The Syrian Islamic Front: What Third Way?

Tandis que les annonces, consultations et déploiements dans la perspective d’une éventuelle opération en Syrie se multiplient, Lydia Mateesco revient sur le positionnement du Front Islamique Syrien au sein de l’opposition au régime de Bachar el-Assad. 

The Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) is one of the three major umbrella rebel organizations alongside the secular Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Salafi-jihadist Jabhat al-Nusra. By taking its pride through the promotion of “a third way” amongst the rebels, SIF upholds Salafi Islamist values, promotes religion and officially rejects transnationalist jihadism. This article will argue however that the Salafism promoted by SIF is not exactly “a third way”, but rather an incomplete second way as it still borrows elements of radical jihadism in its speech and methods, and is supportive of the jihadist movements, thus failing to detach itself fully from Jabhat al-Nusra.

Announcing its creation in a December 2012 video, SIF was described by its senior official spokesperson Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Suri as a “comprehensive Islamic front, representing Islam as a religion, a creed, a guiding path, and a conduct” consisting of roughly 30,000 fighters. However, this self-description is vague and subject to interpretation. SIF preaches the Salafi purist and fundamentalist version of Islam which aims at establishing an Islamic state and at extending Islamic morals through society. By employing the terminology used by scholar Fawaz Gerges in his book The Far Enemy, SIF is a religious nationalist group fighting the secular state (“the near enemy”) which rejects the transnationalist jihadists that fight for the re-conquest of the lost Muslim territories and against the Western values (“the far enemy”). For this end, according to its January 2013 charter, SIF has a military wing “which aims to topple the regime and extend security” and a civilian wing “from which springs missionary, educational, humanitarian, media, political and [public] service [movements]”. SIF Islamists make a clear distinction between themselves, Salafis waging a local jihad against their government, and Salafi transnational jihadists, the kind that Jabhat al-Nusra are. According to one of SIF’s political leaders, Abu Ezzedin al-Ansari of the Liwa al-Haqq Brigades, they “do not believe that [they] fit the description of what is popularly known in the West as « radical Islamists » or « jihadis »”, but without developing further on their exact understanding of jihadism. Moreover, SIF’s spokesperson Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Suri made clear SIF’s position towards democracy by stating that it is destined to end up in the “garbage heap of history”. From a tactical perspective, SIF avoids the use of those tactics which are frequently associated to the salafi-jihadist extremists such as suicide bombings, even though the information surfacing on this aspect is contradictory. There is little evidence of kamikaze actions, except for a video release from June 2012 of SIF’s largest faction, Ahrar Al-Sham which shows what appears to be a suicide attack, but which took place prior to the creation of SIF. On the same note, Ahrar al-Sham does not use the main means of communication used normally by the jihadi groups, such as Al-Qaeda affiliated web forums, but rather reaches towards the mainstream media through its official independent website, Facebook page and Twitter account. Furthermore, even though Ahrar al-Sham rejects Western-backing, it did take part in armed joint operations with the FSA.

Nonetheless, SIF is undermined by not being an effective alliance, but rather a conglomeration of local units which act as semi-independent subfactions. Its leading components are the Salafi Ahrar al-Sham Brigades (Harakat Ahrar al-Islamiya) which make up a third of SIF’s manpower and are reputed to be the most powerful individual armed group in the entire Syrian opposition, thus making the SIF itself one of the best fighting forces within the opposition. Even though a great lot of the factions SIF comprises are Salafi, its second largest faction, the Liwa al-Haqq Brigades, are more diverse and incoherent, comprising some extreme-Salafi jihadis, Muslim Brotherhood-type Islamists, and members of the local Sufi orders. SIF also takes on a few foreign mujahedeen fighters of European origin – usually a defining trait of transnationalist jihadi groups like Jabhat Al-Nusra.

SIF’s subfactions unite however their voice regarding their de facto attitude towards Jabhat al-Nusra which sounds at odds with its nationalist aspirations. Through one of its channels, SIF announced that the Al-Qaeda affiliated group is “our brothers and partners in the trenches and battles” and that they “only see honesty in their work as well as toughness and bravery”. Abu Ezzedin al-Ansari, of the Liwa al-Haqq Brigades, also defended them by stating that “the USA has classified a lot of groups as « terrorists » using criteria that are perhaps more suited to American interests, which are not necessarily our interests”. SIF is strongly opposed to any form of foreign intervention, with the leader of SIF, Hassan Aboud Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi, declaring at a conference in Cairo in June that “any invading force that sets foot on Syrian territory under any pretext, whether to support the regime or to allegedly stop aggression, will be treated as an occupying force”. In addition, SIF’s main group, Ahrar al-Sham, reacted negatively to the April rapprochement between the Islamic State of Iraq (the Iraqi branch of Al-Qaeda) and Jabhat al-Nusra. Even though Ahrar al-Sham agreed in principle with the objectives of a possible Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, it believes that more realism and patience are required in such situations given that none of today’s Islamist factions is strong enough to assume religious leadership over the Muslim community (umma). By simply having an official opinion on the matter, Ahrar al-Sham is acknowledging the need for such a group, while simply disagreeing on the timing. This reaction places SIF’s leading faction in a position where its voice matters in a context involving the internal affairs of two transnational jihadi groups.

If SIF’s deeds and aspirations seem contradictory on the surface, their funding comes mainly from individuals supportive of radical transnational jihadism, and not from governmental sources. Little is known about SIF’s donors, but some of Ahrar al-Sham’s sources include Kuwaiti-based Syrian Salafi preacher sheikh Hajjaj al-Ajami (who uses strong language against Christians and Jews), Saudi-based Syrian preacher Adnan al-‘Arur (reputed for his rhetoric against non-Sunni religious groups and for his strong involvement in raising donations), Kuwaiti Salafi politician and ideologue Hakim al-Mutayri, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and individuals from Qatar.

In conclusion, it is difficult to agree with SIF’s declaration of promoting a clear and distinct third way in the Syrian conflict. Its unambiguous links with Jabhat al-Nusra say the contrary, while only the lack of ideological cooperation with the secular Free Syrian Army supports the idea of distinctiveness. Nevertheless, regardless of their ideological leaning, SIF are a major actor to be taken into account on the Syrian civil war theatre, which, logistically speaking, can actually provide for a second or even a third way. Since their creation in 2012, the tactics of Ahrar Al-Sham have developed from simple sporadic improvised explosive devices (IEDs, the type that were used in Iraq) to small-arms ambushes, classic guerrilla tactics (remotely detonated bombs, hit-and-run raids, and ambushes) until they were eventually capable of also conducting large-scale sustained assaults on multiple fronts (at Hama, Idlib, Raqqa, Al-Hasakah, Deir al-Zour and Deraa) – a promising tactical development only waiting to be matched by a clear ideological position.

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