New Addition to the Syrian Islamic Front

by Aron Lund for Syria Comment – The Syrian Islamic Front 

3.5.2013 Joshua Landis blog – The Haqq Battalions Gathering, a militant group in the Hama province, announced in mid-April 2013 that they are joining the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF). This is the first time since the SIF’s creation in December 2012 that an independent outside organization of any consequence decides to join the front.

Previously, some small local factions had been coopted into SIF member factions, but the Haqq Battalions are joining as full members.

The Syrian Islamic Front

The SIF is one of Syria’s largest and most powerful Islamist militant alliances. It’s smaller but seems more cohesive than the large Syrian Islamic Liberation Front network (SILF), which comprises major Islamist factions like the Farouq Battalions of Homs and northern Syria, Suqour al-Sham of Idleb, the Islam Brigade of Damascus, and the Tawhid Brigade of Aleppo. The SIF is also almost certainly larger in numbers than Jabhat al-Nosra, although the latter group steals most of the limelight. Ideologically and politically, it sets itself apart from both sides.

Unlike the SILF, the more hardline SIF has no relation to the Western- and Gulf backed ”official” opposition frameworks, like the National Coalition of George Sabra (after the resignation of Ahmed Moadh al-Khatib) or Ghassan Hitto’s exile government, or Salim Idriss’s General Staff, which is the latest incarnation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Some individual SIF member factions do collaborate with these groups, such as the Haqq Brigade of Homs, which holds a position on the FSA leadership. But the central SIF leadership does not. It tends to describe the FSA leaders as inconsequential on the ground at best, and tools of the West at worst. While the SIF has promised to cooperate with any and all in the struggle against Bashar al-Assad, it will therefore not become part of the Western-backed alliances. It also makes no bones about its salafi ideology, and does not try to court international support by promising moderate Islam and democracy, like most of the SILF members.

On the other hand, the SIF has also cautiously distanced itself from Jabhat al-Nosra and its Islamic State of Iraq/al-Qaida mother group. It seems to want to portray itself as the responsible adult among Syria’s salafi factions, which will deal with Syria’s problems in a serious manner, and can be counted on to stay clear of militant entanglements outside Syria’s borders. But the SIF leadership also seeks retain good ties to all sides, including the transnational jihadi underground. While it is clearly not an al-Qaida faction, there are personal and ideological connections to radical jihadism, and the SIF leadership publicly lauds Jabhat al-Nosra as good solid Mujahedin.

The recent formalization of Jabhat al-Nosra’s relationship to al-Qaida – which the SIF, unlike the SILF, did not publicly criticize – represents both a risk and an opportunity for the SIF. On the one hand, it does not want to be lumped in with al-Qaida and sanctioned by the international community. On the other hand, it does not want and cannot afford to enter into a conflict with Jabhat al-Nosra. In fact, Jabhat al-Nosra’s pledge of allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri may help the SIF to delineate itself from the most radical wing of the insurgency, and make it come off as more moderate. Despite being very close to Jabhat al-Nosra in purely ideological terms, the SIF leaders will now be able to point out that they’re the non-Qaida wing of Syria’s salafi movement.

SIF mergers and acquisitions

The SIF was originally formed by eleven different groups, in December 2012:

– Ahrar al-Sham Battalions (present across most of Syria)

– Haqq Brigade of Homs

– Ansar al-Sham Battalions of northern Latakia

– Tawhid Army of Deir al-Zor

– Islamic Vanguard Group of Binnish, Idleb

– Islamic Dawn Movement of Aleppo

– Fighting Faith Battalions of Damascus

– Moussaab bin Omeir Battalion of Maskana, Aleppo

– Hamza bin Abdelmuttaleb Battalion of Zabadani, Damascus region

– Suqour al-Islam Battalions of the Damascus region

– Special Assignments Companies of the Damascus region

Since then, several of these groups have merged around the core Ahrar al-Sham faction, solidifying the alliance step by step. A first set of mergers were announced in January 2013, and followed by a second wave in March-April.

The resulting Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement is by far the largest and most influential member group of the SIF, and one of the largest rebel factions in Syria. Its forerunner, the Ahrar al-Sham Battalions, was the driving force behind the SIF’s creation. Most of the SIF leadership is drawn from this original Ahrar al-Sham group, including the SIF’s spokesperson Abu Abderrahman al-Souri and its chairman, Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi.

Of the SIF’s eleven original founding organizations, the following seven have by now folded into the expanded Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement:

– Ahrar al-Sham Battalions

– Islamic Vanguard GroupAhrar al-Sham

– Islamic Dawn Movement

– Fighting Faith Battalions

– Moussaab bin Omeir Battalion

– Hamza bin Abdelmuttaleb Battalion

– Suqour al-Islam Battalions

– Special Assignments Companies

By early May 2013, the SIF’s updated member roster therefore looks as follows:

– Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement (national)

– Haqq Brigade (Homs)

– Ansar al-Sham Battalions (Latakia)

– Tawhid Army (Deir al-Zor)

– Haqq Battalions (Hama) – the new addition

Clearly, the internal consolidation of the SIF is proceding at an impressive speed, but external growth had been nonexistent – until a couple of weeks ago.

The Haqq Battalions Gathering

In April, the Haqq Battalions Gathering (Tajammou Kataeb al-Haqq) joined the SIF as its first new member since December 2012. The Haqq Battalions Gathering is an Islamist group centered on Tayybet al-Imam, a town north of Hama City which straddles the Damascus-Aleppo highway.

The group was apparently founded by one Nabhan Ahmed al-Mustafa (later killed in the summer of 2012). It has been working with Ahrar al-Sham and other groups in the region. While it is clearly an Islamist group, it formerly acted under the FSA name (as did several other SIF factions). Rival groups in Hama have accused the Haqq Battalions of being supported by the Muslim Brotherhood, but I have no idea whether that’s true. They claim to have executed at least one suicide bombing, which is interesting. Despite their religious radicalism, suicide bombings are almost unheard of among the SIF factions, although Ahrar al-Sham possibly pulled one or two off earlier in the uprising. Instead, virtually all suicide bombings in Syria have so far been performed by Jahbat al-Nosra and its salafi-jihadi allies.

Like several other SIF factions, the Haqq Battalions have at one point hosted the eccentric London-based salafi-jihadi figure, Sheikh Abu Basir al-Tartousi. This salafi-jihadi ideologue spent much of 2012 traveling in rebel-held Syria, while publicly feuding with other jihadis who were upset about his criticism of Jabhat al-Nosra and other al-Qaida factions (interestingly, he’s also notable for his opposition to suicide bombings). Both the SIF and Abu Basir himself deny that there is any form of organized relationship between them, but they clearly benefit from each other, and it’s interesting that everything that Abu Basir touches seems to turn into an SIF faction.

The significance of the SIF’s expansion

The recent addition of the Haqq Battalions must be a welcome event for the SIF’s leaders. Not so much because the Haqq Battalions are a major force on the ground – they’re not – but because it shows that the SIF can attract and does accept new members. Resistance factions have been consolidating into larger blocs since many months, driven both by political and financial factors. The creation of the Salim Idriss version of the FSA, the stepped-up GCC and US support for this group, and the Jabhat al-Nosra/al-Qaida announcement, have all raised the stakes and are forcing other factions to take a stand. In this game of musical chairs, the SIF’s own cohesion will be threatened, but there’s no telling which way things will break.

If the SIF can stick together for the long term, or even manages draw fighters out of the SILF/FSA, it will be too big and radical a chunk to swallow for the FSA, and yet also too big to safely ignore, isolate, or attack. This bears watching.