Assessing Syria’s Islamic Alliance

Syria’s myr­iad of rev­o­lu­tion­ary fac­tions became all the more com­plex recently when two key announce­ments took place. In Aleppo – thir­teen major fight­ing fac­tions includ­ing Jub­hat an-Nusrah, Ahrar ash-Sham, and Liwaa at-Tawheed declared an Islamic alliance affirm­ing their rejec­tion of the Western-backed oppo­si­tion. This dec­la­ra­tion came amidst increased efforts by the United States and its allies to pro­vide more logis­ti­cal and mil­i­tary sup­port to “Mod­er­ate” fac­tions in Syria. A few days later, an even more grandiose dec­la­ra­tion emerged from Dam­as­cus announc­ing the unity of 43 fac­tions under the ban­ner of the newly-formed ‘Jaysh al-Islam’ led by the pre­vi­ous com­man­der of Liwaa al-Islam Muham­mad Zahran Alloush. These Islamic alliances are sig­nif­i­cant devel­op­ments in the Syr­ian upris­ing and will impact the tra­jec­tory of the Syr­ian rev­o­lu­tion in a num­ber of ways.

Firstly, a cen­tral chain-of-command pro­vides the Syr­ian rebels in the sub­urbs of Dam­as­cus with a new strate­gic impe­tus. How­ever, the strength and sig­nif­i­cance needs to be placed into per­spec­tive. Around 38–40 of the brigades or bat­tal­ions men­tioned in Jaysh al-Islam’s state­ment were in fact already under the umbrella of Liwa al-Islam prior to the announce­ment. Sev­eral of the new brigades were prac­ti­cally unheard of (Kataeb Junoob al Aseema, Liwa Badr, Kat­i­bat al Ashayer, Kat­iba Rayat al Haq) and the remain­ing new brigades, are rel­a­tively small (Liwa Deraa al Ghouta, Liwa Jaysh al Mus­limeen, Liwa Omar bin Abdel Aziz, Liwa Tawheed al Islam, Liwa Maghaweer al Qalam­oun, Liwa Fatah al Sham, Kat­iba Suqour Abu Dujana, Liwa Shuhada al Atareb, Kataeb ayn Jalut, Kataeb Nour al Ghouta, Liwa Omar bin al Khat­tab, Kataeb as Sadiq). From a logis­ti­cal and mil­i­tary per­spec­tive, the move is not of major sig­nif­i­cance as Jaysh al-Islam remains one of sev­eral fac­tions in the area which include Ahrar ash-Sham, Jub­hat an-Nusrah and the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham — ISIS.

A look at the names of the fac­tions which were listed as hav­ing sworn alle­giance to Jaysh al-Islam points to a sig­nif­i­cant fact; the major Islamic fac­tions in Syria were not aboard. Ahrar ash-Sham, Jub­hat an-Nusrah, Suqour ash-Sham and the ISIS were not part of the move – more so – Ahrar ash-Sham and two other strong Islamic fac­tions with­drew from Jaysh al-Islam’s logistical-operations room cit­ing that cer­tain fac­tions had a hege­mony in deci­sion mak­ing and thus played an arbi­trary role. [1] As of now, it is unclear how much polit­i­cal and rep­re­sen­ta­tive power the newly declared army will have. What we do know is before the emer­gence of Jaysh al-Islam, the Syr­ian rev­o­lu­tion was largely divided into ‘two’ camps; the ‘Sec­u­lar’ FSA com­manded by Salim Idris on one side and the “rad­i­cal” Islamic fac­tions like Jub­hat an-Nusrah and the ISIS on another. Bat­tal­ions dis­en­chanted with the Free Syr­ian Army even­tu­ally left the loosely-affiliated and inef­fi­cient umbrella group to join the “rad­i­cal” Islamic fac­tions. Some reports sug­gested that hun­dreds of fight­ers and sev­eral major bat­tal­ions had made such moves. [2] With the emer­gence of Jaysh al-Islam, dis­en­chanted fight­ers seek­ing a more effec­tive and Islamic lead­er­ship are given an alter­na­tive to both the “Rad­i­cal” fac­tions and the “Sec­u­lar” Free Syr­ian Army. Accord­ing to Reuters sev­eral of its sources have indi­cated that this in fact was the strate­gic goal behind the for­ma­tion of the Army. [3] From an ide­o­log­i­cal per­spec­tive, Jaysh al-Islam, an exten­sion of Liwa al-Islam, espouses a more mod­er­ate Islamic polit­i­cal vision than that of fac­tions whose ide­ol­ogy is closer to Salafist-Jihadist.

The for­ma­tion of an alter­na­tive “Mod­er­ate” Islamic front is sig­nif­i­cant in two ways; firstly, a shift from the Western-backed FSA to the explic­itly Islamist ‘Jaysh al-Islam’ rein­forces the fact that the Syr­ian rev­o­lu­tion is marked and dis­tin­guished by its Islamic ori­en­ta­tion. It rep­re­sents the end of any sig­nif­i­cant influ­ence held by the ‘Sec­u­lar’  Free Syr­ian Army and essen­tially leaves no one stand­ing amongst the ‘oppo­si­tion’ but those who espouse an Islamic iden­tity. Sec­ondly, and per­haps para­dox­i­cally although Jaysh al-Islam is based on Islamic ideals and sen­ti­ments, these ideals are not as clearly defined and elu­ci­dated as they are with more rad­i­cal brigades. Ambi­gu­ity makes the ‘Army’ prone to being absorbed by regional or inter­na­tional hege­monic pow­ers which sup­port the rise of a “Mod­er­ate” Civil State with an “Islamic Ref­er­ence”. Two facts make this sug­ges­tion all the more plau­si­ble; Liwa al-Islam has had explicit ties with Saudi and Gulf gov­ern­ment enti­ties prior to this dec­la­ra­tion. In par­tic­u­lar, the leader of the ‘Army’ Zahran Alloush has held close ties with sev­eral gulf states over the past few years. More so, the afore­men­tioned operations/logistics room was ini­ti­ated con­trolled by Liwa al-Islam was financed and sup­ported by the ‘Coun­cil of Sup­port­ers of the Syr­ian Rev­o­lu­tion in Kuwait’. [4]

For now, it is dif­fi­cult to make any deci­sive remarks about the tra­jec­tory of Jaysh al-Islam. Zahran  Alloush has openly denied any ties with exter­nal bod­ies on a state­ment pub­lished on Jaysh al-Islam’s web­site and has also defended “for­eign fighters”[5]. He has yet to express any neg­a­tiv­ity towards Jub­hat an-Nussrah or the ISIS. If the shift from Liwa al-Islam to the newly formed Jaysh al-Islam is not only intended to be a logis­ti­cal but rather a trans­for­ma­tive shift to a more inde­pen­dent and inclu­sive Islamic fac­tion then the impli­ca­tions are major and will dras­ti­cally affect the polit­i­cal land­scape of post-Assad Syria. As a mat­ter of fact, in an arti­cle pub­lished on Jaysh al-Islam’s page enti­tled ‘How Our Rev­o­lu­tions are Stolen” [6] the writer stressed that dis­unity would allow the ‘ hotel oppo­si­tion’ to hijack the rev­o­lu­tion and steer it away from the actual aims of the rev­o­lu­tion. Sin­cere inten­tions, rhetoric and zeal how­ever are inad­e­quate bases for polit­i­cal analy­sis and fore­cast­ing. Whether or not the announce­ment of Jaysh al-Islam rep­re­sents a sin­cere trans­for­ma­tion of Liwa al-Islam and pre­vi­ously FSA-affiliated fac­tions or rep­re­sents a mal­leable buffer-zone between the ‘Sec­u­lar’ exter­nal oppo­si­tion and the rev­o­lu­tion is unclear. Only time will pro­vide some insight into the tra­jec­tory of the newly formed Army and its impact on the Syr­ian revolution.


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