Yesterday’s post described the backdrop to a weekend of fighting between Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an Islamist Syrian opposition group, and rival Syrian rebel factions.
The violence that erupted on January 3 was preceded by several months of rapidly worsening relations between the ISIL and the rebel mainstream, including big Islamist factions like Ahrar al-Sham and the Army of Islam, two groups that are members of the Islamic Front, an Islamist coalition formed in November 2013. The Islamic Front is the biggest of several recent alliances nurtured by a flood of money from private and public sources in the Arab Gulf states. These and other coalitions formed in the past months have excluded the jihadis of the ISIL and the al-Qaeda-backed Nusra Front, contributing to a growing polarization of Syrian insurgent ranks.
Of the factions mentioned yesterday, it is two newly formed northern coalitions that have led the charge against the ISIL, the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front (SRF) and the Mujahideen Army, while a third—the Islamic Front, the biggest of them all—has taken a more ambiguous position.
The Syria Revolutionaries’ Front
The SRF has issued a laundry list of complaints against the ISIL, promising to “strike anyone who obstructs the march of the revolution with a fist of iron.” On January 3 and 4, the SRF and its allies in Idlib, Hama, and adjoining areas of Aleppo Province overran several ISIL positions, including some villages near the Bab al-Hawa border crossing.
The SRF alliance, which was created in early December, has member units scattered across Syria, but it is principally active in the Idlib-Hama region. Its main public leader is Jamal Maarouf, a Saudi-backed commander who rules a guerrilla fiefdom in the Jabal al-Zawiya region of Idlib. Apart from Maarouf’s fighters, the SRF includes several other small factions. Some of these groups insist on their Islamic credentials, but there’s little apparent ideology in SRF statements, and the jihadis disparage SRF groups as opportunists at best or closeted secularists at worst.
Maarouf and his allies are seen as close to Gulf governments, like that of Saudi Arabia. Not coincidentally, the SRF favors the Supreme Military Council (SMC), the U.S.- and Gulf-backed command structure of the rebel Free Syrian Army headed by Lieutenant General Salim Idris. By contrast, the SRF has had poor relations with the Islamic Front, which does not recognize the SMC, although clashes between the two fronts in early and mid-December ended in a peace agreement.
The Mujahideen Army
The other group that initiated the battle against the ISIL is the Mujahideen Army, so named after the Arabic term for Muslim holy warriors. It was formed on the first day of the fighting against the ISIL by a group of mostly Islamist factions from Aleppo and thereabouts: the Noureddin al-Zengi Battalions, the Ansar Brigade, the Fastaqim Kama Umirta Gathering, the Islamic Freedom Brigade, the Amjad al-Islam Brigade, the Ansar al-Khilafa Brigade, the Jund al-Haramain Brigade, the Islamic Light Movement, and others. It claims to consist of more than 5,000 fighters.
Several of these groups had been part of the series of hardline Islamist statements and conferences that preceded the formation of the Islamic Front, but they didn’t end up on the final Islamic Front roster that was declared on November 22. Some of them have been aligned with anti-al-Qaeda Salafi factions whereas others have been linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Immediately after its formation on January 3, the Mujahideen Army declared war against Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s followers, saying that civilians were being attacked by the ISIL in Atareb and other areas west of Aleppo. It claims to have captured over a hundred jihadis but strongly denies the accusations of having randomly attacked foreigners and their families (since so many non-Syrians work with the ISIL).
The fact that the Mujahideen Army was created just before clashes began all over northern Syria belies the idea that the attack against the ISIL happened without any previous coordination, as a spontaneous defense of anti-ISIL demonstrators. To the contrary, the attack must have been coordinated between the Mujahideen Army factions and the SRF—and probably others as well. Tomorrow, we take a look at the Islamic Front’s curious position during this crisis.