Don’t get too excited by the headlines of a new “revolution” in Syria against Al-Qaeda. The offensive is led by the Islamic Front, a Salafist coalition backed by Saudi Arabia with the explicit goal of instituting Sharia. These are not the saviors of Syria’s Christian minority and other opponents of Islamism.
Al-Qaeda will soon be facing a two-front offensive. The Islamic Front is mounting the fiercest challenge to Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliates yet. The Iraqi military and local tribes are preparing an offensive to retake Fallujah.
This is bad news for Al-Qaeda, but good news for Syrian Islamists as a whole. The non-Al-Qaeda Islamists are waging this fight for two reasons: Power and branding. A representative of the Islamic Front explained what triggered the battle:
ISIS denies reality, refusing to recognize that it is simply another group. It refuses to go to independent courts; it attacked many other groups, stole their weapons, occupied their headquarters, and arbitrarily apprehended numerous activists, journalists and rebels. It has been torturing its prisoners. These transgressions accumulated, and people got fed up with ISIS. Some of those people have attacked ISIS’s positions, but ISIS was first to attack in other places, bringing this on itself.
The difference has nothing to do with ideology; in fact, the Islamic Front spokesperson never even mentioned Sharia or democracy. The bottom line is that Al-Qaeda is thuggish and doesn’t play well with others.
The second reason for the “revolution” against Al-Qaeda is PR. The Syrian opposition says Al-Qaeda’s presence is good for the Assad regime. It prevents the West from arming the rebels and alienates Syrians that might otherwise oppose Assad. By confronting Al-Qaeda, the Islamic Front and other Islamists can present themselves as moderate; like the Syrian equivalent of Iraq’s Awakening movement.
The Islamic Front is a proxy of Saudi Arabia. It was organized by the Saudi government, is stridently Salafist, and is led by a man whose father is a Saudi cleric. The Saudis hired Pakistanis to train 5-10,000 of them.
Basically, the Islamic Front is Saudi Arabia’s way of consolidating control over the Syrian rebellion and turning into a more cohesive force. The Saudi objective is to have a Salafist force that, unlike Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, is not its enemy.
Joshua Landis points out that there is very little separating Al-Qaeda from the Islamic Front’s leader, Zahran Alloush. He even has tried to work with Jabhat al-Nusra, one of Al-Qaeda’s affiliates. He is no friend to Syria’s minorities, directly calling for the murdering of Shiites and Allawites. Christians are widely seen as pro-Assad, so we should expect a similar attitude towards them.
The Saudis made this force out of the shattered remains of the Supreme Military Council, the “moderate” group that the U.S. hoped would become the main rebel force. The SMC was often called the “Free Syria Army,” though it has rivals also working under that banner. The chances of that happening went from slim to none after dozens of brigades affiliated with the SMC split to join the Islamic Front.
Now, the Islamic Front is the dominant rebel force. It numbers around 45,000 and that tally will grow as it wins victories on the ground. In contrast, Al-Qaeda’s affiliates total around 15,000 and many of them are foreign fighters. There are at least 7,000 foreigners in Syria backing the rebels, up to 2,000 of which are from Europe.
The Islamic Front also seems to have a stronger network than Al-Qaeda and the other rebel groups in the U.S. Sheikh Osama al-Rifai of the Syrian Sunrise Foundation is a supporter of the Islamic Front and has raised at least $3.6 million in Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Texas, California, Michigan and New Jersey.
The answer isn’t to build up the SMC in the hopes that it can be revitalized. The SMC isn’t completely Salafist and it may include secularists, but it is still beholden to the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar and Turkey.
Col. Nagi Najjar, the U.S. liaison officer for the Free Syria Army, explained to the Clarion Project that the SMC was actually created by Islamists backed by Qatar to sideline the secular rebels. When the media refers to the Free Syria Army, it is often actually referring to the SMC.
“Qatar established what the FSA called a ‘coup’ in Antalya, Turkey, on December 15, 2012, declaring the ‘Supreme Military Command’ and electing General Selim Idriss as Chief of Staff,” he says.
The U.S. government already provided $12 million in aid to the SMC’s U.S.-based liaison, the Syrian Support Group. It also has Brotherhood affiliations. The SSG originally granted the Clarion Project an interview, but then declined after it saw the questions.
Col. Najjar says that the Free Syria Army led by Col. Riad al-Assad is still a viable alternative rebel force. He claims that the “real” Free Syria Army has 80-100,000 troops, but there is no independent confirmation.
He said in September that the U.S. needs to help consolidate the non-Islamist forces into one body.
“The U.S. needs to initiate another ‘Antalya’ meeting that makes a reconciliation between the two groups and merges and integrates Idriss into the larger FSA command under Col. Riad Al-Assad. Idriss will have his place in the command, but he cannot lead and even if he did, he cannot succeed,” he said.
There are moderates within the Syrian opposition, but the West does them no favors by investing hope in the Islamic Front. Its “revolution” against Al-Qaeda does not signal the ascent of moderates. All it shows is that Islamists are competing for control and the non-Islamists are not in the picture.
The Institute on Religion and Democracy contributed to this article.
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