This second update covers the evolution in Syria from July to October 2013. It focuses first on dynamics of change involving the interplay between the Syrian Islamist factions on the ground and international players – especially the declaration of an “Islamic framework” and then the creation of the Islam Army, with impact on the overall situation, and provides an updated mapping for Syrian Islamist groups. It then looks at evolutions related to the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces.
Syrian Sunni factions intending to install an Islamist state in Syria
(For background and past state of play, see here)
It is within those groups that we have been witnessing throughout September-October 2013 the most potent changes. As always, and as Lund stressed again recently, the situation in Syria remains fluid and quickly evolving. However, Landis also suggested something else was happening:
“Over the last several months, the insurgency has undergone a “Darwinian” shakedown. Powerful leaders are emerging and smaller militias are lining up with the larger sharks. All the same, we are only at the beginning of this process. The opposition remains extremely fragmented and volatile. ” (Landis, Syria’s Top Five Insurgent Leaders, 1 October 2013, Syria Comment)
The “Islamic framework”
In a nutshell, and as synthesized on the new updated mapping below (click on image to see a larger picture), on 24 September, eleven factions, five of them being among the most powerful on the battleground (those factions are in bold on the mapping – from Landis, Syria’s Top Five Insurgent Leaders), have announced that they “should unify their ranks in an “Islamic framework”, which is based on “the rule of sharia and making it the sole source of legislation” (Lund translation – original here), and therefore did not recognize the NC, the latter being seen as “exile groups”. The detailed account by Lund (Islamist Groups Declare Opposition to National Coalition and US Strategy [updated], 24 September 2013, Syria Comment), stressing the potentialities and uncertainties of this event is a must read.
Considering the aim of the SMC to unite all armed opposition forces, this is a major blow to the “moderate” opposition forces. It has the potential to be even more damaging because, according to Nassief, six of those eleven groups were, loosely or strongly, “associated” with the SMC (Isabel Nassief, “Islamic Alliance Signatories“, 26 September 2013, ISWblog). However, President Jarba (see below), of course, minimizes the negative impact (7 October Press Conference) for the NC and the SMC.
Szybala of the ISW interprets the emergence of the framework as “a move against ISIS by its Syrian nationalist rivals”, focusing on clashes between the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS also ISIL) on the one hand, FSA forces and Jabhat al-Nusra fighters on the other, in the Northern part of Aleppo (Valerie Szybala, “The Islamic Alliance Emerges“, updated 9/26/13, ISWblog). Lund, for his part, being much more cautious, only suggests that those clashes may have played a part, but also underlines that “the statement is in no way hostile to the ISIS” (Ibid.).
Local tensions and battles may be part of the story, however, as often, events are more likely to have multiple causes. Another type of explanation may also be at work here, all the more so if we consider the importance of money (for an enlightening account, read Lund Syrian Jihadism, 2012: 18-21), of being supported and of clans – as reminded by Lund:
“Size, money and momentum are the things to look for in Syrian insurgent politics – ideology comes fourth, if even that.” (Ibid.)
On the revised mapping below (click for larger image) of the “Nationalist Salafis” groups (Lund 2013:14) fighting in Syria have been inserted, when found, financial support (pink arrows), and links of enmity (red) and “friendship” (black).
If we note:
- that, according to Lund, the SLF (which includes Liwa al-Tawhid) receives – probably among others – financial support from networks affiliated with Mohammed Surour Zeinelabidin “whose relations with the government of Saudi Arabia are not good at all,” (Lund, “Sorting out David Ignatius“, 04/03/13, Syria Comment and Syria’s salafi insurgents: The rise of The Syrian Islamic Front, 2013: 11 & 40),
- that Liwa al-Tawhid, more specifically, is funded by “exiled Islamists including the Muslim Brotherhood (Lund, 2012: 17),
- and that Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya received support from Salifi Kuwaiti (Hakim al-Moteiri), Salafi Qatari and from the Muslim Brotherhood (Lund, 2013: 30),
then the emergence of the “Islamic Framework” could be interpreted as an attempt by the “Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and Qatari side” to resist the new preeminence of Saudi Arabia as major support of the Syrian insurgency.
This might also explain the presence of Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, knowing that Saudi Arabia is not in best terms with Al-Qaeda (among others Frederic Wehrey, “What to Make of Saudi Hand-Wringing“, 15 October 2013, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace). However, Jabhat al-Nusra declared it was actually not part of the “Islamic framework”, and refused to be set up against ISIS (Pieter Vanostaeyen “Syria – a new Islamic Union or an informal alliance?“, Sept 28, 2013, Pietervanostaeyen; Valerie Szybala, Developments in Syria’s Armed Opposition, 5 October 2013, ISWblog). President Jarba seems to ignore this development (see update for the NC below).
With or without Jahbat al-Nusra, we would still be potentially within the aftermath of the Egyptian blow to the MB, and the fight of the Brotherhood to remain relevant.
Such an interpretation could appear to be in contradiction with various statements by members of the “Islamic framework”, as reported by Lund, where they emphasize their rejection of representatives appointed externally. If external involvement and backing is not a novelty in Syria, its origin and thus nature may be seen as having changed. The members of the “Islamic framework” may have been sincere in reinterpreting previous support as being “more Syrian” (the Syrian branch of the MB and the “Syrian character” of other funding networks), which thus would remove the contradiction.
In no way an explanation of the evolution on the ground involving Qatar, the MB and Saudi Arabia means that the war in Syria is solely a proxy war, which would wrongly cast Syrian actors in a passive role. What we face are complex dynamics involving all actors, where each attempts to achieve its goal considering the overall situation.
Liwa al-Islam becomes Jaysh al-Islam or Islam Army
On 29 September 2013, Zahran Alloush announced that the Islam Brigades were becoming the Islam Army, and that it was now constituted of “50 brigades”. The army “flies the black flag and not the Syrian flag and Alloush “calls for Muslims from the world over to come do their duty in Syria and fight Jihad” (Landis, Syria’s Top Five Insurgent Leaders, 1 October 2013, Syria Comment). The Islam Army operates mainly around Damascus. Read also Hassan Hassan, “The Army of Islam Is Winning in Syria“, 1 October 2013, Foreign Policy; Pieter Vanostaeyen, “Al-Jaysh al-Islāmī ~ another Merger in Syria’s Opposition?“, 29 September 2013, pietervanostaeyen. See also Youtube Channel for Liwa al-Islam/Jaysh al-Islam.
According to Landis, Alloush is the “son of a Saudi-based religious scholar named sheikh Abdullah Mohammed Alloush”, and following Hassan Hassan, Saoudi Arabia is the main supporter behind the formation of the Islam Army (see also Khaled Yacoub Oweis, “Insight: Saudi Arabia boosts Salafist rivals to al Qaeda in Syria“, 1 October 2013, Reuters)
If we go back to our hypothesis regarding the reasons behind the creation of the “Islamic framework”, i.e. an answer by a nexus composed of Qatar, the MB and “their” supported factions, to the new preeminence of Saudi Arabia, then the creation of the Islam Army would be an answer by the Saudi and their supported faction to this move, as well as an effort against Al-Qaeda, as suggested by Oweis, and an attempt to position themselves more strongly in an international configuration that does not suit them (from the potentially better relationships between “the West” and Iran, to the way the chemical attacks in Syria were handled, as suggested by Oweis and Szybala) . But then, why would have Liwa al-Islam signed the “Islamic framework” in the first place?
It might have been, from Liwa al-Islam part, a way to gain more support from Saudi Arabia, while not cutting themselves initially completely from their former allies, yet allowing for isolating those powerful groups that were benefiting the most from Qatari support, as could let assume Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya’s reaction right after the creation of the Islam Army (see Hassan Hassan & Vanostaeyen). Alternatively, the presence of Liwa al-Islam as signatory of the framework could also have been a “sincere” move on the ground, followed by an offer by the “Saudi nexus” looking for a way to counteract both the formation of the “Islamic Framework” and thus a reassertion of a Qatar/MB nexus on the ground and an international evolution it disapproves. The 18 October 2013 refusal by Saudi Arabia of its seat at the security council shows how strong its discontent is (Angus McDowall, “Saudi Arabia, angered over Mideast, declines Security Council seat“, Oct 18, 2013, Reuters).
Would it make sense for Saudi Arabia to promote the NC and the SMC, while favouring other powerful groups on the ground? According to Wehrey (Ibid.), it does, and Wehrey calls this policy hedging. Oweis (Ibid.), using a “Western diplomatic source” agrees: “… Saudi strategy was [is] two tiered: back less extreme Islamist figures in the exile SNC political organization and woo Salafist brigades on the ground with arms and money.”
We should also note that the Islam Army, according to Oweis (Ibid.) has “avoided declaring personal opposition to Al-Qaeda or to the SNC. But … criticized failures to bring unity to rebel ranks in explaining the creation of the formation.”
As always during wars, we are faced with many possible hypotheses and only the future will confirm if one assumption or the other is correct.
Does it matter to understand the reasons behind the various moves of the actors? Yes, it does, all the more so for strategic foresight and warning because without proper understanding we can not anticipate the next move, and thus not allow policy-makers and decisions-makers to design the right policy.
If the hypothesis explored here is correct, then this could suggest that:
- More tension might be expected on the battleground, that could be advantageous to the Al-Assad regime groups.
- It could also mean, after a while, and if the Al-Assad regime groups fail to take full advantage, that the Syrian Nationalist-Salafi side, as suggested by Hassan Hassan, but with a jihadist component, will be strengthened.
- As a result, either the NC and SMC could lose even more clout, or the Islam Army and other potentially close groups (see Szybala, on an alliance in Deir Ez-Zor) could join it and, considering their strength, become preeminent within the SMC.
- All potential evolutions appear to be to the detriment of a secular and moderate Syrian opposition, if no one steps in to support them (while understanding well enough all the intricacies of the situation to make a success of this support).
- Similarly, the efforts towards Geneva II seem to be increasingly less likely to succeed, at least if no new major event takes place.
- Meanwhile, the MB may radicalize in other areas and countries where it is stronger or less attacked.
National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (NC)
(For background and past state of play, see here)
Evolution on the ground
As far as the battles and reconfiguration with and within the various Salafi groups (see above) are concerned, during the Q&A with the press at the 7 October Press Conference, President Jarba recognised that the brigades that signed the “Islamic framework” (see Lund, 24 September 2013) were not anymore “with” the SMC and the NC”. Furthermore, they were seen as “under the command of al-Nusra” (which is actually not in the statement of the “Islamic framework”, and apparently not even true on the ground – see above – but allowed the NC and SMC to save face).
On October 7, at a press conference, President Jarba stated “we have decided to deal with Geneva II openly but cautiously. We have said clearly we do not reject Geneva just for the sake of rejecting it. But we agree on Geneva under certain parameters” and those conditions are imperative:
- “…no dialogue with the criminal regime…”
- “…prior to any negotiation process there must be guarantees from Islamic and Arab states; … under the supervision of the Arab League.”
- rejection of the “the participation of Iran as a broker in any negotiation process…”unless it “withdraw its Revolutionary Guards Corps and mercenaries, who have come from Lebanon and Iraq, from Syria immediately…”
In a letter to the U.N., dated 19 September, President Jarba “reaffirms its willingness to engage in a future Geneva Conference”…”all parties must … agree that the purpose of the conference will be the establishment of a transitional government with full executive powers”. (Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Reuters, 22 September 2013).
NC and SMC representatives
A new provisional Prime Minister, Ahmad Tumeh was elected on 14 September 2013. According to Reuters, his priority is “to restore stability in the liberated areas, improve their living conditions and provide security” (Ibid.) Tumeh is an ex political prisoner of the Eastern province of Deir al-Zor and should thus be agreeable to Syrians within Syria. The Gulf States and notably Saudi Arabia should finance the new provisional government (Khaled Yacoub Oweis and Dasha Afanasieva, Reuters, 14 Sept 2013).
The NC must face the evolutions linked to the chemical attacks (see update 8 October Al-Assad Groups).
On potential secret talks between some representatives of the “FSA”/SMC and the Al-Assad regime, see update 8 October Al-Assad Groups.