Inside the Victory Army restructuring: Infighting led to ‘breakdown of our operational effectiveness’

AMMAN: In a move to overcome infighting that has hindered recent battlefield progress, north Syria’s largest rebel coalition is “restructuring,” dropping formal ties with one hardline group while reuniting with a former ally.

Officials with the Victory Army announced on Monday that its operations room would no longer include Jund al-Aqsa, an Islamist group that some rebel factions accuse of sympathizing with the Islamic State.

Meanwhile, Feilaq a-Sham, a former member of the Victory Army that withdrew from the coalition in January ostensibly due to “ideological differences” with Jund al-Aqsa, is now returning to the operations room.

“Feilaq a-Sham is one of the largest factions in northern Syria and has access to heavy weapons,” Sharif Samarda, a citizen journalist from Idlib, told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

In an apparent move of political balancing, the relatively obscure Turkistan Islamic Party, a group of Uighur fighters from western China who recently fought alongside Jund al-Aqsa in Hama province, will round out the coalition’s new roster.

“The entrance of the Turkistan Islamic Party is important, as they will balance the coalition’s relations with other factions and reduce the chances of a clash with Jund al-Aqsa,” a Victory Army commander who requested anonymity told Syria Direct on Monday.

‘Ideological differences’

Seven Islamist fighting groups, including the Salafist Ahrar a-Sham and Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat a-Nusra, formed the Victory Army in March 2015 with the stated goal of “liberating the good city and the good people of Idilb,” the former referring to the capital of the eponymous northwestern province. After accomplishing its inaugural goal in four days, the new coalition proceeded, over the following seven months, to capture the rest of Idlib province from pro-regime forces.

But fractures began to appear in the Victory Army as early as October 2015, when both Jund al-Aqsa and Jabhat a-Nusra reportedly threatened to leave the coalition over differences in opinion regarding the application of Islamic law and relations with the Islamic State.

As the rebels were sorting out their internal issues, a Russian bombing campaign, launched September 30, and an influx of loyalist foreign fighters from Iran were helping the regime reverse the Victory Army’s earlier progress.

Over the last seven months, Idlib’s rebels have not achieved any significant advances, while pro-regime forces, backed by Russian airpower, have forced Victory Army fighters from neighboring northern Latakia.

While Russian airpower has been key to the regime’s recent success, those close to the Victory Army tell Syria Direct that internal disputes have limited the coalition’s ability to respond effectively.

“The primary reason for the breakdown of our operational effectiveness was the infighting between the coalition’s factions, and particularly that caused by Jund al-Aqsa,” Hussam a-Salama, a commander with Ahrar a-Sham affiliate Liwa a-Sunna in the Victory Army, told Syria Direct on Monday.

“By excluding Jund al-Aqsa, we can restructure the Victory Army,” he added.

The restructuring allows for the return of Feilaq a-Sham, a founding member of the coalition, with more than 20 battalions spread across four Syrian provinces, including Idlib and Aleppo.

Officially, Feilaq a-Sham left the Victory Army last January to “prioritize support for rebels in Aleppo,” according to a statement released by the group at the time. But the real reason for the split was “ideological differences with other factions—particularly Jund al-Aqsa,” a source inside Feilaq a-Sham told Syria Direct on Monday.

The exclusion of Jund al-Aqsa paved the way for Feilaq to return, the source said. “The main reason for our return to the Victory Army is the absence of Jund al-Aqsa,” said an official from Feilaq a-Sham’s high command who requested anonymity, adding that the coalition will now focus its efforts on the Aleppo front.

The decision to release Jund al-Aqsa comes nearly three months after the group “suspended” coordination with the Victory Army operations room, citing the “overreaches” of one of the coalition’s largest members, Ahrar a-Sham.

Now, Jund al-Aqsa is officially out, and Victory Army commanders say they hope the move will allow the coalition to focus on more important matters, such as winning battles.

The Victory Army says it does not want to make an enemy out of their former ally, Jund al-Aqsa, and that the inclusion of the Turkistan Islamic Party may be a nod at keeping a line open.

“The Turkistanis have good, balanced relations with all rebel factions, so their inclusion ensures the coalition is acceptable to all,” the Victory Army commander who requested anonymity told Syria Direct.

“They will also prevent Jund al-Aqsa from taking negative action against us.”

Osama Abu Zeid

Osama Abu Zeid is a native of Homs, where he served as a media activist and founding member of the Homs Revolutionary Council after the Syrian uprising began in 2011.

Maher al-Hamdan

Maher comes from Outer Damascus. He is currently a political science student at Asia Virtual University in Malaysia. During the conflict, Maher worked with different local coordination offices in Outer Damascus. He moved to Jordan in June 2015. He joined Syria Direct to professionalize his journalism skills.

Orion Wilcox

Orion Wilcox was a 2014-2015 CASA fellow in Amman, Jordan where he interned with the UNRWA Jordan Field Office. He received his BA in Economics and Arabic language from the University of Mississippi. Following the CASA program, Orion worked as a freelance translator and interpreter in Amman.