Posted by Aron Lund on Saturday, February 9th, 2013
(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.