In the past year or so, Syria’s chaotically divided insurgency has slowly but surely coalesced into ever-larger blocs of fighters. At the grassroots level, there are still several hundred factions battling the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, but it is now possible to identify a handful of large coalitions spanning all or part of Syria, in addition to perhaps ten or fifteen second-tier alliances that seem to stand head and shoulders above the rest.
The most recent such group to form is the Mujahideen Army, or Jaish al-Mujahideen in Arabic. Made up of thousands of fighters, it dominates a chunk of the strategically important countryside west of Aleppo and exerts influence over at least some of the main supply routes from Turkey to Aleppo. The Mujahideen Army is not, however, a cohesive force. It was created on January 3, 2014, in a statement that listed the following main member factions:
The reason for its creation was clear: on the very same day, the Mujahideen Army declared war in “self-defense” on the jihadi faction known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, together with the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front and others. After three months of brutal infighting, these groups have managed to drive the ISIL out of northwestern Syria. “It has no place in Syria ever again,” says Sheikh Tawfiq Shahabuddin, one of the Mujahideen Army’s top leaders. “They must get out or the battle will go on until the end.”
Shahabuddin is the leader of the Noureddine al-Zengi Battalions, which is probably the biggest member group in the Mujahideen Army. It was created in late 2011 and briefly joined the Tawhid Brigade, a large Aleppo-based faction that now fights under the banner of the Islamic Front, a coalition of Islamist opposition groups. The Noureddine al-Zengi Battalions are also part of the Asala wa al-Tanmiya Front, a parallel alliance of Islamist factions that receives support from conservative Salafi clerics who are hostile to al-Qaeda.
Shahabuddin claims to have no affiliation to either the National Coalition for the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Syria’s leading alliance of exiled politicians, or its military wing, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is backed by Saudi Arabia, the United States, and other countries. But he admits to receiving support from abroad—without, however, naming the exact sources.
Another major force inside the Mujahideen Army is the so-called 19th Division of the FSA, itself an umbrella movement of smaller factions. Its members include the Amjad al-Islam Brigade, the Jund al-Haramain Brigade, and possibly also the Ansar al-Khilafa Brigade or a faction of it, but the real force behind the 19th Division is the Muslim Brotherhood–linked Ansar Brigade, whose leader, Lieutenant Colonel Mohammad Abdel Qader Bakkour, is also the leading figure of the 19th Division as a whole.
The Ansar Brigade was originally formed in autumn 2012 under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Abdullah Omar, who had deserted from the government army. It attached itself to a unity project for groups west of Aleppo called the Moutassem Billah Brigades, led by Brigadier General Ahmed al-Fajj. It appears that the Ansar Brigade then co-opted other groups within this framework while working with the FSA structures and military councils in the Aleppo region, then led by the famous military defector Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Ageidi.
In June 2013, the FSA headquarters in Turkey helped coordinate the merger of the Moutassem Billah Brigades and other groups working in the western Aleppo countryside, about a dozen in total, into the 19th Division. This was part of a larger, foreign-funded drive to unify pro-FSA local factions into bigger blocs using military nomenclature. The Ansar Brigade, which is now separately supported by the Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated Commission for the Protection of Civilians, has emerged as the centerpiece of this coalition, and it seems to have drawn the smaller 19th Division groups into its own orbit.
According to the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar, the Ansar Brigade’s Bakkour is now on the leadership council of the Mujahideen Army, along with Mohammed Shakerdi of the Amjad al-Islam Brigade (another 19th Division subgroup) and Tawfiq Shahabuddin of the Noureddine al-Zengi Battalions.
One purported 19th Division member faction presents a special case: the Ansar al-Khalifa Brigade. It was said to be part of the 19th Division at its creation in June 2013. It was also included on the initial roster of Mujahideen Army members in January 2014, but the group’s media wing then quickly issued a statement denying membership.
The Ansar al-Khalifa Brigade appears to be supported by the Syrian chapter of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a secretive Sunni Islamist movement with adherents all over the world, including in many Arab and European countries. It was created in Syria in 2013 and has small groups of fighters in several locations, though mainly in northeastern Syria.
However, there is nothing else to indicate a connection between Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Mujahideen Army. Perhaps only a local faction of Ansar al-Khalifa members in Aleppo decided to join, while the Hizb ut-Tahrir–backed mother group refused?
The third group at the core of the Mujahideen Army, apart from Noureddine al-Zengi and the 19th Division factions, is the Fastaqim Kama Umirta Gathering—it takes its name from a Quranic verse. Led by a young FSA-linked fighter called Saqr Abu Quteiba, this Islamist umbrella movement was formed by a group pro-FSA factions in December 2012. It now controls territory both in Aleppo city and in the countryside.
The Fastaqim Kama Umirta Gathering recently caused a stir when it arrested a Christian anti-Assad activist in Aleppo for not wearing a veil, but after criticism from other opposition groups, its political office issued an apology saying the arrest was a mistake by a local commander.
The Mujahideen Army factions all portray themselves as faithful Islamists, albeit of slightly different stripes, but most of them seem to have evolved from fairly non-ideological FSA factions, spawned out of the villages and towns of the Aleppo hinterland. There is no ideological or political program to this organization, and in all likelihood this is—like most Syrian rebel groups—an opportunistic coalition glued together by necessity or foreign funder pressure.
When asked by Al Jazeera why he hasn’t attempted to unite with the larger and more ideological Islamic Front, Shahabuddin promises in vague terms that he will seek further unity in the future. An Islamic Front commander with good relations to the Mujahideen Army has also said that the two organizations have opened membership negotiations.
But in his Al Jazeera interview, Shahabuddin acknowledged that the real raison d’être for the Mujahideen Army is geography: all member groups were fighting side by side in the same region. It made sense to band together when faced by both the regime and the ISIL. Perhaps, then, the real question is not whether the Mujahideen Army will go on to unify with other groups but whether it can survive its own victory over the ISIL in western Aleppo?
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