Posted by Aron Lund on Tuesday, September 24th, 2013
Islamist Groups Declare Opposition to National Coalition and US Strategy
By Aron Lund for Syria Comment
Sept. 24, 2013
[Updates & additional commentary added to the end of the post]
Abdelaziz Salame, the highest political leader of the Tawhid Brigade in Aleppo, has issued a statement online where he claims to speak for 13 different rebel factions. You can see the video or read it in Arabic here. The statement is titled “communiqué number one” – making it slightly ominous right off the bat – and what it purports to do is to gut Western strategy on Syria and put an end to the exiled opposition.
The statements has four points, some of them a little rambling. My summary:
- All military and civilian forces should unify their ranks in an “Islamic framwork” which is based on “the rule of sharia and making it the sole source of legislation”.
- The undersigned feel that they can only be represented by those who lived and sacrificed for the revolution.
- Therefore, they say, they are not represented by the exile groups. They go on to specify that this applies to the National Coalition and the planned exile government of Ahmed Touma, stressing that these groups “do not represent them” and they “do not recognize them”.
- In closing, the undersigned call on everyone to unite and avoid conflict, and so on, and so on.
The following groups are listed as signatories to the statement.
- Jabhat al-Nosra
- Islamic Ahrar al-Sham Movement
- Tawhid Brigade
- Islam Brigade
- Suqour al-Sham Brigades
- Islamic Dawn Movement
- Islamic Light Movement
- Noureddin al-Zengi Battalions
- Haqq Brigade – Homs [See update below]
- Furqan Brigade – Quneitra [See update below]
- Fa-staqim Kama Ummirat Gathering – Aleppo
- 19th Division
- Ansar Brigade
Who are these people?
The alleged signatories make up a major part of the northern rebel force, plus big chunks also of the Homs and Damascus rebel scene, as well as a bit of it elsewhere. Some of them are among the biggest armed groups in the country, and I’m thinking now mostly of numbers one through five. All together, they control at least a few tens of thousand fighters, and if you trust their own estimates (don’t) it must be way above 50,000 fighters.
Most of the major insurgent alliances are included. Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Islam and Suqour al-Sham are in both the Western- and Gulf-backed Supreme Military Council (SMC a.k.a. FSA) and the SILF, sort-of-moderate Islamists. Ahrar al-Sham and Haqq are in the SIF, very hardline Islamists. Jabhat al-Nosra, of course, is an al-Qaida faction. Noureddin al-Zengi are in the Asala wa-Tanmiya alliance (which is led by quietist salafis, more or less) as well as in the SMC. And so on. More groups may join, but already at this stage, it looks – on paper, at least – like the most powerful insurgent alliance in Syria.
What does this mean?
Is this a big deal? Yes, if the statement proves to accurately represent the groups mentioned and they do not immediately fall apart again, it is a very big deal. It represents the rebellion of a large part of the “mainstream FSA” against its purported political leadership, and openly aligns these factions with more hardline Islamist forces.
That means that all of these groups now formally state that they do not recognize the opposition leadership that has been molded and promoted by the USA, Turkey, France, Great Britain, other EU countries, Qatar, and – especially, as of late – Saudi Arabia.
That they also formally commit themselves to sharia as the “sole source of legislation” is not as a big a deal as it may seem. Most of these factions already were on record as saying that, and for most of the others, it’s more like a slight tweak of language. Bottom line, they were all Islamist anyway. And, of course, they can still mean different things when they talk about sharia.
Why now? According to a Tawhid Brigade spokesperson, it is because of the “conspiracies and compromises that are being forced on the Syrian people by way of the [National] Coalition”. So there.
Mohammed Alloush of the Islam Brigade (led by his relative, Mohammed Zahran Alloush), who is also a leading figure in the SILF alliance, was up late tweeting tonight. He had a laundry list of complaints against the National Coalition, including the fact that its members are all, he says, “appointed”, i.e. by foreign powers. He also opposed its planned negotiations with the regime. This may have been in reference to a (widely misinterpreted) recent statement by the Coalition president Ahmed Jerba. Alloush also referred to the recent deal between the National Coalition and the Kurdish National Council, and was upset that this will (he thinks) splinter Syria and change its name from the Syrian Arab Republic to the Syrian Republic.
Is this a one-off thing?
The fellow from the Tawhid Brigade informed me that more statements are in the making. According to him, this is not just an ad hoc formation set up to make a single point about the National Coalition. He hinted that it’s the beginning of a more structured group, but when I asked, he said it has no name yet. On the other hand, Abdulqader Saleh – Tawhid’s powerful military chief – referred to it on Twitter as al-Tahaluf al-Islami or the Islamic Alliance, but that may have been just descriptive, rather than a formal name.
Mohammed Alloush also wrote on Twitter, somewhat ambiguously, that the member groups have their own offices and political bureaus, and there’s a political program different from the National Coalition. He, too, hinted that there’s more coming: “wait for the announcement of the new army”.
These are of course not all the rebels; far from it. Dozens or hundreds of small and local groups are missing from this alliance, just like they’ve been missing from every other alliance before it. Some really big groups are also not in there, like the Farouq Battalions or the Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigades, both of them quite closely aligned with the SMC and the National Coalition.
Most notably, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham – Syria’s most querulous al-Qaida faction – is absent from the list. Given the recent surge in tension between the Islamic State and other factions, that seems significant. Does it mean the new coalition is in fact aimed at isolating the Islamic State, while also upping its own Islamist credentials? Striking a kind of third way between the Western-backed SMC and its al-Qaida rival? Maybe. The question then remains, what should we make of Jabhat al-Nosra being included, which is also an al-Qaida group.
In either case, the Northern Storm Brigade – which was routed by the Islamic State in its home town of Aazaz just recently – has quickly expressed support for the new coalition. In a statement posted online, they fell over themselves to explain how they’ve always been all about implementing sharia law. This is of course, how shall I put it, not true. The Northern Storm Brigade leaders are, or so the story goes, a bunch of ex-smugglers from Aazaz, with no particularly clear ideological agenda. They’ve allied with the West to the point of hosting John McCain for a photo op – and as we know, he waltzed out of that meeting firmly convinced that the rebels are all proponents of secular democracy.
No: the reason that the Northern Storm Brigade has suddenly gone all Islamist is that they desperately seek protection from Tawhid, after being beaten up by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Perhaps they also figure that this alliance might be the only thing big and mean enough to actually crush the Islamic State. Size, money and momentum are the things to look for in Syrian insurgent politics – ideology comes fourth, if even that. That’s also why this statement seems so important.
On the other hand, the statement is in no way hostile to the ISIS. It might in fact suit them pretty well, since it weakens the hand of the Western-backed camp and adds weight to Islamist demands. When I asked a representative of Tawhid, he said the reason they’re not on the list of signatories is just because they’re not members. If they want to, and share the principles, they could join. The members already present will decide.
Is it just a local thing?
There’s also not that much of a presence from the Syrian south. The Furqan Brigade is an exception – founded in Kanaker, and now stretching from the western Ghouta to Quneitra. Then you have the Islam Brigade in Damascus, the Homsi Haqq Brigade, and so on. Generally speaking, however, this list of names has a heavy northern flavor to it, specifically Aleppine.
On the scanned original statement, there’s even an addition of “Aleppo” next to the name of “Abdullah al-Shami”, who signed for Jabhat al-Nosra. The Tawhid spokesperson, again, says that this doesn’t mean they only signed on for the Aleppo branch. He insists that the alliance is intended for all of Syria. I guess we’ll find out.
Are you sure about this?
No, I’m not sure about this. There’s always good reason to be cautious about Syria’s notoriously unstable opposition politics. Things like these will shift quicker than you can say يسقط بشار. The wind could easily turn again, signatory groups could drop out, foreign funders could put the squeeze on groups that have not grasped the magnitude of what they just said.
That sort of thing already happened once, in Aleppo in November 2012, when Tawhid, Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and many other groups signed a statement denouncing the then-newly formed National Coalition. I wrote about it for Carnegie at the time. The difference between then and now is that the November 2012 statement seems to have been very poorly anchored, and basically sprung on everyone by Jabhat al-Nosra who (I heard) gathered local commanders and had them sign a statement without consulting their top leadership properly. So it fell apart very quickly.
This time – we’ll see.
— Aron Lund
UPDATE, Sep. 25, 2013:
Lots of media have now reported on the joint statement based mainly on this blog post. Unfortunately, some have shed all the “what if” and caution. Only a few seem to have bothered to contact any of the Syrians who are actually involved to hear their take on the story, despite the fact that several of these groups go to great lengths to communicate directly with reporters, through websites and Facebook pages and spokespersons available by phone, Facebook, Twitter, and Skype, in Arabic, English and sometimes even French.
Instead, many commenters ran with the idea of a radical group called the “Islamic Coalition” (or “Alliance”) that has been formed to oppose the West. I don’t think this is true, at least not yet.
While this may be more than just a statement, it is not – as far as we know – an organized structure at all. It is a “bloc” or an “alliance” mainly in the sense that several groups now share a position and may continue to collaborate politically. It could evolve into something more substantial in the future, but there’s nothing to indicate that an organization has been formed at this moment. There is no common leadership, no spokesperson, no known structure, no website, no logotype, no political program. There’s just a statement – a very important one, I think, but that in itself doesn’t make it an organization.
In fact, I contacted the Tawhid Brigade spokesperson I talked to earlier, who had spoken of this as a gathering (tajammou) or bloc (takattul) that might have more lasting significance. He says there is so far nothing in the way of a common organization. He explicitly denied that it is anything like the SILF or SIF insurgent alliances. There will be more statements, but at this stage he seems to say it’s really only a position paper by the 11 or 13 (see below) factions involved. He didn’t exclude that their cooperation could evolve further, into a more structured type of alliance, but said this hadn’t happened yet, and if so, it might involve different participants.
When I pointed out that Abdulqader Saleh’s rather offhand comment on Twitter using the phrase “Islamic Alliance” or “Islamic Coalition” (al-tahaluf al-islami) could be interpreted as the name of a new group, and that this version is now gaining currency in the media, he responded “it could become that, but so far there’s nothing”.
So, my point is, there’s really no need to jump to conclusions here. I get the sense that these groups may be planning to call for a new revolutionary leadership at some point, but they haven’t formed one themselves. At the end of the day, only the people involved can explain what they mean, and I hope they make an effort to do so. If there are more statements coming, maybe these will clear up the confusion.
Also, people have e-mailed me to say that two of the groups included on the list of signatories above are not mentioned in either the video statement by Abdulaziz Salame or the scanned copy of the declaration. The groups in question are the Haqq Brigade of Homs and the Furqan Brigades of Quneitra.
That’s true. I copied and translated my list from a text version on the Tawhid Brigade website. That text has since been altered to fall in line with the signed copy and the video statement, removing the names of both groups. According to the Tawhid Brigade spokesman, both Furqan and Haqq were part of the drafting process and are verbally in agreement with the statement, but he says they were not present for the signing ceremony. It’s perhaps best to let these groups clarify their position themselves. In either case, leaving them out would certainly give the group of signatories an even stronger northern and Aleppine flavor.
— Aron Lund
A friend of Syria Comment chimes in with her/his take on the statement and its ramifications:
So how often are they planning on getting together with AlQaeda to discuss common concerns?
They specifically indicated that this is statement 1, a very clear indication of it being the first of many to come.
Regardless of what the structure behind this statement is, all i see is a signature by AlQaeda in Syria above the signatures of the major rebel factions, on a document that list common concerns and goals that go beyond fighting the regime and calls for Islamic rule. How will western governments justify supporting these groups to their people with the existence of such statement?
If you take out Liwaa al tawhid, Liwaa al islam, Suqor al sham and Ahrar al sham, what exactly is left of the revolution? Liwaa al Tawhid paved the way for the fall of Aleppo and is the main force there, Liwaa al islam is the main force in Damascus…These groups are not “part of” the Syrian revolution, they are the Syrian revolution.
I still haven’t seen anything about the regional powers take on this, if the Saudis/Turk don’t approve of it, i wouldn’t be surprised if they’re now pulling their weight to force a reversal by the signees. Which would explain attempts to play down the implications.
The National Coalition responds:
Anas al-Abdeh, a member of the National Coalition’s political office, and himself an Islamist, says in statement on the NC website that the timing of the statement was unfortunate, since the NC is currently sending a delegation to the UN to “win friends”. He also argues that the statement “does not represent the most important battalions of the Free Syrian Army on the ground, since there are many big battalions that have not signed this statement”.
He says everyone must understand that the future Syrian state must be decided by the people through elections “and no one has the right to force his tutelage upon the Syrian people or declare the type of rule or the law that it will be ruled by. Of course, the people who seek this may convince the Syrian people after the liberation from the regime, but not now.”
He complained that this will increase the splintering of the opposition, and said the NC must maintain a dialogue with the factions involved – except Jabhat al-Nosra – to understand what they are worried about and take that into concern. He adds that it was a mistake to let Jabhat al-Nosra sign the statement, since it is an al-Qaeda faction and has “an agenda which is not Syrian, and it is opposed to the national project”. Abdeh concluded by saying the government of Ahmed Touma must now get to work inside Syria.