Syria’s pragmatic Islamic Front

Hania Mourtada writes: When he was a fighter with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), waging war against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the northern economic hub of Aleppo, Abu Muhannad’s confidence verged on presumptuousness. He spent 2012 and part of 2013 fighting alongside his comrades in the Martyrs’ Swords battalion and, upon their return from the front lines, the young fighters would gather to reflect on their most recent victory as they smoked arguileh and drank cups of bitter tea.

The Free Syrian Army, the loose-knit, Western-backed rebel umbrella group, eventually succumbed to irrelevance due to poor funding and lack of cohesiveness. Abu Muhannad’s small battalion disbanded and he found himself stranded, without the safety afforded by membership into a group. Still, he chose to remain in his home country, hoping to find himself a place among the new rebel realignments.

Then, a few weeks ago, he sat down for tea with a young French fighter.

The Frenchman was a member of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), an al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. Their conversation devolved into a heated argument — the French jihadist felt that Abu Muhannad, a devout Muslim, was too focused on fighting for the liberation of Syria rather than waging a global jihad. He chided Abu Muhannad for calling the country Syria instead of bilad al-sham, an expression favored by global jihadists that refers to the entire Levant, which they believe should be the focal point of a new Islamic state.

“It was a fight over terminology,” said Abu Muhannad, who was reached via Skype in the Turkish city of Antakya where he has been staying with a friend. “He accused me of being secretly secular because I was being patriotic instead of referring to the country as an Islamic emirate. I told him he wasn’t here to teach me about my own religion.”

The French fighter walked away in the middle of the argument. The following day, Abu Muhannad’s friends informed him that ISIS was planning to assassinate him. Abu Muhannad claimed the al Qaeda-linked group had tried to kill him once before, and that he had narrowly escaped. Shortly after Abu Muhannad fled to Turkey, ISIS captured his younger brother, a citizen journalist, who remains imprisoned to this day. Abu Muhannad suspects the group is holding his brother indefinitely to lure him back to Syria.

This is not the first time that an FSA fighter finds himself driven out of the country by ISIS. The extremist group has repeatedly clashed with not only FSA rebels, but also with like-minded Islamist brigades, often over petty disputes. An undercurrent of tension pervades the relationship between ISIS, which ultimately seeks to establish and Islamic emirate in Syria, and the constellation of moderate Sunni fighters who simply want to oust Bashar al-Assad from power.

The experience of being exiled from his own country by foreign Jihadists has left Abu Muhannad as livid at ISIS as he is at the Syrian regime.

“They have these disgusting, smelly beards. They won’t even comb their hair. If I knew the revolution would bring them here, I swear I would never have participated in it,” he said. “Did I rebel against the regime to end up in hiding? And who am I running away from? Chechens? European fanatics? Who are those people? They have overstayed their welcome.”

With the Supreme Military Council, the Turkey-based military opposition body, failing to secure significant funding for the Free Syrian Army, the mainstream rebel group has been growing weaker by the day.

Abu Muhannad, like many disillusioned fighters, is now placing his bet on the new Islamic Front. The new alliance was announced in November, and has become the largest rebel force in Syria by merging together seven influential Islamist groups, including the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham brigade; the Army of Islam, which is prominent in the Damascus suburbs; and the Aleppo-based Al-Tawheed brigade. Abu Muhannad says its leaders have been household names since the beginning of the uprising, and its fighters were brothers-in-arms when the FSA was still a fledgling enterprise. The group notably excludes al Qaeda’s two affiliates in Syria, and may be an attempt by one of the rebels’ primary patrons, Saudi Arabia, to check the influence of ISIS.

It’s not only Abu Muhannad who sees the Islamic Front as a potential antidote to the expanding influence of extremists within Syrian rebel ranks. The group is made up of Salafist fighters who ascribe to a puritanical interpretation of the Quran — but it nevertheless remains a local movement that is amenable to Syrians, and which is seemingly willing to adjust its ways to preserve its popular base. Earlier this month, U.S. diplomats attempted to arrange a meeting with leaders of the new alliance, where they hoped to convince them to support peace talks with the Assad regime and warn them against any collaboration with al Qaeda-affiliated groups. The Islamic Front flatly refused to meet with the U.S. envoys, without providing a reason why. [Continue reading…]

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