Rebel factions merge with larger Islamist coalitions in response to infighting

AMMAN: A major rebel realignment is underway in northern Syria as the two largest opposition factions there merge with smaller brigades, further entrenching internal divisions and potentially setting the stage for future conflict.

Three major blocs have emerged in opposition-held Idlib province and the west Aleppo countryside since last week: Jabhat Fatah a-Sham (JFS) and allied smaller factions, Ahrar a-Sham and its allies and unaligned Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades.

What this means, one citizen journalist tells Syria Direct, is further division in Idlib’s military arena. Apart from ideological differences, the inter-rebel restructuring has “on-the-ground implications,” said the Idlib-based journalist, requesting anonymity.

As Idlib’s two Islamist blocs expand, the divide between Jabhat Fatah a-Sham and Ahrar a-Sham, two of the strongest factions in northwest Syria, deepens while paving the way for a “new phase of infighting and a power struggle between the leadership,” the citizen journalist explained.

What appears to have triggered the rebel restructuring in Idlib and west Aleppo is the latest round of major rebel infighting there, which began early last week when JFS, formerly known as Jabhat a-Nusra, attacked positions and headquarters of the FSA’s Jaish al-Mujahideen in the western Aleppo countryside and nearby Idlib.

 Tahrir a-Sham logo. Photo courtesy of Al Maqalaat Pubs.

The unprovoked JFS assault appears to be fueled by the participation of some rebel groups, including Jaish al-Mujahideen, in last week’s talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana about the nation-wide ceasefire brokered by Turkey and Russia.

The ceasefire, which went into effect on December 30, excludes JFS as well as the Islamic State.

Within hours, the JFS attack on Jaish al-Mujahideen sparked a response from Suqour a-Sham and al-Jabha a-Shamiya, among other FSA allies. The infighting swiftly expanded to include most major factions in opposition areas of northwest Syria.

As battles continued last week, Jaish al-Mujahideen and six other rebel groups merged with the powerful Islamist faction Ahrar a-Sham, one of the largest in Syria and established a mutual defense pact.

“We welcome these factions who have joined,” said an Ahrar a-Sham statement announcing the merger on Thursday. “Any attack on them is declaration of war on Ahrar a-Sham.”

On Saturday, Jabhat Fatah a-Sham responded by announcing the formation of Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS)—a coalition made up of JFS, Nour e-Din a-Zinki and three other Islamist factions.

HTS announced the new coalition in a statement that circulated on social media, calling on all regional factions to join the alliance “in order to unite our banners…so that this may be the seed which unifies the capacities and strengths of this revolution.”

The formation of the two rival alliances is accompanied by a series of defections from Ahrar a-Sham to HTS. Most notably, Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham announced their leader to be Abu Jaber Hashem a-Shakh, the former General Commander of Ahrar a-Sham.

Following Saturday’s announcement, dozens of rebel battalions and their leaders have chosen a side, either merging with Ahrar a-Sham or HTS.

Since Monday, four rebel factions in Idlib province announced their merger with Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham while one rebel faction joined the ranks of Ahrar a-Sham.

“There is no place in the north for small factions,” the Idlib-based citizen journalist told Syria Direct. “There will be pressure on them to join or perish.”

‘A cautious relationship’

Since the announcement of the mergers, major infighting in Idlib province appears to have slowed.

Both Ahrar a-Sham and HTS have touted their respective mergers as positive steps toward rebel unity. However, tensions appear to continue between the two major blocs, fueling concerns about future, large-scale fighting between the now-opposed Islamist alliances.

Since the mergers, infighting “has not actually come to a halt, it is just in the propaganda and official statements,” Captain Ammar al-Wawi, the secretary general of the Free Syrian Army, told Syria Direct.

“The arrests and the injustices continue for all of those who don’t belong [to Tahrir a-Sham or Ahrar a-Sham],” he added.

 Abu Jaber Hashem a-Shakh, leader of Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham. Photo courtesy of Syrian Mirror.

On Monday, HTS and Ahrar a-Sham quarreled through statements after the latter accused HTS of seizing an Ahrar courthouse and checkpoints in the western Aleppo town of Darat Izza on Sunday night.

An Ahrar a-Sham statement demanded HTS leadership “stop the injustice and irresponsible behavior.” Tahrir a-Sham relinquished control of the checkpoints and courthouse on Tuesday, according to an Ahrar a-Sham negotiator.

Despite the tensions with Ahrar a-Sham, HTS leadership says it is confident that the merger signifies a promising step toward rebel unification in Idlib, the only Syrian province fully controlled by opposition forces.

“The core principle of the organization is the unity of the rebel factions, which is more necessary now than it ever has been,” Captain Abdul Salam Abdul Razaq, a spokesman for Nour e-Dein E-Zinki, told Syria Direct.

“This restructuring will bring an end to the infighting, which was destroying the revolution,” added Abdul Razaq.

In spite of the rhetoric of rebel unity, FSA Secretary General Ammar al-Wawi is wary of both mergers, warning that “there will be a very cautious relationship” between Ahrar a-Sham and HTS.

Ahrar a-Sham and Jabhat Fatah a-Sham once fought side by side. The Victory Army, which drove regime forces out of Idlib province in March 2015, was primarily composed of fighters from the two Islamist factions.

Both Ahrar a-Sham and Jabhat Fatah a-Sham espouse a Salafist ideology and have previously maintained links with Al-Qaeda.

As the HTS and Ahrar a-Sham coalitions grow, smaller, nationalist FSA battalions in rebel-held Idlib are being absorbed into larger Islamist coalitions.

“We’ve seen demonstrations raising the flag of the revolution…calling for the return of the FSA” in Idlib, said the FSA’s al-Wawi.

“The popular base supports the revolution, not the terrorists.”

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.