Rise of Jaish al-Islam marks a turn in Syria conflict

Middle East Eye reports: The seizure of large swathes of Syria’s Idlib province by opposition fighters has signalled for many a change in the balance of power in Syria’s seemingly unending civil war.

While previously many had been predicting that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was on the verge of reasserting his authority over the country, the loss of the cities of Idlib and Jisr al-Shughur and the continuing consolidation of opposition control throughout the province have led to suggestions that Assad is being put on the backfoot.

Jaish al-Islam (JAI) has been one of the major groups involved in operations in Idlib, making up part of the Battle of Victory operations room that took the city of Jisr al-Shughur in later April, a group which also includes the al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front.

Abdurrahman Saleh, head of JAI’s international media office, was one of the group’s early devotees.

“I am from Aleppo – I was a member of a rebel group fighting the regime and we joined Jaish al-Islam to organise our work against the regime, to get what we want,” he told Middle East Eye.

“But our work with Jaish al-Islam does not mean we are seperated from Syrian society. We are part of the Syrian revolutionaries, we fight under the banner of Jaish al-Islam as a revolutionary Syrian group. Not for anything else.”

JAI formed after a merger involving around 60 groups, including Liwa al-Islam, and is itself one of the main components of the Islamic Front – a group of Gulf-backed fighting groups – and are thought to be second only to Ahrar al-Sham in terms of power and numbers.

The Islamic Front issued a charter in 2013 (prior to Jaish al-Islam’s joining) that laid its principles for the creation of an Islamic-rooted society in which Islam would be the “religion of the state, and it is the principal and only source of legislation.”

However, Islamic Front have been careful to position itself within a nationalist framework, rejecting the “near enemy/far enemy” internationalism of al-Qaeda and the state-building project of the Islamic State (IS).

For their part, JAI are thought by analysts to command as many as 60 battalions, with around 20,000 fighters – entirely made up of Syrians, according to Saleh, rather than foreign volunteer fighters. [Continue reading…]

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