Sorting out David Ignatius

by Aron Lund for Syria Comment

David Ignatius has written an article in the Washington Post called “Sorting out the Syrian opposition”, where he provides names and manpower figures for the Syrian insurgency. He’s basing his argument on reports from a Syrian opposition group. I happen to know which one, but I haven’t seen the actual report, so I won’t comment on that.

The Ignatius article itself is, however, rather confused, and readers should beware. Let’s pick it apart.

THE SYRIAN ISLAMIC LIBERATION FRONT

— Excerpt: ”The biggest umbrella group is called the Jabhat al-Tahrir al-Souriya al-Islamiya. It has about 37,000 fighters, drawn from four main subgroups based in different parts of the country. These Saudi-backed groups are not hard-core Islamists but …” etc.

The group he’s referring to is the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF, until recently known as SLF, without the ”Islamic”). It was formed in mid-2012, and incorporates the biggest mainstream Islamist groups of the insurgency. The SILF includes the Farouq Battalions (mainly Homs + Turkish border), the Tawhid Brigade (Aleppo), the Suqour el-Sham Brigades (Idleb),  the Islam Brigade (Damascus), and a bunch of others.

Some of these groups were originally created in the name of the FSA but ”salafized” as the war went on, reflecting the new mood in the rebel movement and foreign funding requirements. It’s a basically mixed bag of opportunistic and principled Islamists, ranging from ideologically fuzzy big-tent movements (Tawhid Brigade) to rather grim-looking salafis (Islam Brigade).

They’re not simply ”Saudi-backed”, although they may be that as well (whatever it means, with all these princes doing their own thing). The northern wing of Farouq, for example, is well known to enjoy Turkish patronage. It’s been attacking Syrian army positions through Turkish territory, and it’s no coincidence that the main northern border crossings (outside Kurdish territory) are now controlled by Farouq. Several groups in the SILF also enjoy sponsorship from a donations network set up by Mohammed Surour Zeinelabidin, an influential Syrian salafi theologian whose relations with the government of Saudi Arabia are not good at all.

THE SYRIAN ISLAMIC FRONT

— Excerpt: ”The second-largest rebel coalition is more extreme and is dominated by hard-core Salafist Muslims. Its official name — Jabhat al-Islamiya al-Tahrir al-Souriya — is almost identical to that of the Saudi-backed group. Rebel sources count 11 different brigades from around the country that have merged to form this second coalition. Financing comes from wealthy Saudi, Kuwaiti and other Gulf Arab individuals. Rebel sources estimate about 13,000 Salafist fighters are gathered under this second umbrella.”

The names seem so similar because one of them is wrong, which should be obvious from the bungled Arabic grammar. The real name of this group is ”al-Jabha al-Islamiya al-Souriya”, or the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF).

The rest of the info seems correct, although the group itself claims to have about 25,000 fighters. Of course, only a minority of fighters are hardcore Islamists — most are simply religiously-minded Sunni men recruited off the street — but the central leadership holds to a strict salafi line. Some member factions seem a little less committed, but as an alliance, the SIF is dominated by a group called Ahrar al-Sham, and they’ve been salafi from day one. (As it happens, I just wrote a long report about the SIF and its member factions, which you can download here.)

WHO?

— Excerpt: ”A third rebel group, known as Ahfad al-Rasoul, is funded by Qatar. It has perhaps 15,000 fighters.”

Well, maybe. There’s about a million different local groups in Syria called Ahfad al-Rasoul (”Descendants of the Prophet”), including some which are part of the SIF and the SILF and the FSA.

If there’s also an overarching Qatari-sponsored country-wide alliance of such factions, I haven’t heard of it, but I guess it could still exist. Judging by media reports and rebel statements on who conquers what in Syria, they’re not the dominant force anywhere in the country. Or maybe they’re just quietly playing sheish-beish and smoking argileh on Sheikh Hamad’s expense, because unlike a fighting army of 15,000, that could fly under the radar.

JABHAT AL-NOSRA

— Excerpt: ”The most dangerous group in the mix is the Jabhat al-Nusra, which is an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq. By one rebel estimate, it has grown to include perhaps 6,000 fighters. But this group, perhaps fearing that it will be targeted by Western counterterrorism forces, is said to be keeping its head down — and perhaps commingling with the Salafist umbrella group.”

If by ”keeping its head down” you mean roaring full throttle into every battle in Syria, I suppose you could have a point. And they do in fact have something to say on the subject of heads, but not their own.

Whether Jabhat al-Nosra is ”the most dangerous group” depends on your point of view. For Assad? Possibly. For the USA? Very likely — perhaps not in the form of Jabhat el-Nosra itself, but they suck a lot of people into Qaeda-style salafi-jihadism, which is bad news for US security in the long term. For Syrian Sunni civilians? Not at all. For Syrian non-Sunni civilians? Maybe, maybe not. They’re ideologically extreme Alawite-baiters, and do not hesitate to kill civilian opponents or murder POWs, but they seem to have maintained a certain level of discipline in conquered areas so far. This is unlike some non-Islamist factions who randomly loot their way through civilian neighborhoods, and who sometimes express themselves in more sectarian and genocidal terms than any salafi. (Yeah, looking at you, Salaheddin Brigades of the Hama FSA.)

FREE SYRIAN ARMY, IDRISS EDITION

— Excerpt: ”Idriss and his Free Syrian Army command about 50,000 more fighters, rebel sources say.”

Rebel sources being Idriss and his Free Syrian Army command, I imagine. But OK. There’s a lot of people who claim to be part of that alliance, although it’s not true that the leaders ”command” most of them in any way at all (which I discussed with Koert Debeuf here; for context, first see here). Brig. Gen. Salim Idriss seems to be a nice guy, and he currently also seems to enjoys a degree of moral authority over parts of the revolutionary movement. But as far as I can tell, he has yet to issue a direct order to armed groups that will be obeyed out of earshot.

In fact, can anyone recall when rebels last captured anything inside Syria, and gave credit to Idriss and the FSA? Meanwhile, the SILF, SIF and Jabhat al-Nosra have been racking up garrison kills and village captures by the dozens every month since late 2012. That lack of raw power on the ground doesn’t make Idriss an unimportant figure, since he sits at the top of a major trickle-down mechanism for international sponsorship and now also enjoys a measure of political recognition, but lets keep things in perspective.

For those interested in this faction, Elizabeth O’Bagy just published a very interesting report. I think it’s maybe a bit on the optimistic side, but it’s still a must-read.

DON’T DO THIS

— Excerpt: ”Realistically, the best hope for U.S. policy is to press the Saudi-backed coalition and its 37,000 fighters, to work under the command of Idriss and the Free Syrian Army. That would bring a measure of order and would open the way for Idriss to negotiate a military transition government that would include reconcilable elements of Assad’s army.”

Here’s where it gets really weird. See, most of the ”Saudi-backed coalition” (SILF) is already part of Idriss’s (rather nominal) FSA command structure. All their main leaders are there. Abdulqader Saleh of the Tawhid Brigade and Osama el-Joneidi of the Farouq Battalions are members of the ”General Staff Advisory Council” under Idriss, Ahmed Eissa of Suqour el-Sham is part of the ”Northern Front Command”, and Zahran Alloush of the Islam Brigade sits on the ”Southern Front Command”. So, to indulge Mr. Ignatius by presuming that such an FSA structure actually operates on the ground, these two groups already overlap. Idriss does the talking, but out of the 50,000 FSA fighters, a full 37,000 come from the Islamist militias of the SILF. (No, I have no idea whether these numbers are accurate, but let’s accept them for the sake of discussion.)

To add to the confusion, at least one SIF faction (the Haqq Brigade of Homs) is also part of Idriss’s FSA command structure. It’s military commander, Abderrahman el-Soweiss – an ex-Hezb al-Tahrir prisoner who now runs a sizeable chunk of the Homs insurgency – has been named by Idriss as one of five commanders on the Homs front. That brings the number of Islamist fighters in the “secular” FSA to about 40,000 out of 50,000, and I’m still curious about who exactly makes up the remaining 20 percent.

Bottom line, Ignatius’s proposed strategy is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of these groups. The Idriss network, pace Debeuf, is not so much a functioning command hierarchy as it is a symbolic ”flag” to rally rebels amenable to Western and GCC support, and a distribution channel for guns, ammo and money from Saudi and other sources.

Many of the other groups mentioned here work in a similar fashion. They are not cohesive alliances, they are political planks and coordinating bodies for largely autonomous rebel factions, who have banded together to increase their military weight, acquire political representation, and gain access to foreign funds (state and non-state). The main exceptions are Jabhat el-Nosra and maybe the SIF, which seem to be reasonably cohesive and well delineated from the others.

BUT THEN AGAIN

From a self-interested US perspective, it might still be a good strategy for Washington to back the Idriss group, which unlike previous FSA incarnations has the significant advantage of existing outside of Twitter. The way to do it would be to make sure it receives abundant resources, and to help solidify the Islamist mainstream insurgency around it – i.e., the SILF, some of the SIF, and various unaffiliated strays.

That would of course require a level of cold-blooded realism not currently apparent in US policy circles, which have been making shrill little cries of shock and terror about talking to Islamists for over a decade – never mind arming them. But if the US is not prepared to deal with Islamist actors in Syria because they are theocratic and anti-semitic, or whatever, it should just excuse itself from Syrian insurgent politics entirely. Islamism is now the name of the game among Syria’s armed factions, so let’s not pretend that this conflict is something it’s not.

Anyway, political sensitivites aside, the American deep state already seems to be on the case. And I imagine that the purpose of the US backing such an armed coalition is to make it the platform on which a not-too-wobbly political leadership (of the Ghassan Hitto/Ahmed Moadh al-Khatib variety) could stand, and from there negotiate along the Geneva parameters with what’s left of the Assad regime. Or if that doesn’t work, the US & its allies will at least have built up a powerful client militia for future use. You can imagine it as kind of a Syrian Sahwa, like the one in Anbar, except this plays out while the Baath regime is still crumbling and with no US forces nearby. Or, with a little less optimism, think of it as the next TFG.

It does have a whiff of Dr. Strangelove to it, and the results won’t be a pretty sight, whatever happens, but I guess that’s just politics: you always work with all you got, and you never get all you want.

— Aron Lund

Correction, April 8, 2012: Thomas Pierret kindly pointed out that I’d mistakenly included Shuhada Souriya in my list of SILF members. That’s wrong, and I’ve now removed it from the text. It’s leader Jamal Maarouf is a member of the “Northern Region Command” in Salim Idriss’s FSA network, but they’re not in the SILF. Not that it would necessarily be a bad fit ideologically – the reason is more likely that the SILF was co-founded by Maarouf’s local rival in the Jebel Zawiya region, Ahmed Eissa of Suqour el-Sham.

Comments (121)


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101. Uzair8 said:

Tomorrow’s News Today

I get the feeling we may see a high profile defection soon.

If, as it appears, rebels are to move onto Damascus soon, squeezing it from the north and the south (Dera’a), then we may well see some abandon ship if they possibly can. Mr Muallem? Mrs Shaaban? If the fighting reaches Damascus then why would some continue to stand with the regime? Fighting and chaos in Damascus may present an opportunity to escape.

Imagine if the regime flees to a coastal enclave to continue to fight from there. By then surely with defection or capture of regime figures (from Damascus) we will see those figures speak freely and reveal a lot of ‘reality’. They will contradict the past and current regime narrative. In this context how many of those around the globe who accept or support the regime narrative (eg BRIC) will continue to stand with the regime? How bad will Iran look, especially if it continues to back the remnants of the regime on the coast (Alawite State)?

Iran is sensitive to it’s image. It likes to portray itself as the good guy, moral and upright. The champion of ‘Islamic awakening’ and ‘resistance’. It’ll have little to hide behind. Currently it repeats the (exagerrated) mantra of ‘NATO’, ‘Zio-Salafi’, etc in order to distract from it’s own unacceptable role in this situation.

Knowing the danger of it’s narrative being contradicted or exposed, the regime may well, before it runs for the coast, execute those, whom it can’t take with them, who know either too much or enough. Maybe they’ll get rid of them and make it appear it was a rebel car bomb or something.

Mr Muallem, Mrs Shaaban, Mr Sharaa etc be very careful. Get out while you can.

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April 4th, 2013, 2:30 am

 

102. Uzair8 said:

Tomorrow’s News Today

As the regime enters the twilight of the football season facing certain relegation, it seems it will fight on until survival is mathematically impossible.

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April 4th, 2013, 2:35 am

 

103. Uzair8 said:

A video was posted elsewhere yesterday introduced thus:

‘Funeral of latest Hezbollah martyr defending the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab’

Convenient cover?

For all we know the foreign fighter, member of a lebanese armed gang, was killed in Homs, Qusayr or elsewhere in Syria.

Now they can just claim any fighters were killed defending the shrine.

It would be easy to do. Fighters entering syria would first be sent to the shrine and have a group photo shot next to the shrine. Next they would be sent on their actual mission elsewhere in Syria. If any are killed it can be presented as ‘martyrdom while defending the shrine’. The photo presented as evidence to reinforce this claim.

I’ve seen these kind of group photos. See here.

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April 4th, 2013, 2:41 am

 

104. Citizen said:

“The political manoeuvre phase has come to an end, and the West is starting to implement a modified Libyan scenario in Syria, which is to ouster Assad by supporting rebels and providing them with weapons,” said Alexei Pushkov, head of the State Duma Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Pushkov said France and Britain already voiced their intentions to begin arms supplies to Syrian rebels.

Although not influencing the conflict in Syria directly, the US, he said, is playing the role of coordinator and organiser.

“It is no secret that American military instructors are training militants at bases in Jordan,” Pushkov said.

shortly Russia, China and Iran will form a peacekeeping force of 300 thousand to enter Syria under the banner of the BRICs!

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April 4th, 2013, 2:48 am

 
 

106. Dolly Buster said:

60. Tara said:

Reve,

You lied. You claimed that I stated Qatar’s Emir was elected.

 
Maybe he misunderstood you, because he posted a video of Hamad bin Jassem, and then you said someone was elected. Then he connected your remark to HBJ. It’s no big deal.

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April 4th, 2013, 3:29 am

 

107. Citizen said:

@DrMarcusP
The West professes to be fighting against Islamism yet is joined at the hip to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

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April 4th, 2013, 4:33 am

 

108. Dolly Buster said:

Marcus P is an idiot Russophile and I hate him with a passion.

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April 4th, 2013, 5:38 am

 

109. apple_mini said:

NYT reports an insight story about Iran helping training irregular forces for the regime. There are about 50,000 or even up to 100,000. My guess is that the recent upbeat and confident tone of Assad has something to do with it.

No surprise on this report.

Assad is maturing as a leader from this ongoing crisis. He has learn his lessons but still he should not be a candidate for future leader of Syria. But preserving a strong government force is crucial for Syria. Only that can counter the vicious and widespread rebel fighters who are getting more radical and brutal everyday.

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April 4th, 2013, 7:47 am

 

110. zoo said:

#79 Reve

The Ignatius report is part of an intensive media psychological campaign against Bashar al Assad and the Damascus residents.

Bashar’s announced death reported here by our local Salafist, the bombing of the university pinned on the government, the tempestuous announcement of the imminent fall of Deraa as a prelude to the fall of Damascus, the inflation of the number of rebel fighters. All this is the propaganda of the desperate.

What is happening is that the Qatar’s ‘coup’ of creating a ghost government supposed to control the ‘liberated’ swaths has been received very coldly by the embarrassed West and squarely rejected by the FSA. The opposition is back to square one, divided, weaken and more suspicious.

The disarray increased when France, a strong vocal supporter of arming the rebels, changed its tune and now talks about negotiations.
To compensate for these failures, the media campaign aims at creating the impression that the Syrian army is loosing ground and the rebels winning.
The arrival of the Saudi funded croatian weapons have certainly helped the armed gangs to advance in some areas, but their advantage is waning and if there are no new supplies of amunition soon, the rebels will loose all their gains.
The loss of territories by the rebels are hardly mentioned in the media while any centimeter they win is claimed as a ‘blow’ or as a “strategic” victory.

The media effect is also waning. People just don’t buy Al Jazeera and Al Arabya anymore.
What counts is that the Syrians are fed up with that oxymoron mess still called ‘revolution’ by some who still live in their fantasy world.

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April 4th, 2013, 8:51 am

 

111. ginger said:

there is another option – how about America stops supporting islamists – the syrian army are allowed to restore security – and presidential elections are allowed to take place. there will be one regardless in 2014.

let the people of syria decide if they would rather be ruled by Assad or islamic extremists. Syria now has a constitution and Assad could only stay for 14 years – long enough for a political opposition to form within syria if that is the people’s will

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April 4th, 2013, 9:03 am

 

112. zoo said:

An average Syrian views on the revolution

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/middle-east-live/2013/apr/04/syria-civil-war-clashes-continue-in-damascus-live-updates

My colleague Mona Mahmood has been speaking to Ammar Muhsin, a resident of Latakia and Assad supporter. Latakia, on the west coast of Syria, is viewed as one of Assad’s biggest support bases and strongholds.

Muhsin was damning about the rebels, saying:

Revolution in Syria is different to anywhere else in the world. It is the revolution of those who were unemployed and now can work as rebels and fight against their people. It is the revolution of criminals who were wanted by the law and now are imposing their own law on the ground through weaponry.

He said the people who supported the rebels did so for financial reasons: “This is not an oil state and most of the people have low incomes; they support the rebels for the sake of money, not for freedom or democracy.”

Muhsin asked why the rebels were strongest near the borders with Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. “If these neighbouring states closed their borders with Syria for a single month, Syria would clear out all these terrorists.”

He said he was living in Aleppo when the war began.

I was working in a factory making biscuits in Aleppo and my monthly salary was 22,000 Syrian pounds … The terrorists blew it up and I lost my job.

I went back to work in my hometown Latakia selling fruit, but the problem is when I send pick-ups loaded with fruit to other cities and towns, they get looted and their drivers are kidnapped. Is this freedom?

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April 4th, 2013, 9:05 am

 

113. zoo said:

#109 Apple_mini

Excellent news that will make the baby king of Jordan think twice about letting the CIA train fighters in his country, with the aim of toppling Syria’s president.

It is time Iran shows that it will respect its mutual defense agreement it signed wit Syria.
Iran will never forget that Syria stood alone against all the Arab countries that supported Saddam Hossein in his war against Iran when Saddam was using chemical supplied by Europe and applauded.
Because of that, there is never enough that Iran can do for Syria.

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April 4th, 2013, 9:16 am

 

114. Harry said:

@63. Ghufran said:
“Any tips on how to directly send donations to Syria though approved banks, Lebanese banks are refusing to send money to Syria now?”

You would be funding terrorists, these “humanitarians” just another outlet to provide full assistance to mostly foreign mercenaries.

The most telling line “to lead the international effort to end the crisis by all means necessary.” Which is another way of saying – they want NATO to attack Syria.

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April 4th, 2013, 10:39 am

 

115. Imaginary Syria | Souciant said:

[...] number of factions, with all kinds of ideologies at play in the Syrian opposition forces. Assad is, from all accounts, vastly overstating the number of foreign fighters involved in the opposition, though obviously [...]

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April 5th, 2013, 3:26 am

 

116. habib said:

30. Akbar Palace

How cute, the Zionist/Salafi embrace.

Anyone wants to tell me about the secret Assad-Israel alliance again?

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April 5th, 2013, 1:57 pm

 

117. Syrialover said:

GINGER #111

Your post is a silly attempt at a joke.

There is NO WAY normal elections could be held while the Assad regime survives. It would only complicate and deepen the chaos, divisions and fighting.

In your jokester thinking, the regime would never “lose” (they would see to that in how the elections are conducted), and if there was a sign they or their proxies could lose, they would resume fighting to the death.

Your credibility was shot and your cover blown anyway by your opening words: “how about America stops supporting islamists – the syrian army are allowed to restore security”

So America is in there supporting people? Really?

And the Syrian army has destroyed the country already in their idiotic, disastrous and failed attempts to “restore security”.

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April 12th, 2013, 5:08 pm

 

118. Will the National Dialogue Put an End for the Two-year Syrian Conflict? | Free Syrian Blog said:

[...] Via Syria comment: Sorting out David Ignatius                                                         [...]

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April 12th, 2013, 6:43 pm

 

119. Moral expediency. The US, Israel and Al Qaeda in Syria. | notthemsmdotcom said:

[...] Syria analysts with an ounce of honesty now fully admit the vast majority of supposed “rebels” are Salafi/Jihaddi inspired militants, or at least under the [...]

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May 6th, 2013, 10:19 am

 

120. Strategic Intelligence Assessment for Syria (2) – State of Play Part I – Pro-Assad Groups and Moderate Opposition Forces | Red (team) Analysis said:

[...] about 50,000 more fighters, rebel sources say” (Ignatius, 3 April 2013). However, Lund (4 April 2013) in his comment on Ignatius’ article for Syria Comment questions this estimates, considering [...]

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July 15th, 2013, 6:14 am

 

121. Strategic Intelligence Assessment for Syria (4) – State of Play Part III | Red (team) Analysis said:

[…] al-Sham (Lund 2013: 16), Liwa al-Tawhid and Liwa al-Islam (Lund 3013: 27 using Noah Bonsey, Lund, 3 April 2013). According to Lund, most of the SLF factions are also now part of the Supreme Joint Military […]

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September 12th, 2013, 8:35 am

 

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