The Islamist mess in Damascus

(Guest post by Aron Lund)

In the last post, Noah Bonsey had some very interesting remarks about the Syria Liberation Front (jabhat tahrir souriya), which is not just a very large alliance, but also pretty much the new mainstream face of the insurgency. It’s certainly more important than any of the rival leaderships of the Free Syrian Army (Riad el-Asaad, Mustafa el-Sheikh, Qasem Saadeddine, etc), although given the media focus, one could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. The problem is that while the FSA factions have leaders but no fighters, the Syria Liberation Front has a lot of fighters but no real leadership. It seems to be more of a political platform than an actual alliance, and the member factions go about their business much as they did before joining it. Of course, that could change with time.

As far as I can tell, however, it’s not true that the large Damascus insurgent alliance Tajammou Ansar al-Islam fi Qalb al-Sham (“The Gathering of Islam’s Supporters in the Heart of al-Sham”) is a member faction in the Syria Liberation Front. The Tajammou was originally formed by seven Damascus factions in August 2012: Liwa el-Islam, Kataeb el-Sahaba, Liwa el-Furqan, Liwa Ahfad el-Rasoul, Kataeb Der’ el-Sham, Liwa el-Habib Mustafa, and Katibat Hamza bin Abdelmuttalib.

I also thought that the Tajammou had joined the Syrian Liberation Front. What appears to have happened is that Zahran Alloush, the self-styled salafi sheikh who leads Liwa al-Islam, signed up for Syria Liberation Front membership on behalf of the Tajammou, only to find that this was opposed by other members. As far as I can tell, only Liwa al-Islam actually went into the Syria Liberation Front. The others remained separate from it.

Liwa al-Islam is one of the best known factions in Damascus, and appears to be quite large and active. It’s the group that took credit for the July 2012 bombing that killed Assef Shawkat, Daoud Rajha and the other regime leaders. It’s ideologically salafi, or at least likes to present itself that way, and has its strongest base in Douma in north-east Damascus, although there are affiliate factions elsewhere in the capital, and scattered through some other Syrian governorates. (It may have been quite badly mauled in the recent Douma fighting.)

About two months ago, the Tajammou seemed to split. Liwa al-Islam and Alloush were kicked out by the new Tajammou supremo, Abu Moadh al-Agha, and there were some exchanges of angry statements.

Another charter member, Katibat Hamza bin Abdelmuttaleb, which was based in Zabadani, close to the Lebanese border, was also edged out by Agha, and left the Tajammou. It instead joined the more hardline salafi Syrian Islamic Front (el-jabha el-islamiya el-souriya), which was formed in December by the Ahrar al-Sham network and its allies. It then absorbed a couple of other Damascus salafi factions and restyled itself Kataeb Hamza bin Abdelmuttaleb, and now claims to be active far beyond Zabadani.

So, unless something just happened to reverse these developments — which is possible, but in that case I’ve missed it — the current situation is that you have no strong Islamist alliance in the Damascus region, but several small ones, scattered all over the city map:

  • The Syria Liberation Front, which in Damascus consists of Liwa el-Islam and its allies.
  • The Syrian Islamic Front, which is Kataeb Hamza and its allies, most notably the Damascus-region affiliates of Ahrar al-Sham.
  • Tajammou Ansar al-Islam, which is Kataeb el-Sahaba, Liwa el-Furqan, Liwa Ahfad el-Rasoul, and some others.
  • Jabhat el-Nosra.
  • Jabhat el-Asala wal-Tanmiya (“The Authenticity & Growth Front”), which is a smaller pseudo-salafi alliance.
  • Groups loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood.
  • Plus a whole bunch of smaller, indepdendent Islamist factions.

And then of course, there are lots of non-Islamist groups, which don’t appear to be much better organzied.

In other words: the Damascus insurgency is growing and will eventually overpower the prevailing order, but organizationally, it’s a total mess. These movements all seem to be cooperating pretty well on the ground – rebel infighting is surprisingly rare in Syria so far, which I think is one of few encouraging signs. But they are likely to become more competitive as time passes, resources become scarce, and the power vacuum grows. In Aleppo it’s already turning into a battle for the spoils, and when the local regime forces are forced out entirely, we’re likely to see some serious turf wars.

Of the Syrian Islamist alliances in general, I think the recently created Syrian Islamic Front is the thing currently most worth watching. Unlike the Liberation Front, they’ve managed to agree on a clearly defined ideology, and some member factions are already merging their forces and leaderships, as opposed to merely conducting joint operations.

On the other hand, the Liberation Front factions may win out because of superior backing, if they receive Western and Gulf aid in a way that the Islamic Front doesn’t. The Brotherhood is also aligned with the Gulf- and Western-backed Antalya military command, like the Liberation Front. Its a disciplined group, and much more pragmatic and sophisticated than any of the salafi formations, but they still suffer from a pretty thin presence on the ground.

I’m just finishing a long report on militant salafism in Syria and the Syrian Islamic Front, for the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, as a follow-up to my August 2012 report on Syria’s Islamist and jihadi factions. It should be out in a week or two – I will post a link here then.

Aron Lund

Comments (381)

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351. revenire said:

Erdogan is a barking dog that will do nothing. He did nothing when Israel attacked his Gaza Flotilla.

Johannes my dear friend it isn’t nice to call people “paki-boy” etc. Correct yourself or I shall be forced to make a formal complaint to Tara and she might ban you, like she is banned from Syria.

Seriously friends I ask why is there so much hatred and racism on this board from terrorist supporters? Should minorities in Syria feel comforted? Tara said Alawites should be massacred, people post beheadings, gays are slurred and now there is something wrong with Pakistan?

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February 11th, 2013, 4:15 pm


352. Syrialover said:


The same story I am hearing from inside. Thanks for stating it.

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February 11th, 2013, 4:25 pm


353. Uzair8 said:

Galloway pressed on his apparent equating of Mali & Syria situations. BBC.

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February 11th, 2013, 4:42 pm


354. revenire said:

Tara this is what you support. You belong in a cage with these animals. Your kind will NEVER win in Syria.

edward dark ‏@edwardedark
eyewitness: rebels storm building taking civilians hostage & putting kids on balconies as human shields. Aleppo #Syria

يا جماعة يا ناس أنا شفت بعيني الرهائن ببناية بمساكن السبيل وحاطين ولاد على الشبابيك دروع بشرية مشان الجيش النظامي ما يتقدم للمساكن داخل المبنى 10 نساء و 12 طفل تحت سن 14 سنة
و من بيناتون احمد عفش قائد كتيبة لواء احرار سوريا !!!! هو يلي اسرون وبحب أوجه رسالة إلى عبد القادر صالح وعبد العزيز سلامة ( القائد المفدى ) وجماعة لواء التوحيد والمجلس العسكري وعبد الجبار عكيدي .. إذا بدكم تتمرجلو وتشتغلو صح شوفو وضع أحمد عفش وجماعتو ماتعملوا معون تحالفات من تحت الطاولة وقدام العالم تعملو حالكم أنكم عم تحاسبو الحرامية أحمد عفش ولواء أحرار سوريا وصمة عار على الثورة
أدمن إذا مابدك تنشر لاتنشر والسلام عليكم
يرجى النشر كي يصل الخبر إلى من يهمه الأمر

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February 11th, 2013, 4:47 pm


355. Syrialover said:

SAMI # 264

Assad regime destroying factories and jobs = deliberate annihilation of the economy.

Proof that Assad has no interest in preserving Syria beyond what’s needed to keep the regime and its cronies in delusionary comfort.

How could anyone claim that regime is competent and entitled to control a country!!!

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February 11th, 2013, 4:50 pm


356. Uzair8 said:

Assad must be up there amongst the top pound-for-pound tyrants of the last century. Perhaps only Hitler ahead of him (one estimate 155 pounds).

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February 11th, 2013, 4:51 pm


357. Syrialover said:

Reminder alert!

Links posted by “ANN” (Assadist news network) and REVENIRE should be regarded with extreme caution.

Avoid risk – don’t click on them.

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February 11th, 2013, 4:55 pm


358. Syrialover said:

UZAIR8 #356

No, no. Forget comparisons with Hitler.

Assad is unique in history for burning down the country he is supposed to be “ruling”.

There is no precedent in the world for the alleged “leader” of a sovereign state randomly bombing its citizens in bread queues, petrol stations, universities and hospitals.

Or committing “urbicide”, using state resources to destroy tens of thousands of homes, over 2,000 schools and other basic infrastructure, beautiful world-famous heritage buildings, mosques etc

Bashar Assad has created a whole new category of evil and stupidity.

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February 11th, 2013, 5:08 pm


359. Visitor said:

George Galloway is a moron.

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February 11th, 2013, 5:13 pm


360. Uzair8 said:

Symbolic victories?

More symbolic victories please.

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February 11th, 2013, 5:27 pm


361. Uzair8 said:

#358 SyriaLover

Yes, you might have a point.
Also Hitler was democratically elected.

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February 11th, 2013, 5:28 pm


362. revenire said:

I bet you rats hate him telling the truth like this. Notice the rat slinking out in shame.

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February 11th, 2013, 5:34 pm


363. Uzair8 said:

The SC regimist tactic of denial, prevarication and even procastrination has been for sometime, annoying, frustrating and frankly boring.

Should people continue to give it attention? It only encourages and invites more of the same.

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February 11th, 2013, 5:36 pm



The Irony of thieve’s Honor
The assad lover who manufactured his oversize ugly, low class, tasteless statue in Raqqa filled the statue with dirty papers and plastic garbage bags. This is the cause of excessive amount of black smoke shown in post 265 by Hanzala

As Yassin Al-Haj Saleh wrote earlier
The heart of the dictator turned out to be a garbage bag..

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February 11th, 2013, 5:47 pm


365. revenire said:

Zaid Benjamin ‏@zaidbenjamin
#BREAKING: SNC delegation was slated to pass through #turkey – #Syria border crossing that was hit with explosion Monday – SNC Statement

That would be great if they were bombed at the border crossing al-Nusra “liberated” months ago. I am praying for it.

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February 11th, 2013, 6:02 pm


366. Tara said:

I really really do not like it when one allows himself to worship someone else. Meaningful pride is what attracts me to people. It is very contemptuous and degrading. What a waste of manhood!

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February 11th, 2013, 6:21 pm


367. Visitor said:

Another victory and another triumph for holy warriors.

A terrorist rodent (Sa’id Zarifeh) bites the dust into darkest lowest jahannam at the hands of our valiant holy warriors of the victorious FSA.

The chief-rodent-terrorist (so-called commander) in other circumnstances) of the terrorist organization of republican-terrorists (so-called guards in other circumstances) is demolished while cowering down like a coward rodent mouse in Barzeh.

الجيش الحر يقتل قائد اركان الفرقة الرابعة سعيد ظريفة في برزة بريف دمشق

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February 11th, 2013, 6:21 pm


368. Tara said:

# killing the commander of the 4th brigade:

Another symbolic victory of the rebels.

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February 11th, 2013, 6:25 pm



I told you, the symbolism is inescapable.

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February 11th, 2013, 6:31 pm



As this rat said before, the symbolism is inescapable .

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February 11th, 2013, 6:32 pm


371. revenire said:

You know what I like Tara? Dead rats.

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February 11th, 2013, 6:35 pm


372. zoo said:

Pressure on Obama from neo-cons suddenly worried
about ‘moral urgency’

The price of forsaking Syria.
President Obama’s inaction is shameful

NEW YORK DAILY NEWS Monday, February 11, 2013, 8:00 PM
By Richard Cohen

His foreign policy has similarly lacked any sense of moral urgency. As a result, the situation in Syria has worsened. It is now becoming a regional catastrophe that will soon enough pull in the United States anyway. Obama purportedly feared making the war worse. By inaction, he has.

Read more:

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February 11th, 2013, 8:45 pm


373. Visitor said:

The Druze of Suweida and adjoining region have proven to be patriotic Syrians and are loyal to the great revolution of the Syrian people,مشايخ-دروز-يفتون-سرا-بعدم-الإنضمام-لميليشيات-النظام-السوري

The Druze of Syria will, therefore, have a major role to play in the new Syria.

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February 11th, 2013, 9:02 pm


374. zoo said:

Is Turkey short-sighted and cynical foreign policy with its neighbors finally backfiring?

News Analysis: Blast at Turkish-Syrian border unveils dangers of violence spillover


ANKARA, Feb. 11 (Xinhua) — Monday’s car blast at the Turkish- Syrian border gate has raised fears that the violence from Syria’s 22-month conflict may be spilling over to the Turkish side.

Initial reports indicated that the car was exploded in a no man ‘s land close to the Turkish border gate of Cilvegozu. The blast killed at least 13 people and injured 28 others. At least three of the killed were Turkish nationals, according reports from the area.

There are different speculations on who was behind the attack or what was the motivation, as the authorities are scrambling to investigate circumstances of the incident. But it is almost agreed in Turkey that the instability in the neighboring state has become more and more dangerous for Turkey.

According to one interpretation, the car bomb was in fact a warning to the Turkish government for its support to the opposition against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

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February 11th, 2013, 9:31 pm


375. Tara said:

If this is true, then Iranians in Syria should be considered by the FSA to be enemy combatants and treated as such.

Iran and Hezbollah build militia networks in Syria in event that Assad falls, officials say

Iran and Hezbollah, its Lebanese proxy, are building a network of militias inside Syria to preserve and protect their interests in the event that President Bashar al-
Assad’s government falls or is forced to retreat from Damascus, according to U.S. and Middle Eastern officials.

The militias are fighting alongside Syrian government forces to keep Assad in power. But officials think Iran’s long-term goal is to have reliable operatives in Syria in case the country fractures into ethnic and sectarian enclaves.

A senior Obama administration official cited Iranian claims that Tehran was backing as many as 50,000 militiamen in Syria. “It’s a big operation,” the official said. “The immediate intention seems to be to support the Syrian regime. But it’s important for Iran to have a force in Syria that is reliable and can be counted on.”

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February 11th, 2013, 9:42 pm


376. zoo said:

After leaning for a moment toward the the opposition…
Sweida Syria’s Druze Grapple With Jabhat al-Nusra

(دروز جبل العرب في سورية وإشكالية «جبهة النصرة» و«الكتائب الإسلامية»
سالم الدمشقي *

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February 11th, 2013, 9:42 pm


377. zoo said:

#374 Tara

This is just more headache and pressures on Al Khatib to quickly find new ways to get the regime to accept the dialog before Al Nusra controls the country. If this ever happens, Iran and Hezbollah will probably intervene to protect the minorities.

Time is ticking for Al Khatib and the coalition.

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February 11th, 2013, 9:49 pm


378. zoo said:

As the “Friends of Syria” club went bankrupt, the expat opposition is planning another “productive” conference to “unite” in Cairo.

The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that Syrian opposition members residing abroad are planning to hold a meeting in Cairo later in the month to organize and unite efforts against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The meeting aims to gather representatives of the Syrian youth protesting, traditional opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as exiled anti-regime activists, the daily added.

According to the Wall Street Journal, meeting have been held in recent weeks across Europe, but participants have failed to agree on a united strategy.

“The Cairo conference, which still requires Egyptian authorities’ approval, would be the first large-scale gathering of Syria’s opposition in an Arab capital in more than a decade,” the newspaper quoted an activist as saying.

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February 11th, 2013, 9:58 pm


379. revenire said:

Syria: The Druze Are Not Joining The Opposition
(courtesy of b at

A just published Washington Post piece claims: Syria’s Druze minority is shifting its support to the opposition.

Its evidence for the alleged shift is … solely from the insurgency side:

“Members of Syria’s Druze community, a small but significant religious minority, are joining the opposition in bigger numbers, ramping up pressure on the beleaguered government of President Bashar al-Assad, according to opposition activists and rebel military commanders.”

There is no evidence in the whole piece of a shift in the Druze community but those not-verifiable self-serving insurgency claims. A real highlight is this paragraph:

“Yet there is now even a Druze-dominated unit of rebel fighters, the Bani Maarouf battalion, operating in the Damascus suburbs, including Jaramana, which was formed in late December.”

That link goes to video that shows a group of 30 men proclaiming to be some new unit. Why is the reporter calling this a “battalion”. Thirty men are a small platoon. There are three or four platoons to a company and four or five companies make up a battalion. That is the about the same in every army of this world. Why is a Washington Post reporter writing about a “battalion” when that “battalion” doesn’t even have 5% of the nominal size of a real on? And how does he know that these are indeed Druze?

There are thousands of such videos of such groups, often multiple ones of the ever same folks and their sole purpose is exaggerate the size of the insurgency. They are sheer propaganda. The one the WaPo reporter chose is especially ridiculous. Take a look at this gun that one of the guys holds.

Those “Druze” must have v_e_r_y long arms if they can fire weapons with such shoulder stocks.

Thet WaPo piece’s claim of Druze joining those insurgents is just as much propaganda as the one that claimed the Druze are joining the opposition in March 2012 and the one that claimed so in July 2012 and the one that claimed so a month ago.

All of these piece are based on insurgency sources and all of them are false. The Druze know very well that they, as a religious minority, would be in much more trouble should the insurgency win then they have ever been and ever will be under Bashar al-Assad.

Indeed instead of more people joining the opposition we see the opposition falling apart. Not only the exile opposition which never manages to unite, but also on the ground. This video shows a brawl between Free Syrian Army and Jabhat al-Nusra protesters in Idleb with the Nusra supporters tearing up FSA flags.

As their situation on the ground worsens we are likely to see more such fights, even deadly ones, between those various opposition groups.

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February 11th, 2013, 10:00 pm


380. Tara said:

Ah… Love it about the Druze’s heart being with the revolution. I always liked them and always thought their women and men are among the best looking people is Syria and Lebanon.

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February 11th, 2013, 10:13 pm


381. apple_mini said:

Over 60000 people have been killed in this ongoing war and everyday many more are dying.

Yet, some people here made superficial, insensitive and absurd comment about a minority in Syria are good looking and we are happy to have you all to be on our side…

I think Asma’s beauty and fame really have made some opposition supporters feeling very insecure, upset and jealous.

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February 11th, 2013, 11:33 pm


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