Syrian Islamic Brigades Unite With Regional Support Ahead Of Political Solution

Syrian Islamic Brigades Unite With Regional Support Ahead Of Political Solution

Ibrahim Hamidi |

While the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) headed by Ahmed al-Jarba was holding meetings on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, including with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and delivering a speech before the representatives of one hundred countries from the Friends of Syria group, Jarba received some shocking news: Thirteen factions declared that they do not recognize the SNC and the interim government it has decided to form under the leadership of Ahmad Tohme, and that they want to reorganize the opposition in an Islamic framework.


Jarba thus decided to wait before going to Washington for a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and a meeting at the White House with ‘the possibility of a photo op’ with President Barack Obama.


Jarba returned to Istanbul to deal with the major crisis that hit the SNC. To be sure, among the signatories to the announced were: al-Nusra Front, led by Abu Muhammad al-Fatih Joulani; the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Brigade, led by Hassan Abboud (Abu Abdullah al-Hamwi); Suqur al-Sham, led by Ahmed Issa Sheikh (Abu Issa); Liwaa al-Tawhid, led by Abdul-Qadir Saleh; in addition to the North Storm Brigade, led by Samir Amuri (and military commander Captain Ahmed al-Azali). These factions proclaimed, “All bodies formed abroad without consulting [the opposition in] the interior [i.e. Syria] are unrepresentative and we do not recognize them. Therefore, the SNC and the government led by Tohme do not represent [the opposition] and we do not recognize them.”


What is surprising is that these factions, which are the largest combat battalions on the ground in northern Syria, had all hitherto operated under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), when there was still talk about strengthening moderates and unifying the channels for financial and military support for the opposition. These factions together have more than 50,000 fighters. Later, it turned out that their statement was only one step in a much broader plan.


According to reports obtained by Al-Hayat, the plan agreed to by these factions is supported by regional powers, in anticipation of any possible political solution. The plan is based on three stages: Issuing a statement removing legitimacy from the SNC, and organizing and consolidating these factions’ ranks into two major blocks, one in the north and another in the south; declaring a military government to “give decision-making power to the fighters at home”; and announcing the political position of these Islamic factions based on “toppling the regime and all its symbols and leaders,” which means, “refusing dialogue or negotiations” with the regime.


In northern Syria, near the border with Turkey, the so-called Mohammad’s Army will be formed, comprising Ahrar al-Sham and Liwaa al-Tawhid, who both are part of the Syrian Islamic Front. According to a document examined by Al-Hayat, the conditions are ripe for forming “an Islamic army consisting of a nucleus of the largest and most effective Islamic factions, taking into account the circumstances surrounding the revolution through gradually building this army in a manner that does not impact the battle fronts” against regime forces. The 20-page document also states that the formation of the army in question will take place in six stages, beginning last month and ending in January 2014, “while also including transitional goals such as unifying the army under one unified command, with 100,000 fighters within 18 months and 250,000 in 30 months, with the need to end the armed chaos and achieving self-sufficiency in terms of weapons through manufacturing.”


In Ghouta, the agricultural belt surrounding Damascus near the border with Jordan, it was announced that the Army of Islam would be formed out of 43 main brigades including Liwaa al-Islam, led by Zahran Alloush, who has become the leader of the new organization, in addition to leading the Syrian Liberation Front, which is a rival or counterpart of the Syrian Islamic Front. The Army of Islam also includes factions such as Liwaa Saif al-Haq, the Ghouta Shield Brigade, Liwaa al-Farouq, and the Coastal Front Brigade.


Alloush was born in the Damascus countryside in 1970. He is the son of Sheikh Abdullah Alloush, “a cleric in Douma who is known for applying, adhering to, and advocating the Sunni way,” according to a statement by the Army of Islam. He joined the Islamic Law faculty at the University of Damascus, and then pursued further study at the Islamic University in Medina, at the Faculty of Hadith and Islamic Studies. He then obtained a Master’s Degree at the Islamic Law Faculty at the University of Damascus. Before the revolution, he worked in contracting, and had a company for construction support services.


Alloush was a wanted man in 1987 and was imprisoned in the Sednaya First Military Prison in 2009. He was released in June 2011. The statement said, “After he left prison, he sought to form a military unit to fight the regime. In the beginning, its name was Sariyat al-Islam, but grew to become Liwaa al-Islam at present.”


It is clear that the organizations known as the Army of Islam and the Army of Mohammad will have a Sunni character. To be sure, the document stated that the Army of Mohammad would “adopt the Sunni doctrine as the basis of the army, and will exclude any person belonging to other sects or factions.” But the document called for the need to “steer clear from sectarianism in dealing with people who belong to other religions or denominations, while being cautious and wary of them, and not allowing them to lead the nation in the future.”


Interestingly, the leaders of the Army of Islam Zahran Alloush (from the Damascus countryside), Ahrar al-Sham, Hassan Abboud (Hama), and Suqur al-Sham, Ahmed Issa al-Sheikh (Idlib), have all spent time in the Sednaya Prison near Damascus. It is not unlikely that they would have had also met with the leader of al-Nusra Abu Mohammed Joulani (from Damascus) in Sednaya. Incidentally, they had all been released from prison months after the eruption of the peaceful protests. A number of the leaders of the Islamic brigades and their cadres had also been among those who fought U.S. forces in Iraq.


The plans to consolidate ranks and take preemptive measures have been in place for months among the Islamic factions. Their goal: to create a framework that would replace the political leadership abroad. However, pressure was put on these factions when there was talk about expanding the SNC back in May. But this expansion itself became a problem for Islamic factions, because they believed that they did not obtain adequate representation when the number of SNC members was increased from 63 to 114, through the admission of democratic forces – while the role of the Muslim Brotherhood and pro-opposition regional powers was curtailed in the opposition political body.


In this regard, one of the opposition leaders says that the Islamic brigades wanted to ‘respond’ to Tohme, who had said that he would not accept Islamic law, and that secular law would be implemented in Syria. Tohme had also declared that he “would not allow Syria to be dominated by an undemocratic faction.” According to the opposition, the Islamic law courts are the first building block for the establishment of a caliphate state, and those who establish Sharia courts will take the country to an undemocratic polity. It is no secret that Sharia courts and councils have spread in the areas that are not controlled by the regime forces.


What made the suspicions of the Islamists worse was the talk about forming a ‘national army’ to fight ‘extremists,’ and then appointing Tohme as head of the interim government instead of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Ghassan Hito (the FSA had objected to Hito as head of the interim government). This is in addition to the chemical weapons deal between Russia and the United States, which has restored the Syrian regime as an interlocutor engaged by the international community, in conjunction with talk about holding the Geneva 2 conference to form a transitional government with full powers, while maintaining the institutions of the state, and while participation by all sides would be “without preconditions.”


In parallel with the unification of the major Islamic brigades, the fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) initiated battles, raided the headquarters of Liwaa Ahfad al-Rasul in Raqqa in eastern Syria weeks earlier, attacked an outpost belonging to al-Nusra Front in al-Shadadi in Deir al-Zour in the east, and fought skirmishes with an FSA brigade in the village of Hazano in Idlib, in northwest Syria.


But the battles between ISIS and the North Storm Brigade in Aazaz near the border with Turkey was the most serious development as far as the relationship between ‘extremists’ and the FSA is concerned. ISIS fighters broke into Aazaz as part of a plan aimed at seizing the northern countryside. A few days ago, a recording of an ISIS spokesman revealed the rationale for the move, which he said was caused by ISIS’s concerns that a Syrian equivalent of ‘Al-Sahwa’ seen in Iraq would emerge, to fight the extremists and deprive them from having a popular ‘incubator.’


Meanwhile, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPD) of the West Kurdistan Council and the Kurdish Democratic Union, led by Saleh Muslim, has sought to establish a local autonomous administration in north and northeastern Syria to “fill the vacuum” left behind with the area falling outside regime control.


It is also clear that whenever things approach political resolution in the Geneva 2 conference in its present form, based on a “transitional government” that includes officials from both the regime and the opposition and not on “toppling the regime,” alliances on the ground shift.


Al-Nusra Front Summons al-Qaeda’s Model – Sykes-Picot Borders Skirted


In mid-2001, four people from Iraq entered Syria. Their names were: Abu Mohammed Jounali, Abu Emad (from a Gulf country), Abu Faisal al-Iraqi, and al-Qahtani. Joulani, who left prison after the start of the uprising earlier that year, had gone to Iraq to meet Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS.


Abu Mohammad al-Joulani was displaced from the occupied Golan Heights and lives in the Damascus countryside. He is in his mid-thirties. Based on the authorization of Baghdadi, Joulani toured central and northern rural Syria, and then presented his findings to Baghdadi. It is widely believed that a study signed with the name of Abdullah bin Mohammad was fundamental in the establishment of al-Nusra.


The study examined by Al-Hayat stated that Syria “will be a militarily locked region vis-à-vis any foreign intervention, and events have proven this and proven wrong the assessments of those who wagered on the Tunisian and Egyptian soft scenarios in toppling the regime, or the Libyan scenario with support from abroad.” The study concludes that it is clear that the Syrian situation will be “a special scenario, because “Syria or the Levant will be one of the most important strategic theaters for the expected battle between the Shiite and Sunni alliances.”


After presenting an overview of the regional and international situation, he proposed referring to the writings of Sheikh Abu Musab al-Souri, one of the most prominent theorists for ‘jihad.’ Souri was released by the Syrian authorities in early 2011, but he dropped off the grid after that.


Abdullah bin Mohammad said that Abu Musab al-Souri was the best authority on the ‘nation’s jihad.’ He argued that reaching this stage required a series of ‘imitations’ by the Arab peoples to overcome many different obstacles, but added that “the dilemma of the Syrian revolution necessitated summoning and imitating the unique example of al-Qaeda in overcoming such large obstacles, including the regional order of Sykes-Picot and the world order.”


He continued, in the document examined by Al-Hayat, that any success achieved by the Syrian revolution in turning into a “jihadist revolution, and any success achieved by this revolution in toppling the regime or achieving self-security in its surrounding under these impossible circumstances,” would encourage other peoples whose revolutions had failed – especially in Yemen – to support this model. According to the document, as the nation emerges from Western dominance, this will lead to a nationwide jihad, all the way to establishing the Islamic caliphate. The document argues that this outcome would take international conflicts back to their global form, and to the ‘clash of nations’ and ‘overt war,’ where wars “will be fought for their original motives and slogans, without any equivocation or deception.”


Subsequently, any chaos that takes place in the Arab region will restore the need to rearrange the situation to suit Western interests. “Any resistance by the new Arab regimes, or by regimes of the Orient that reject change that led to chaos – which helped create a situation in which the prestige and interests of Western countries would have been weakened – will lead to an increased likelihood for radical strategic solutions, and wars with a global nature, to reshape the world order in a way that guarantees continued Western domination in vital areas, in line with any new reality after the war.” He continued, “We must program our moves in the direction of a series of conflicts against a series of enemies in the region, starting with the Nusayris (Alawites) and ending with the Zionist enemy. This will render the Levant an integrated and unified front,” through the implementation of the “Door Plan,” which will allow “the circumvention of all attempts by the regime to put down the revolution or destroy its choices, forcing it to accept political participation instead of toppling the regime.”


Abdullah bin Mohammad reckoned that the popular uprising that began in Syria in March 2011 “was part of a wider uprising sweeping the Arab street in varying proportions,” and that “the sectarian military uprising in Syria is part of a wider sectarian military uprising that will sweep the entire region.” He said, “Between feeding the first uprising and engaging in the second uprising lies the most successful strategy to bring about the desired change or goals in the Levant as a whole, and not just in Syria.”


He went on to say, “In 2003, I met with the architect of the fortifications in Tora Bora, where the mujahidin held their ground for more than a month under heavy American bombardment. He is a former officer in an Arab army, and Sheikh Osama bin Laden – may Allah have mercy on him – entrusted him with the task of building trenches and defenses in Tora Bora given his experience in this. After he explained to me the details about the trenches, he told me that the purpose of Tora Bora was that Sheikh Osama bin Laden wanted the Arabs to hold their ground in a fortified self-sufficient position, even if all of Afghanistan were to fall into the hands of the Americans.”


Accordingly, Abdullah bin Mohammad calls for the need to choose the position of the ‘fortress’ in order to address the problem of supplies, and to threaten and test the road linking the Syrian coast to north Syria to solve the problem of receiving external support, which will be necessary for the next stage, “whether this support comes from regimes in the Sunni alliance, or from jihadist support networks, for which we must secure a maritime outlet to receive human and material support.”


Concerning the fight against the regime army, the study proposed “removing the army from the main trench in which it is holed up,” because “any success we achieve here will expose other battalions in the center, east, north, and south of Syria, and will also create an opportunity for defections and disintegration in the army units when the head is taken out. This cannot be achieved by controlling the north, the east, or the south, because the regime relies on its strong military and sectarian presence in these areas.” This means, according to Abdullah bin Mohammad, that setting out “from the Idlib-Costal axis, if this is done following a calculated way, will lead to and help induce total collapse among the units of the Syrian army, leading it to abandon its bases and weapons caches in the area without resistance.” The study also suggested fueling “the continuation of the conflict” in Syria in more than one place, as this would benefit “us in reordering and refining conditions in the region.”


Although there are no confirmations that it was Joulani who prepared this study, a source close to him who has many documents from the jihadist groups said that the study “highlighted Joulani’s personality and his vision for his group, which was impressive to Sheikh Baghdadi, who then tasked him with drafting policy and gave him funding.” Several sources confirm that the study is the reference document relied upon by the founders of al-Nusra.


According to another document examined by Al-Hayat, Baghdadi advised Joulani “not to declare the name of the group” and not to “entrust prisoners from Sednaya Prison (near Damascus) with responsibilities for fear of infiltration (by regime forces),” in addition to the need to “not contact al-Qaeda except after consulting with the Shura Council.” The document also said that the regime tried to provoke al-Nusra to draw it out from its hiding places, but that al-Nusra operated calmly until it turned the town of Sahhara in the Aleppo countryside into its headquarters, carrying out a series of military operations, including seizing major weapons caches in the Aleppo countryside and suicide attacks against military and security outposts.


In January 24, 2012, Abu Mohammad al-Joulani issued the group’s first statement, calling on the Syrians “to engage in jihad and take up arms against the Syrian regime.”


Al-Nusra declared that toppling the regime was one step on the path to establishing the Islamic state. To circumvent support for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s bid to merge the two groups under ISIS’s banner, Joulani declared his allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri last April. Washington had designated al-Nusra as a terrorist group in late 2012.


150,000 Fighters, Half of Whom are Islamists, and 10-15 Percent Radicals


Western studies estimate the number of fighters in Syria to be around 15,000, belonging to 600 factions, including 120 major ones. Experts say that jihadists represent 10 to 15 percent of the fighters.


- The Syrian Islamic Front, founded in December 2012, consists of 25 to 30,000 fighters, belonging to Ahrar al-Sham (13,000 fighters led by Hassan Abboud), Liwaa al-Haq, and the Vanguard Fighters Brigade, which had split from the Muslim Brotherhood.


- The Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, founded on September 12, 2011, consists of approx. 30,000 fighters from Liwaa al-Farouq and Liwaa al-Tawhid led by Abdul-Qadir Saleh, Suqur al-Sham led by Ahmed Issa al-Sheih, and Liwaa al-Islam, led by Zaher Alloush, who merged 43 factions under the Army of Islam near Damascus a few days ago, in addition to Ahfad al-Rasul Brigade.


- The FSA, founded by Colonel Riad al-Assaad, on 29 July 2011, and later led by Major General Salim Idris. The FSA started out with defectors, and then armed factions began to operate under its banner because of efforts to unify them and strengthen their moderate elements. Meetings were held under the chairmanship of Idris, with participation of the leaders of Liwaa al-Islam, al-Farouq, Suqur al-Sham, and Ahfad al-Rasul. Previously, around 80 to 90 percent of factions operated in coordination with the FSA.



- The Yarmouk Brigade, led by Bashar al-Zubi. It consists of around 5,000 fighters and is based in Daraa in southern Syria, near the border with Jordan.


- ISIS: Consists of around 8,000 fighters, 60 percent of whom are Syrians, and is led by Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi. However, ISIS operations in Syria are led by Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, who is also its spokesman in Syria. ISIS’s headquarters are located in the town of al-Dana in the Idlib countryside in northwestern Syria. ISIS also seized the headquarters of al-Raqqa governorate after the opposition overran the city in March. ISIS maintains large offices in the hospital of Al-Oyoun in central Aleppo, which overlooks the Citadel of Aleppo and other areas controlled by the regime forces. ISIS also set up other non-centralized offices. So far, none of its known bases have come under aerial bombardment.


- The number of foreign fighters is estimated to be between 4 and 6,000, with the exception of Iraqis fighting for ISIS.


- Arab ‘jihadists’ who fought against U.S. troops in Iraq in the past decade, out of Syrian territory, are thought to be the main component of ISIS and al-Nusra. A memo issued by the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs years ago, said that around 1,400 Arab fighters had been arrested, and that between 2003 and 2005, 4,000 Syrians were investigated, with expectations that the number would rise to 8,000 who fought or tried to go fight in Iraq.


- The Mujahidin Shura Council, which is present in Aleppo and its countryside and Deir al-Zour. It consists of locals and residents of the countryside, numbering several hundred people.


- Kataeb al-Muhajirin, which consists of 2,000 Chechen, and Tunisian, Libyan, and other foreign fighters.

- Al-Ansar wal Muhajiroun, which consists of several hundred fighters active in the Aleppo countryside.


- The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPD), led by Saleh Muslim, and which consists of around 25,000 fighters. The YPD controls Kurdish-majority areas in north and northeastern Syria. It has entered into battles with ISIS and al-Nusra near the border with Turkey.