Islamic alliance may serve as counter to extremism in Syria

While it is still too early to fully understand the effects of this shift, the potential ramifications are significant. Undoubtedly, the creation of the Alliance, which brings previously moderate elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Syrian Liberation Front (SLF) together with al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), represents a pronounced shift towards radicalism among the Syrian opposition. What are less certain are the implications the move has for al Qaeda’s Iraqi branch, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has been feuding recently with JN. While the two remain united under al Qaeda’s leadership, the formation of the Alliance may increase the rift between the groups.

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Created in January 2012, the initial cadres of JN were mostly Syrians who could be traced back to what was then known as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Founded in 2004 under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarquawi, AQI had built a robust, interconnected web of cells across Syria in order to smuggle resources across the border and combat the US occupation. While the Assad regime initially facilitated this, it reversed its course in 2007 and began to crack down on extremists. Though this forced many insurgents to retreat into Iraq, formidable infrastructure remained in Syria. Thus, as the al-Nusra Front was born, it benefitted from these already well-established networks, making the organization much more powerful than its numbers would suggest.

As the war spread in late 2011, many of those in exile returned to Syria, including Abu Muhammad al-Julani, who would later become the leader of JN. Though his organization received heavy financial, logistical, and military support from AQI, quickly becoming a powerful force among the fragmented opposition, JN retained its autonomy from its Iraqi ally.

This independence was challenged in April of 2013 by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the current head of AQI. In a statement released through online terrorist forums, al-Baghdadi affirmed the relationship between JN and AQI, saying the two groups would merge under the name ISIS. This was met with hostility from al-Julani, who categorically asserted his group’s independence while simultaneously emphasizing its allegiance to al Qaeda core and its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Despite al-Zawahiri’s June directive that the two remain separate entities, al-Baghdadi forged ahead with an attempt to unify the two groups, moving into Syria to gain control of JN and rebrand it as ISIS. The move caused a split in the JN ranks, with fighters being forced to decide between al-Baghdadi and al-Julani.

Early signs seemed to indicate that ISIS was getting the better of this rivalry. Despite al-Baghdadi’s ruthless reputation and status as a foreigner, he still held the allegiance of many of the fighters operating under the JN banner. Learning from its mistakes during the Iraq campaign, during which AQI attacks on Muslim civilians incited a backlash against the group and alienated it from the population, ISIS has embarked on a "charm offensive" in Syria in order to win over local communities.

This, combined with its tactical successes in Latakia and at the Minakh airbase, has quickly made ISIS one of the stronger groups operating in Syria. While one rebel’s early assertion that the success of ISIS has caused JN to “disintegrate from within” was probably an exaggeration, given its continued military exploits, it does seem likely that al-Baghdadi’s power grab did weaken JN in a significant way.

As ISIS expanded its presence across Syria, it began to clash with other opposition groups that did not share its extremist views. Two weeks ago, al-Baghdadi declared war on the Homs-based Farouq Brigade, a moderate Islamist battalion that is a part of the SLF. It has clashed with more radical factions as well, including Ahrar al-Sham, one of JN’s key allies and the Salafi leader of the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF). ISIS attacks against FSA commanders on the Turkish border have also led to continued infighting and competition in the north.

This conflict between ISIS, a relative newcomer to the war, and rebel battalions that have been fighting alongside JN since late 2011 has done nothing to alleviate the tension between the two blocs. Indeed, in the weekend before the Alliance was announced, skirmishes between JN and ISIS broke out in Hasaka, a province in eastern Syria, killing two people. Thus, the birth of the “Islamic Alliance” comes at a time when ISIS is causing increased division between opposition forces and regressing to Iraq-style tactics when dealing with the public (the recent murder of two young boys in Aleppo for alleged heresy, for example).

While the formation of the Alliance is certainly a rejection of the foreign-based National Coalition, a sign of increased radicalization among the opposition, and and a vote of no confidence in the Supreme Military Council and its western backers, it may also be a move by JN to balance the increasing influence of ISIS. This is backed up by identities of the 13 battalions that make up the alliance. Among them are Ahrar al-Sham, the SIF brigade that recently clashed with ISIS, and the Northern Storm Brigade, a FSA unit that lost five of its fighters in an encounter with al-Baghdadi’s militants two weeks ago. The Liwa al-Tawhid Brigade of the SLF, which was involved in mediating the disputes between the FSA and ISIS along the Turkish border, is a part of the Alliance as well.

Though their shared allegiance to al Qaeda will prevent any outright combat between JN and ISIS (who are still considered strong allies and collaborate extensively on operations), the creation of the Alliance may increase the tension between the two groups and give JN the ability to leverage this coalition against the growing influence of ISIS.

Their ability to do this will be better understood in the coming weeks as the Alliance continues to evolve. Thus far, its impact has been little more than rhetorical. However, its strength will grow if it develops a political arm or consolidates its power by unifying its factions militarily, as the Liwa al-Tawhid Brigade recently did when it brought together 50 regiments to form the “Army of Islam” in Damascus. Regardless, the formation of the Alliance illustrates a growing discontent surrounding ISIS and its operations. As the war rages on, it seems al-Baghdadi will be met with increased resistance, even from his al Qaeda allies.

Looney is a research intern at the Center for Strategic and International Studies focusing on the Syrian conflict. He graduated summa cum laude from Colgate University and was the institution’s 2012 nominee for the Rhodes Scholarship.
The views expressed are Looney's alone and do not reflect the position of CSIS.