Why Syria’s Islamic Front is bad news for radical groups

Hassan Hassan writes: One of the mistakes analysts of the Syrian conflict often make is to assess rebel groups exclusively based on the slogans these organisations use. Many observers already recognise that hard-line Islamist rhetoric is more often than not used to attract funding. But in recent weeks, this rhetoric has become even more essential to prevent a deeply worrying trend: more Syrians have been drifting towards the orbit of radical groups such as Jabhat Al Nusra as a consequence of their efficiency and tireless focus on the battlefield.

This trend can be best examined by looking into the newly-formed Islamic Front, a Salafi-leaning alliance of at least seven of the most powerful rebel groups in Syria.

The nexus of this alliance was Jaish Al Islam, a merger of initially 51 groups led by Zahran Alloush from Damascus. Alloush’s alliance was seen by extremists as a Saudi scheme in lieu of the US-backed Military Councils. When Jaish Al Islam was formed in September, it started to face hostile criticism by supporters of radical groups, especially as the group lost ground in several areas around Damascus to the regime’s Iranian-backed militias. Alloush, according to sources, met senior members of Jabhat Al Nusra to contain the situation. He also recorded a video in which he praised Jabhat Al Nusra and its ideological proximity to Jaish Al Islam.

Maintaining ties with Jabhat Al Nusra has been practically unavoidable for rebel groups. Jabhat Al Nusra has successfully won hearts and minds of local communities through its efficiency not only on the battlefield but also in the delivery of aid to people. Fighters from other groups recognise its popularity and avoid confrontation with it.

The Islamic Front succeeded where Zahran Alloush failed: it convinced Jabhat Al Nusra that the alliance would work closely with it, but only quietly. The attacks against Salafi groups died down noticeably after the formation of the Front.

The closer relationship between the Islamic Front and Jabhat Al Nusra is a marriage of convenience, as the two groups increasingly view the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) as a menace. [Continue reading…]

The Wall Street Journal reports: The U.S. and its allies have held direct talks with key Islamist militias in Syria, Western officials say, aiming to undercut al Qaeda while acknowledging that religious fighters long shunned by Washington have gained on the battlefield.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia is taking its own outreach further, moving to directly arm and fund one of the Islamist groups, the Army of Islam, despite U.S. qualms.

Both the Western and Saudi shifts aim to weaken al Qaeda-linked groups, which Western officials now concede are as great a danger in Syria as President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Some officials in Western capitals remain wary about courting these groups, whose ultimate goal is to establish a state ruled by Islamic law, or Shariah, in Syria. Throughout the conflict, the U.S. and its allies have balked at sending powerful arms to any Islamists, fearing such shipments could end up in the hands of al Qaeda-backed forces.

The Saudis and the West are pivoting toward a newly created coalition of religious militias called the Islamic Front, which excludes the main al Qaeda-linked groups fighting in Syria — the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham, known as ISIS. [Continue reading…]

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