As soon as it announced its formation on November 22, 2013, it was clear that the Islamic Front would be a powerful influence on Syria’s future and a key actor in the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The new alliance was created after several months of negotiations in which more than a dozen factions appear to have been involved.
In the end, the Islamic Front was announced by seven of these organizations, including some of Syria’s strongest rebel factions:
The Islamic Ahrar al-Sham Movement: A hardline Islamist group with units all across Syria.
The Suqour al-Sham Brigades: A strong faction centered on the Idlib Province in northwest Syria.
The Tawhid Brigade: Perhaps the single most powerful group in Aleppo.
The Haq Brigade: Wields major influence in Homs.
The Ansar al-Sham Battalions: Based in northern Latakia and Idlib.
The Islam Army: A strong faction with roots in eastern Damascus.
The Kurdish Islamic Front: A rare, small faction of Islamist Kurds.
No new groups have joined since then, although a spokesperson for the Islamic Front insists that there are “several” requests under consideration, and some of the seven founding groups have since absorbed new subfactions. Estimates of the combined size of the Islamic Front groups vary widely. A few days ago, a representative for the Islamic Front told me that the alliance controls some 70,000 men—a very high number. There is of course no way to confirm that.
However, hardly anyone doubts that the Islamic Front is Syria’s most powerful insurgent bloc. Since its creation less than two months ago, the front’s members have played a major role in fighting the regime, but they have also clashed with other rebel factions.
There are ongoing battles in northeast Syria between Arab and Kurdish rebels, typically pitting a jumble of Islamic Front units, jihadi groups, and small local factions against the Kurds of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a rebel Kurdish militia. In northwest Syria, a strange affair took place in December wherein the Islamic Front seized control over warehouses filled with Western- and Gulf-supplied military equipment. Days later, Ahrar al-Sham and Suqour al-Sham faced off with a local pseudo-Islamist alliance known as the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front, only to then make peace with it and turn their guns on the extremist jihadis of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
It has somehow become public knowledge that the Islamic Front is Saudi Arabia’s creature, but there’s little evidence for this, except for some reports that its Islam Army faction runs on Saudi money. Others have noted the presence of the Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiyah at meetings with soon-to-be Islamic Front commanders in the fall of 2013, and they point to previous reports of Qatari backing for some of the front’s member factions, like the Tawhid Brigade. Others still portray Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government in Turkey as a silent backer of the Islamic Front or of some of its member units.
While Saudi Arabia and Qatar have a two-decades-long history of mutual dislike, their involvement in Syria presents a confusing mix of close cooperation and open rivalry. It is difficult to know what to make of any of these reports.
At any rate, evidence of direct state involvement remains scarce, and it is likely that member factions have many different backers. In fact, a main source of support for these groups appears to be private capital, in particular donations funneled through Salafi support networks in Kuwait, with or without state oversight.
Ideologically and politically, the Islamic Front has positioned itself halfway between the disparate Western- and Gulf-backed armed opposition factions collectively referred to as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the radical jihadi factions, such as al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front and the ISIL.
This makes the Islamic Front a sort of “swing voter,” able to influence the course of the uprising by throwing its weight behind either the FSA-style groups or the jihadi ideologues. Many within the Syrian opposition and even some U.S. officials therefore want to cooperate with the Islamic Front, despite the fact that so many of its stated goals run counter to their own—and despite the front’s attempts to publicly distance itself from the West.
Their hope is, of course, that an international connection would help nurture the Islamic Front’s pragmatic streak or that the realists can be peeled away from more hardline Islamist ideologues when a negotiated solution draws near. But are these hopes realistic?
This is the first in a series of posts for Syria in Crisis that will attempt to sketch out the Islamic Front’s agenda, drawing on a range of sources, including news reports, Islamic Front publications and media appearances, and interviews with front members.
These posts will seek to clarify the Islamic Front’s stated positions on key issues such as the nature of the future Syrian state, the Geneva II peace process, the Western-backed opposition groups, the presence of al-Qaeda-linked extremists in Syria, and the Kurdish issue.
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