regime since the end of 2013. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has blown up his bridges with al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri since Jabhat al-Nusra refused to operate under ISIS. Baghdadi could not get along with the al-Qaeda leadership when his organization was active only in Iraq. ISIS is a by-product of al-Qaeda, but now it is busy setting up its own emirate in Iraq and on the Syria fronts. Where they diverge is this: What Jabhat al-Nusra promises for the post-Bashar al-Assad era, ISIS is trying to establish before the regime collapses.

Foreigners in the north

In the north, foreigners led by Chechens are a part of the scene. Many believe that the Turkish intelligence service MIT is using Chechens. Some Chechen refugees in Turkey were dragged to the war front by persuasion or by force. We know that the option of “You either go to Syria or you will be handed over to Russia” has worked. Caucasian commanders who made names for themselves in Syria are Omar, Seyfullah, Abu Moussa, Muslim and Selahaddin. They all use the same last name of “al-Shishani” [Arabic for “the Chechen”] as a tribute to their Chechen roots. The divergences in jihadist Salafist ranks also affected the Chechens. Initially, they were united in the Muhajirun-Ansar Army under the command of Omar al-Shishani. Omar later made his choice clear by accepting to be the ISIS northern front commander and Abu Moussa responded by setting up Ansar al-Sham. Seyfullah established the Caliphate Army and was guided by Jabhat al-Nusra. He was killed in February when leading the prison raid in Aleppo. Muslim, who remained independent with his Jund al-Sham, filled the void left by Seyfullah’s death. Selahaddin took over the command of the Muhajirun-Ansar Army and joined Jabhat al-Nusra. It was not a surprise that Chechens who commanded several fronts also led the Anfal operation against the town of Kassab. Anfal was commanded by Abu Moussa, and Muslim joined him. Many people think that without the support of the Turkish military and intelligence Anfal could not have succeeded.

Intricacy of working with al-Qaeda

Although Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are the most mentioned names cooperating with Western intelligence organizations to shape and guide the opposition, another actor that stays out of the political cacophony is generally overlooked — Kuwait. Kuwaiti religious figures such as Sheikh Hajjaj and Shafi al-Ajami, and influential politicians such as former parliamentarian Walid al-Tabatabai, played key roles in financing jihadist Salafists. Kuwaitis shifted their support to Jabhat al-Nusra after the ISIS-Jabhat al-Nusra battles and Ahrar al-Sham became dependent on Kuwaitis. Ahrar al-Sham was established in Istanbul by Abu Khalid, who was then al-Qaeda’s Syria representative. Kuwaitis also supported Omar al-Shishani, who has since then joined ISIS and led the Latakia attacks last year under the guidance of Hajjaj.

Another organization that is a potential recipient of Western arms is Jaish al-Mujahedeen. We remember them from taking Christian opposition Marcell Shehwaro to Sharia court for not covering her hair and releasing her only after she promised to cover up. Although the organization later apologized, the blemish remains. The opposition members who criticize these organizations are facing severe risks. For example, lawyer Razzan Zeytune, his wife and two friends were abducted in Duma, which was under the control of the Army of Islam.

I just summarized some organizations with higher combat capacity from among hundreds of others. My last words as to who supports who: This is a dirty game. While Turkey opened its doors to all, the Americans and Saudis courted the Salafists who they considered as so-called moderates. Those with al-Qaeda experience know that it is a double-sided sword and sit down at the table in a way that allows them to easily disengage. But novices like us allow that table to be in its own territory. A bit too late, I'm afraid.

Editor's Note: A translation error in a previous version of this article claimed that the FSA was the driving engine of the situation in Libya. This has been corrected to read Syria.

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