Some of the largest Free Syrian Army brigades teamed up with an al Qaeda affiliate and other large Islamist groups to reject the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition and call for the establishment of sharia, or Islamic Law, throughout Syria. The move is a major blow to the US-backed Syrian National Coalition and Free Syrian Army, which the West has held up as the moderate faction of the Syrian rebellion.
Abd al Aziz Salamah, the leader of Liwa al Tawhid, announced that 11 rebel groups, including al Qaeda’s Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, signed a statement that called for sharia, denounced the Syrian National Coalition, and urged all groups to unite. Salamah’s video announcing the development was posted on Sept. 24 on YouTube. A translation of his statement was obtained by The Long War Journal.
“The mujahideen militant factions and forces that have signed this statement convened, consulted with each other, and concluded the following,” Salamah said, listing four points of agreement.
“These forces and factions call on all military and civilian organizations to unite under a clear Islamic framework, set forth by the magnanimity of Islam, operating on the basis that Sharia is the arbiter of governance and making it the sole source of legislation,” he said.
He said that only those serving on the front lines are able to represent the Syrian people, and that “all formations established outside the country without consulting those inside do not represent them and are not recognized by them ….”
“[T]he Coalition and the would-be government under the presidency of Ahmad Tu’mah [the leader of the Syrian National Coalition] do not represent the factions and are not recognized by them,” Salamah continued.
Additionally he called on “all militant and civilian organizations to unify their ranks and words, eschew division and discord, and put the interests of the Ummah [the global Muslim community] over that of any single group.”
Salamah then named the 11 groups that signed the agreement. The groups include the Al Nusrah Front, one of two official al Qaeda affiliates operating in Syria; three large Islamist groups that fight alongside al Qaeda — Ahrar al Sham, Liwa al Islam, and Al Fajr Islamic Movement; and two large Free Syrian Army formations — Liwa al Tawhid and Suqur al Sham Brigades – which also fight alongside al Qaeda [see a list of the groups below]. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, al Qaeda’s other affiliate that operates in Syria, did not sign the statement.
Syria’s insurgency becomes more radicalized
The statement released by Liwa al Islam’s leader points to an increasing radicalization of the Syrian insurgency. According to IHS Jane’s, nearly half of the 100,000-some rebel fighters are “now aligned to jihadist or hardline Islamist groups” [see Threat Matrix report, Islamists dominate Syrian insurgency]. Brigadier General Khalid al Hammud, a Free Syrian Army commander told Al Sharq al Awsat that “hard-line Islamic brigades … constitute 30 percent of the opposition fighters,” and also said the Free Syrian Army’s general command controls only 20 percent of the fighters on the ground. Free Syrian Army units often conduct joint operations or fall under the command of the ISIL or the Al Nusrah Front to launch attacks on heavily defended Syrian military targets.
Free Syrian Army fighters have also been defecting to al Qaeda’s affiliates by the thousands, according to reports from Syria. By the beginning of May, one FSA commander said that more than 3,000 of his fighters had joined the Al Nusrah Front. Just last week, two Free Syrian Army units in Raqqah joined the Al Nusrah Front, boosting the al Qaeda group’s ranks by more than 1,000 fighters. Geneeral Hammud also said that “a number of moderate fighters leave their brigades and join the Islamic brigades to obtain the privileges they provide.”
This picture is in stark contrast to one painted by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who in testimony to Congress in early September claimed that the Syrian insurgency is moderating.
“I just don’t agree that a majority are al Qaeda and the bad guys. That’s not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists …. Maybe 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys,” Kerry told Congress.
He praised General Salim Idriss, the head of the Free Syrian Army, for running “a real moderate opposition,” even though units nominally under his command either fight alongside al Qaeda’s affiliate or have been defecting en masse. Additionally, top Free Syrian Army leaders have praised the Al Nusrah Front as “brothers,” and senior Syrian National Council leaders have opposed the US government’s designation of the Al Nusrah Front as a terrorist group.
Groups that signed the statement opposing the Syrian National Council and calling for the imposition of sharia in Syria:
- Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant – Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
- Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement – Islamist group that leads the Syrian Islamic Front. It is estimated to have upwards of 20,000 fighters. Frequently fights alongside both the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
- Liwa al Tawhid – A Free Syrian Army brigade that operates in Aleppo and frequently fights alongside both the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
- Liwa al Islam -A Salafist Islamist brigade that operates in Damascus and belongs to the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front. It is known to conduct joint operations with the Al Nusrah Front.
- Suqur al Sham Brigades – A Free Syrian Army brigade that frequently fights alongside both the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The unit seeks to establish an Islamic state. A member of the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front.
- Al Fajr Islamic Movement – A large unit in the Syrian Islamic Front that frequently fights alongside both the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
- Al Noor Islamic Movement
– An Islamist brigade that operates in Aleppo.
- Noor al Din al Zanki Battalions – A Saudi-back Islamist rebel brigade that fights in Aleppo.
- Fastaqim Kama Umirta Group – A unit based in Aleppo.
- 19th Division – A Free Syrian Army unit that fights in Aleppo and is allied with Liwa al Ansar.
- Liwa al Ansar – A rebel unit that fights in Idlib and Aleppo.
Correction, Abd al Aziz Salamah is the leader of Liwa al Tawhid, not Liwa al Islam, as originally reported.