Front & back: Whatever the Islamic Front is, it may already be hobbled by the United States
Nowmmedia.me – 5.12.2013 – Two competing analyses of the Islamic Front, a newly formed consortium of seven powerful Syrian rebel groups, have been published in the last week, both attempting to the address the crucial question of the Front’s raison d’etre. Is this new umbrella organization, drawing as many as 60,000 fighters under its command, designed to unify notoriously disparate rebel ranks and isolate the growing threat of al-Qaeda in Syria, or is it simply the latest iteration in a series of dubious, Saudi-hatched projects to form a hierarchical revolutionary army to fight the regime alongside al-Qaeda?
Both views have their merits, but both have been complicated by a Wall Street Journal report that shows that before the Front has even had a chance to show its true colors, the US has done what it does best and forced Syria’s military opposition into a disadvantageous position.
The first analysis of the Islamic Front comes courtesy of Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He notes that the group’s founding charter calls for the establishment of an Islamic state founded on sharia law, with nebulous language tossed in about the future role of minorities. (Will Christians, Kurds, and Alawites be second-class citizens or “protected peoples?” We don’t know.) Non-negotiable for this salafi alliance is the “toppling of the regime,” which would include Assad’s military and security apparatuses and it is an imperative at odds with Washington’s oft-stated prerogative for maintaining Syria’s “state institutions” even after the hypothetical (and illusory) renunciation of power by Bashar al-Assad.
Interestingly, the Western-backed Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army led by Gen. Salim Idris this week announced that he and his men will indeed participate in the forthcoming US and Russian-brokered Geneva II conference. Moreover, he no longer makes Assad’s ouster a precondition for attendance but rather will accept Assad’s departure at the end of the negotiations, whenever that might be, whereupon the new “army of the people” – not to be confused with the current Syrian regime army – will turn its attention to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which is by far the more brutal of the two al-Qaeda franchises in Syria even if not the “official” one.
The Supreme Military Council recently anatomized the growing menace of this ultraist franchise in an intelligence document. It compartmentalizes ISIS fighters into three “sections” in order of threat level to both other rebel militias and to Syrian civilians. The first and most dangerous section consists of foreign fighters, estimated at 5,500, with the nastiest of the lot under the command of Emir Umar al-Shishani. The second section consists of Syrian recruits (mainly young men between 15 and 25 years old), estimated to number around 2,000, and the third and largest section consists of affiliate battalions that have declared allegiance to ISIS, thought to total some 15,000 fighters. It is because ISIS has grown so powerful in northern Syria that Idris is said to be amenable to eventually tag-teaming with the regime to combat it.
However, as Zelin points out, the Islamic Front has ruled out any such engagement or collaboration with Assadist forces and has declared treasonous the participation by rebel groups in the Geneva “conspiracy.” Zelin is skeptical that, whatever its foundational intentions, the Front will ever amount to a viable vehicle for sahwa, or Sunni Awakening, against al-Qaeda as occurred in Iraq’s Anbar province during the US troop “surge.” He cites as evidence not only its theocratic tenets but its accommodationist rhetoric and operational relationship with both Jabhat al-Nusra, the more pragmatic, homegrown, and “official” al-Qaeda franchise in Syria, and with ISIS. The Front further welcomes the presence of foreign fighters (the most dangerous component of ISIS, according to the Supreme Military Council’s assessment) and declares itself duty-bound to “ensure their safety.” Finally, the Front’s Chief of Military Operations, the influential salafi commander Zahran Alloush, has repeatedly described Nusra militants as his comrades in arms.
The countervailing view of what the Front represents is offered by The National’s Hassan Hassan. Producing much of the same evidence as Zelin, he concludes that this new formation is to date the most coherent attempt by more mainstream Islamist forces to unite with two long-term objectives in mind. The first is to win the war against the regime, but the second is to lure more ideologically flexible fighters away from al-Qaeda. These were also the twinned objectives of Jaysh al-Islam, a previous Saudi-backed rebel reconfiguration launched in September by Zahran Alloush. But whereas Jaysh al-Islam was too small and localized a sodality to further this agenda (much of its presence was in and around Damascus), the Front, which has incorporated Jaysh al-Islam, is larger and more formidable. Hassan argues that it has successfully struck a tactical alliance with Jabhat al-Nusra out of joint suspicion of ISIS, which has not shied from battling its rival al-Qaeda faction. “Each side,” Hassan writes, referring to Nusra and the Front, “believes that it can eventually pull the other towards it.” The Front’s “Islamic rhetoric and pragmatism” is meant to keep fighters from drifting further and further into the extremists’ camp. Notably, Ahrar al-Sham, a top commander of which was “accidentally” decapitated by ISIS last month, has joined this new formation. For this reason, Hassan calculates, the Front poses a credible challenge to al-Qaeda’s predominance in Syria.
Whatever the Front’s first principles or end game, it now faces a new external obstacle: Washington. The US and its allies, according to the Wall Street Journal, have already been talking to the constituent groups that make up the bulk of the Islamic Front – not for the purpose of determining whether to arm or logistically support them, but to cajole them into committing their own definition of treason and parlaying with the regime. Envoys from the United States, Britain, France, and other countries associated with the so-called “London 11” chapter of the Friends of Syria, met in early November with representatives of the soon-to-be Front enlistees Ahrar al-Sham, Suqoor al-Sham, and Liwa al-Tawhid just outside Ankara. “The goal of the diplomacy, according to Western officials,” the Journal reported, “is to persuade some Islamists to support a Syria peace conference in Geneva on Jan. 22, for fear that the talks won’t yield a lasting accord without their backing.” No doubt they won’t as the Front now accounts for half of all Syrian rebels.
This is both a risible and pathetic development. A salafi super-militia would never have been necessary had these selfsame Western officials fully backed the more moderate Free Syrian Army when it was a going concern and not a laughingstock, or when the gravest menace to Syrian civilians outside of barrel bombs and Sukoi jets wasn’t a ginger-haired Chechen who formally served as an intelligence officer in the Georgian military. Yet the specter of Islamist or jihadi fighters in Syria, we were told from late 2011, was the principal excuse for the West’s abandoning the military opposition to the devices of less scrupulous regional state and non-state actors. Just how seriously the US took the inevitable prospect of “radicalization” can be measured by how long it claimed to be unaware of who the opposition really was, and by its track record in stopping private Gulf donors from channeling cash to extremists. (Both Liwa al-Tawhid and Suqoor al-Sham, while putatively signed up with the Supreme Military Council, always operated outside of its scope and authority and received funds and weapons from third parties.) Even efforts to embarrass and criticize Turkey for allowing its border to become an unguarded gateway for muhajireen only began in earnest in the last few months – and then only to emphasize to Recep Tayyip Erdogan that regime change in Damascus was off the table.
So after neglecting a humanitarian catastrophe that has killed upwards of 120,000 people, and fresh from angering and alienating Saudi Arabia by initiating a rapprochement with Iran, the Obama administration has decided to persuade Saudi-supported Islamists to accede to US demands for a “political settlement” with Damascus. Washington now knows who the rebels are, doesn’t control them or even much like them, but nevertheless needs a favor from them.
So where will this belated outreach lead? If ISIS’s past behavior is any guide, it is exactly where the Islamic Front does not wish to go, at least not yet.
Recall that on the 9/11 anniversary this year, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the global head of al-Qaeda, added the Free Syrian Army to his annually-updated roster of “enemies of Islam,” cleverly painting a target on the back of all US-aligned rebels in Syria. These poor saps had already hemorrhaged credibility and personnel thanks to Obama’s decision not to retaliate for the regime’s chemical attack on Ghouta, but Zawahiri sensed an opportunity to further weaken the group by marking them for death as kufar collaborators – even those rebels that had previously partnered on the battlefield with al-Qaeda. Soon followed the ISIS takeover of Azaz, and with it the vital border-crossing with Turkey at Bab al-Salam controlled by the Northern Storm Brigade. Liwa al-Tawhid, heeding Northern Storm’s distress signal, was then forced to make the Hobson’s choice of prematurely going to the mattresses with ISIS (which would have benefited the regime) or negotiating with it to keep a cold peace in tact (which would have meant acquiescence in al-Qaeda’s expansive power throughout the north). In the end, Tawhid negotiated because that was the decision of its now-deceased commander, Abdul Qader Saleh. And ISIS gained more ground and more recruits, which brings us back to why Jaysh al-Islam and the Islamic Front were created in the first place.
If Alloush and company do turn up in Switzerland – and they might have to, because rumor has it that the US has threatened them with terrorist designations if they refuse – what is to stop ISIS from deciding that it’s got another Western hireling and mortal enemy of Islam to destroy? And how will the Front manage to keep fighters from quitting its own newborn banner and casting their lot with the uncompromising and uncompromised ideologues of ISIS? No wonder the regime is ready for Geneva. Whoever’s seated across from it loses.