Islamic Front in Syria deals another blow to rebel alliance
December 12th, 2013
04:48 PM ET

Islamic Front in Syria deals another blow to rebel alliance

CNN's Tim Lister

Influencing events in Syria just got a lot harder for the Obama administration and its allies. Despite receiving months of training, diplomatic support and aid from the West, the Free Syrian Army's command has lost control of its headquarters and supply depots in northern Syria to the recently formed Islamic Front - another sign that the balance among rebel forces is tipping toward militant groups away from more secular brigades.

The warehouses - belonging to the FSA's Supreme Military Command (SMC) - are at Bab al Hawa, a border crossing into Turkey. There are conflicting reports about just how they were taken over and what they held. The head of the SMC, Gen. Salim Idris, told CNN that only food and other humanitarian supplies were taken; other FSA officials say guns and two tons of ammunition were removed.

Turkish authorities closed the Bab al Hawa crossing after the Islamic Front occupied the Syrian side. Different Islamist militant groups now control several areas along Syria's border with Turkey, making the resupply of the SMC more difficult.

The Islamic Front was created last month by seven groups with the aim of toppling the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and creating an Islamic state in Syria "where the sovereignty of God almighty alone will be our reference and ruler." Two weeks later the Front abandoned the Supreme Military Command.

Aron Lund, editor of the Carnegie Endowment's Syria in Crisis website, says the Front includes some of the strongest rebel groups in Syria - especially in the north.

"Most of these groups are concentrated in a particular area, like Aleppo or Damascus, but together they have units all across the country," Lund told CNN.

It is difficult to know how many fighters the Islamic Front includes, but estimates vary between 40,000 and 50,000, which would probably make it the single largest rebel command. In terms of ideology, the Islamic Front groups keep their distance from the strongest al Qaeda affiliate active in northern Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

Even so, says Aron Lund, the Front "are hardline Islamists influenced by the Salafi school of thought. They want a theocratic state, and are opposed to secularism and Western-style democracy - although they've said they can imagine having some sort of elections in a framework of Sharia law."

The most effective of the groups is Ahrar al Sham, which has been involved in the insurgency since its early days. Observers say it is disciplined and well-funded from Gulf sources and has captured a good amount of heavy weaponry, including tanks and mobile artillery, from government forces. Opposition activists say it was Ahrar al Sham that led the takeover of the SMC's headquarters at Bab al Hawa.

On the battlefield Ahrar al Sham and others in the Islamic Front groups do cooperate with another al Qaeda affiliate: Jabhat al Nusra. Some analysts say this is because al Nusra is more focused on waging the insurgency on a national level against al-Assad than is ISIS, which is devoting much of its effort to creating a mini-state - an emirate - in northern Syria, complete with Sharia law.

The leader of Ahrar al Sham, Hassan Aboud Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi, has been complimentary about al Nusra, telling al Jazeera earlier this year that "we see honesty in their work as well as toughness and courage."

The two groups joined forces to seize a border crossing with Jordan in September. But there are also instances, especially around Damascus recently, where fighters from the Front, al Nusra and ISIS have all fought together against al-Assad's forces. As so often in Syria, there are few hard-and-fast alliances and many local variations on a theme.

Valerie Szbala at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington says the Islamic Front contains a wide spectrum of groups, but for the West the presence of Ahrar al Sham - and its extensive relationship with al Nusra - is the most troubling. She says most of its funding appears to come from sources in the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia.


Lund - a contributor to the Sentinel journal of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point - says that because the Front is a new coalition "it is hard to tell how effective and organized it really is. The Islamic Front leadership has said that they are aiming for full unity, meaning that they want to merge all the member factions into one single group under one single leader, but so far it remains an umbrella organization."

For now, the Front's nominal leader is Ahmed Issa from Suqour al-Sham - one of the more moderate but militarily one of the weaker components of the alliance.

For the last year, the United States and Britain have focused their efforts on building up the Supreme Military Command under Gen. Idris. But Idris has never been able to exert control over brigades with different local agendas, tactics and allegiances. Some have gained a reputation for smuggling and other crime rather than fighting the al-Assad regime.

Islamist factions have gained ground at the expense the Free Syrian Army - sometimes with ruthless tactics. One senior FSA commander was murdered by ISIS in July. Another, Abdel-Jabbar Ukaidi, quit as head of the Aleppo Revolutionary Military Council last month. Ukaidi accused other commanders of in-fighting and building power bases rather than attacking regime forces, and had scathing words for the political opposition in exile. Other groups affiliated with the SMC - such as Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Islam, and Suqour al-Sham - lost faith and invested in other alliances.

Some analysts say the formation of the Islamic Front may be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is weakening an already dispirited FSA. But it may also draw Islamists away from al Qaeda affiliates, especially from ISIS. Valerie Szybala says as yet there is no evidence of that but she believes the Islamic Front may try to begin providing the sort of services that ISIS does - including opening bakeries and handing out aid - to win civilian support.

Alliances among rebel factions in Syria have come and gone with bewildering rapidity over the past two years, and it's far from clear how the Islamic Front will evolve. But a month before the Syrian government and opposition are due to meet under U.N. auspices in Geneva, the emergence of the Islamic Front complicates the most critical question: Just who is the Syrian opposition?

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soundoff (44 Responses)
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  6. Ljhfdgy Utrfyuy

    The definition of terrorist "might" be universaly understood as: Deadly actions resulting in injury and or the loss of personhood utilizing/using unjust & imoral acts resulting in furthering unjust inmoral and discrimanatory actions to further create injustice.

    December 17, 2013 at 6:20 pm | Reply
  7. Ljhfdgy Utrfyuy

    Someone has too win... will it be you or them & what is the difference all things considered...

    December 17, 2013 at 5:31 pm | Reply
  8. Abullah al Nafti

    If we investigate the official web sites of groups such as Soqur al-Sham or Liwa al-Tawheed which are main parts of Islamic Front, it can be easily concluded that they were parts of Free Syrian Army (but not now), and also if we investigate the reactions to Abdulqader al-Saleh' death (head of Liwa Tawheed) it can be concluded they have deep ties with National Coalition and FSA commandership and due to some tactical and battleground issues they should cooperate with groups such as Nusra.
    Nation Coalition and FSA are funded by Gulf countries (Qatar and Saudi) and Islamic Front is too.
    Just last week, Ahrar al-Sham fought a fierce battle agains ISIL in southern Aleppo and I think it shows that if the Assad regime ends, Islamic Front will try to clear Syria from all foreigner fighters and ISIL.

    December 13, 2013 at 7:28 am | Reply
  9. zkkhan

    "where the sovereignty of God almighty alone will be our reference and ruler." Extremely deceptive slogan for innocent and uneducated Muslims. Unfortunately each extremist Islamic Mullah is interpreting the Quran to his own political benefits thus erupting more religious oriented conflicts and bad name to great religion Islam. Ahmadiyya Muslim Community since long is drawing the attention of Muslim Ummah about this danger by explicitly declaring gun fight or so called Jihad in the name of Islam is now Harram (forbidden). The sooner the Muslim Ummah can pay attention what Ahmadiyya Islam is presenting will be better for whole Muslim Ummah.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:46 am | Reply
    • Peace

      Please not thAt 1500 years of Islam history ahmadia or not considered Muslims

      December 14, 2013 at 4:39 am | Reply
  10. Ahmed M Ibrahim

    The calamity facing the Syrian people, the refugees, children and women has become extremely tragic because of the negligence and indifference shown by the Arab League and its main representative who has miserably failed to act at the proper time. If the Syrian rebels(secularists and nationalists) had got the desired support from the Arab nations, things would not have come to this level. The Islamic forces will never defeat Bashar al Assad as they are not united to act in unison. Secondly their fanatic agenda has no appeal on a wider scale. Ultimately the Syrian people have to suffer a lot for a long time to come, until some massive natural disaster overtakes the Syrian regime.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:43 am | Reply
  11. 2Bob

    Aside from sitting on a lot of oil is there anything nice about Saudi Arabia?

    December 13, 2013 at 1:12 am | Reply
    • winston

      yeah, you can have 4 wives at the same time.

      December 13, 2013 at 6:28 am | Reply
      • emil

        camel wifes, to be more specific

        December 13, 2013 at 7:10 am |
  12. ep tor

    There are thousands of idle drone and thousands of trainee remote pilots that need training. Let's go for it.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:38 am | Reply
  13. Jamie Estevez

    I always thought that the Islamic Front (Al Nusra/Al Qaeda) were "The Rebels" and now they are just shaking off the secularist facade of the FSA. Not long ago the FSA claimed that Al Nusra was part of the FSA, so I don't believe for a second that there was a difference between the too. The FSA is a CIA front group for arming Al Qaeda linked fighters in Syria (Al Nusra). That is the long and the short of it. Thank you Barrack Obama and John McCain (sarcastic of course)

    December 12, 2013 at 11:41 pm | Reply
  14. Random

    Right so our guys are out of harms way. Let russia and syria crush the islamic gihad now. This was inevitable all along. They should be running, and then the gihad gets crushed , and then syria and FSA can talk it out when they are done crushing the gihadis.

    December 12, 2013 at 6:05 pm | Reply
    • Judge Jean Boyd of Texas

      Gee Random, you took the words right out of my mouth! If we take Syria, we'll virtually own the whole Middle East!!!!!!!

      December 12, 2013 at 7:59 pm | Reply
      • paofpa

        I like your definition of ownership. “People who know how to Debate”

        December 13, 2013 at 9:30 am |
    • ooopsss

      Keep dreaming, you gonna crash 1.5 bilions muslims that are waking up ,muslim fighters are produced on a daily basis, you cannot defeat them , you kill one and 10 others take the place . What is happening in Syria will never go back, only towards Islam, Russia doesnt want another afghanistan, you need economy to fight wars ! Muslims are used to fighting , they dont need too much to keep going, but if you will keep fighting then you will collapse from inside ,as people will loose their jobs and go against your government for spending money in wars , rather then its people

      December 13, 2013 at 3:38 am | Reply
      • winston

        we will stay out and let you crazies kill each other for Islam. In the end we will have no one to fight so we will just come in and lay a claim. lol

        December 13, 2013 at 6:32 am |
  15. teevee

    I hope sooner than later we come to our senses and realize enough is enough. No more fighting the Islamic fanatics wars for them. For goodness sake their country is named after their kings, their religion is an occult of Islam and they are the most backward repressive regime in the world even worse than N-Korea. If I was choosing friends I sure as hell pick Iran with all their schizophrenia over these terrorist loving losers in the demented Saudi Arabia.

    December 12, 2013 at 5:28 pm | Reply
  16. ManatiDiPorci

    Obama, Pelosi, Reid, Hillary, and Holder are friends of the rebels. Thy need to give more weapons.

    December 12, 2013 at 5:25 pm | Reply
    • Mike

      It is Senator John McCain's mission to arm the Islamists because they are friends with his buddy Saudi Arabia.

      January 5, 2014 at 2:31 pm | Reply
  17. desert voice

    Starting today, the Saudi King Abdullah ought to severe all relations with the hardline Islam! Else, he will go into history as one of the greatest losers!

    December 12, 2013 at 5:03 pm | Reply

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