I have previously written on Sunni groups created within Iraq to fight against the Islamic State [IS], but what about in Syria? Some attention has been devoted to the group “Al-Kafn Al-Abyad” (The White Shroud), but on social media I have seen some controversy as to the nature of The White Shroud. For example, people ask: is it Jabhat al-Nusra, or ‘FSA’?To answer this question, one needs to bear in mind that The White Shroud is an anti-IS outfit originally set up in the Deir az-Zor locality of Albukamal on the border with Iraq (now declared part of IS’ ‘Euphrates Province‘ spanning the borders, including al-Qa’im just over the border with Iraq): indeed describing itself as “the brigades of popular resistance in Albukamal.”It will be recalled from my prior work that the town of Albukamal originally had six factions, listed below with their wider affiliations where applicable:
– Liwa Allahu Akbar (SMC/Hayat al-Arkan)
– Kata’ib Allahu Akbar (Authenticity and Development Front)
– Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar (independent; one-time pro-Ahrar al-Sham)
– Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya (independent; pro-Caliphate, tied to seeing the Syria and Iraq struggle for Sunnis as one)
– Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna (independent; pro-Caliphate)
– Kata’ib Junud al-Haq (Jabhat al-Nusra; evolved from Katiba Junud al-Haq)
Note that there were other factions in the wider area that emerged over time with influence such as Liwa al-Fatah al-Mubin which belonged to the now defunct coalition Euphrates Islamic Liberation Front, which had once played a role in the fight against IS in the northern Euphrates area in Syria.
Of the six main groups of Albukamal, Liwa Allahu Akbar became part of what was then the Islamic State in Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) after the November 2013 defection of leader Saddam al-Jamal (also known as Saddam Rakhaytah), who had clashed with Jabhat al-Nusra in September 2013. The Authenticity and Development Front is a Salafi coalition backed by Saudi Arabia that only conceives of Syria as an Islamic state within a national framework, while Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar did not have a political program beyond the fall of the regime despite the one-time affinity with Ahrar al-Sham that was subsequently disavowed in rejection of fighting ISIS at the end of January 2014. Kata’ib Junud al-Haq had defected to ISIS when ISIS was first announced by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but re-defected to Jabhat al-Nusra after Zawahiri’s call to annul ISIS.
It will be noted in the picture of the logo above (taken from The White Shroud’s official Facebook page) that members of three of the factions I have just mentioned are included within The White Shroud: Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar, Authenticity and Development Front, and Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya. Of the other factions, two other sources from Albukamal- one the former spokesman for the defunct Kata’ib Junud al-Haq- have told me that Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna members all became part of IS once the town fell under IS control (undoubtedly ideological overlap played a role), while no members of Kata’ib Junud al-Haq are known to have joined The White Shroud thus far. Some of course will have become part of IS (again something undoubtedly facilitated by ideological overlap), but others will have simply laid arms aside as part of declaring ‘tawba’ (‘repentance’) before IS and then returned to civilian life with acknowledgment of IS’ supremacy. Others too- even of those factions now part of The White Shroud- simply fled the Albukamal area to head to other fronts: this was the case for the leader of a local Albukamal Authenticity and Development battalion- Liwa Basha’ir al-Nasr– who fled to Qalamoun in Damascus province after the fall of Albukamal.
The operations conducted by The White Shroud, like those of the anti-IS Sunni resistance movements in Iraq, have mostly been small-scale claimed assassinations so far, but apparently the group has been trying to expand its activities in Deir az-Zor province, with a contingent supposedly now in Deir az-Zor city in a video released by the Authenticity and Development Front. It will certainly be of interest to see if The White Shroud develops into a broader umbrella front for a variety of former rebel factions in Deir az-Zor province of a variety of orientations.
Update and Further Note
My friend and colleague Alfred Hackensberger, drawing on his own sources, contends that The White Shroud is not a real group. I would disagree with this notion but a more general point needs to be made about real manpower and capabilities. In truth, I do not think The White Shroud at present has any more than a few dozen fighters. Indeed, it has to be remembered that the component battalions of The White Shroud lost significant numbers of members to an ISIS assault on the town of Albukamal in April. Not overstating manpower and capabilities also applies to other anti-IS resistance movements: if, for example, a Kata’ib Mosul component representative gives contingent numbers into the hundreds, it is a safe bet to downgrade the actual manpower by several factors. As far a operations go, nothing suggests the attacks on IS- even if successful- have truly damaged the group’s power base in the areas it controls.
Also in my own experience, though Abu al-Layth of the Dawn of Freedom Brigades affirmed to me that 250 fighters of his coalition had been sent to Kobani to aid the YPG in its fight against IS, he affirmed that this number had declined to 160 in a subsequent conversation. Meanwhile, a representative of the Sun of the North/Northern Sun Battalions- the contingent of Dawn of Freedom Brigades in Kobani- only affirmed the presence of some 70 fighters for the group in a 12 October conversation with me.