The moderate rebels: A needle in a haystack

Rebel fighters members of the al-Sham Brigade (Liwa al-Sham) take part in a training session in the northeastern city of Deir Ezzor, on March 25, 2014. (Photo: AFP-Ahmed Aboud)

By: Suhaib Anjarini

Published Saturday, March 29, 2014

The United States and its allies sound like a broken record when they claim to only “support moderate rebels” in Syria. This support, however, requires finding these moderate rebels first, a difficult if not impossible mission.

Syria: If the nature of the Free Syrian Army’s name was ambiguous since its inception in 2011, it is clear today that it is nothing but a label for media consumption. In fact, it never constituted an umbrella group and it did not succeed in creating real leadership that would direct the activities of armed groups present on the ground. Hundreds of groups claimed to be part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Announcing their FSA affiliation was a mere pathway to receiving foreign support. Funders - most notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait’s Salafis - were keen on the Islamist identity of the groups receiving support without requiring them to announce it publicly.

In 2013, the picture became clearer. The Islamist discourse became public and most groups organized under the rubric of new fronts that are predominantly jihadist in nature. Groups that used to claim affiliation with the FSA united with hardline groups that never once raised the FSA flag. An example would be the Tawhid Brigade joining ranks with Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham Movement in creating the Islamic Front which became the third part in a tripartite alliance of opposition forces along with al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). If al-Nusra Front and ISIS’s extremist credentials are well-known, the Islamic Front is no less extreme, especially the Ahrar al-Sham Movement which can be described as the Syrian al-Qaeda.

The FSA’s general staff divides the Syrian battlefield into five battle fronts. The southern front in Damascus, its countryside, Daraa and Suwaida. The eastern front in Raqqa, Deir al-Zor and Hasaka. The western front in Latakia and Tartous. The central front in Homs and Hama and the northern front in Aleppo and Idlib. We will now place these fronts under a more critical lens to look for the moderate groups.

The southern front

In addition to al-Nusra Front and Jaysh al-Islam, who are affiliated with the Islamic Front, the southern front of the FSA’s offensive is teaming up with small jihadist groups such as the Green Battalion which is believed to be al-Qaeda-affiliated even though it is not well-known in the media. Saudi jihadists have a very strong presence within the group. It has pledged allegiance to the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and its leaders boast that they were the first to use “immersion” operations, i.e. immersing oneself into the enemy - in Syria.

There is also the al-Baraa Brigade which claimed the kidnapping of Iranian pilgrims “because they are Shia” and the Glories of Islam Gathering which consists of five Islamist groups that allied together last October. The statement announcing their formation said that the gathering was established “for the sake of closing ranks and developing jihadist activities.” In the same month, four groups created what they called Jaysh al-Sunna wa al-Jamaa which vowed to “keep on fighting to uphold the word of God and overthrow the Iranian sponsored regime.”

All the organizations adopt the same discourse, including ones that have remained independent in the Damascus countryside such as Suquour al-Sham Battalion, Ansar al-Islam Gathering, Sham al-Rasoul Brigade and Sheikh al-Islam ibn Taymiyyah Battalion.

In 2013, the picture became clearer and their Islamist discourse became public.

In Daraa too, the Islamist groups are dominant. Such as the Muthanna bin Haritha Battalion, which defines itself as defeater of the Safavid Persians, al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar Brigade which includes foreign jihadists, the Yarmouk Band which was formed last month gathering under its Islamic banner 14 groups that pledged to “liberate Daraa from the clutches of the Alawi occupation,” under the slogan “And God is predominant over His affairs but most of the people do not know.” There are also brigades and battalions in the region that have pledged allegiance to al-Nusra Front such as al-Musayfira Martyrs’ Brigade.

In Quneitra, there is Ahfad al-Rasul (the Prophet’s Grandchildren) Brigade which is fighting under the banner of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front. The group, which the FSA’s general staff touted its moderate Islamist credentials, is the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade formed in August 2012 under the leadership of Bashar al-Zoubi upon merging seven smaller groups. In March 2013, this brigade held members of an international peacekeeping force captive as they were passing in the demilitarized zone “because they are crusaders.”

The eastern front

The most prominent groups on this front are the Islamic Front and ISIS, who exercise exclusive control over Raqqa, while al-Nusra Front challenges their control in Deir al-Zour and the oil fields and is trying to control al-Khabur Basin in Hasaka. There is also the Kurdish Islamist Front which includes a 1,000 fighters and is primarily interested in fighting “infidel” Kurdish groups.

The western front

The front with the least amount of armed groups. These groups are confined to the northern Latakia countryside and they are all jihadist groups such as al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Ansar al-Sham and Junoud al-Sham. The latter is a group whose fighters are predominantly Chechen and is not related to the organization Jund al-Sham. There is also Sham al-Islam Movement, a jihadist movement whose fighters are mostly Moroccan.

The northern front

This front, chronologically speaking, came in second in terms of the influx of immigrant jihadists and is still number one in terms of numbers. There, the opposition power is divided between ISIS, al-Nusra Front, Jaysh al-Mujahideen and the Islamic Front. The main components of the Islamic Front in this area are al-Tawhid Brigade and Ahrar al-Sham Movement. There was a recent announcement about new groups joining the Islamic Front in Aleppo such as Aasifat al-Shamal Brigade and Ahrar Surya Brigade. Both groups are accused of stealing, making the Islamic Front in that area a bizarre mix of hardliners and thieves.

Jaysh al-Mujahideen also takes the same hardline approach. It is the one that declared in communique number two that “the jihadists of al-Nusra Front are our brothers.” It also called on “the immigrants in ISIS to defect and join the ranks of their brothers, the honest mujahideen garrisoned at the Syrian border against the Alawi Assad regime.” One of this group’s most recent accomplishments is detaining Christian opposition activist Marcell Shehwaro and forcing her to sign a pledge promising to wear a veil. When it was formed, Jaysh al-Mujahideen included the biggest group in the region that hid behind a mask of secularism, namely, the Nineteenth Band in the Free Syrian Army.

In Idlib, Jaysh al-Sham al-Islami enjoys a strong presence. It was formed from the union of several groups last February and it upholds the slogan “Towards a Rashidun (righteously guided) Islamic Caliphate.”

The central front

It was one of the first areas in Syria to welcome jihadists through Lebanese territories. Al-Haq Brigade, affiliated with the Syrian Islamic Front, and al-Nusra Front are the two most prominent groups in the area. There is also Mujahideen al-Sham Brigade that is affiliated with the Islamic Front. While Jund al-Sham, which was the strongest group in al-Husn region collapsed, al-Faruq Brigades are still present. The group was initially known as al-Faruq Battalions and it achieved great fame through the support of the Muslim Brotherhood and its “Saudi brothers.” Al-Faruq Brigades fought with such sectarian spirit arguing that the shedding of Alawi blood is permissible. The group is now divided into Faruq al-Shamal, Faruq al-Islami, the Independent Omar al-Faruq Brigade and Hama Faruq Battalion. None of them however have abandoned the motto of shedding Alawi blood.

A somewhat weak group in the area is the Revolution Shields which was formed in August 2012 with the support of the Muslim Brotherhood. Its fighters do not exceed a thousand and until recently, the Brotherhood had promoted the group as a moderate Islamist alliance, and had pinned hopes on it. But placing the Muslim Brotherhood on the Saudi terrorist list ousted the Revolution Shields from the game.

The same did not happen to the National Unity Battalions, a group that has not actually fought since its inception in August 2012 and the number of its fighters range between 1,500 and 2,000 deployed on a number of fronts within battalions that have non-Islamic names such as Yusuf al-Azmi and Abdul Rahman al-Shahbandar. The National Unity Battalions is not an effective group and it does not have strong foreign ties or a prominent face to lead it, unlike the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, which is under the leadership of Jamal Maarouf, and is expected to absorb the National Unity Battalions into its own ranks soon.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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