In a video issued late on September 24, the chief political leader of Liwa al-Tawhid, Abdulaziz Salameh, speaking on behalf of 12 other Islamist militant groups in Syria, condemned the “unrepresentative” Western-backed Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and called explicitly for “an Islamic framework based on sharia [Islamic law].”
The video was issued along with a scanned statement, personally signed by the senior leadership of all 13 groups, encorporating existing members of the SNC, members of the hardline Salafist coalition the Syrian Islamic Front, and also Jabhat al-Nusra. As such, a new “Islamic Coalition” was formed.
All 13 groups – specifically, Jabhat al-Nusra, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya, Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Islam, Suqor al-Sham, Liwa al-Haq, Harakat Fajr al-Sham al-Islamiyya, Harakat al-Nour al-Islamiyya, Kataib Nour al-Din al-Zinki, Liwa al-Furqan, Liwa al-Ansar, Tajamu Fastaqm Kamr Umrat and Forqat al-Tisaa Ashr – represent Syria’s most sizeable and powerful insurgent groups. The inclusion of the core of the SNC force – incorporating Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Islam and Suqor al-Sham – effectively depletes the SNC’s armed wing, the Syrian Military Council (SMC). As all four groups were also members of the SNC-linked Syrian Islamic Liberation Front coalition, with Suqor al-Sham leader Sheikh Ahmed Abu Issa its leader, it is likely that that moderate Islamist coalition has ceased to exist as a single organisational structure.
The announcement is potentially extremely significant for the long-term nature of the Syrian opposition. The SNC has long been accused of retaining minimal on-the-ground control of insurgent groups technically under its command, and this public renunciation of its leadership and its political foundations will likely prove extremely damaging for its long-term role inside Syria. The group’s 13 signatories currently play the lead roles in insurgent theatres across Syria, particularly throughout the north, in Homs, Damascus and as far south as al-Quneitra governorate.
While the significant Aleppo-based Asifat al-Shamal did not sign into the alliance, it issued a written statement expressing support for its objectives. Meanwhile, moderate forces Alwia Ahfad al-Rasoul and Jabhat al-Asala wa Tanmia will likely remain the SMC’s most significant multi-governorate-level actors, although the latter notably without one of its key constituent groups, Kataib Nour al-Din al-Zinki.
If this new alliance holds, it will likely prove the most significant turning point in the evolution of Syria’s anti-government insurgency to date. Having toed politically pragmatic lines since their emergence onto the scene in Syria, the key Islamist middle-ground players – Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Islam and Suqor al-Sham – have finally made clear where their allegiances lie, with huge implications for the moderate opposition.
Perhaps most significantly, this has served to concretely underline what has been clear to many for some time: that the SNC/SMC has represented an opposition leadership far removed from what has become an increasingly Islamist-led insurgency. That Jabhat al-Nusra and Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya were the first two groups listed in both statements is also unlikely to be a coincidence, particularly given the increasing levels of respect shown to both groups in recent months within the Islamist portions of the opposition.
In the eyes of many of Syria’s key insurgent groups, the recent political agreement between Russia and the United States to deal with Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, and its concurrent cancellation of imminent strikes on Syrian military infrastructure as punishment for the chemical weapons attack in August, presented the Western-backed SNC as an impotent force, devoid of significant international backing when it mattered most. Meanwhile, continued strong levels of external backing provided to Islamist insurgent actors has for many months indicated a shifting balance of power between moderates and Islamists of all persuasions.
A notable name missing from the 13 listed groups is the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). With Jabhat al-Nusra given pride of place on the top of the 13-group list, the exclusion of ISIS is potentially very telling. Though still on a limited level, ISIS has begun to isolate itself from the insurgent core by way of a series of recent interfactional clashes with moderate and Islamist factions. As such, there has been increasing levels of rumour within Islamist militant circles in Syria this week that moves were under way to isolate ISIS, and this may well represent the outcome of such apparent plans.
With the exception of more extremist front groups in the east, Jabhat al-Nusra has, as an al-Qaida-linked group, largely played its cards right since its emergence in January 2012, and especially since ISIS’s emergence in Syria in April/May 2013. It has poured considerable resources into local-level governance and the provision of social services, and in comparison to ISIS, has adopted a notably measured imposition of sharia. As such, its relations with key Islamist actors across Syria have remained strong, while ISIS has appeared less open to multigroup coordination across the insurgent spectrum.
The coming days will be crucial in both demonstrating exactly what form this new “Islamic Alliance” will take and precisely how the SNC/SMC will react. Moreover, the nature of ISIS’s reaction will also be telling. While the debate within Western political circles regarding the potential provision of military assistance to the SNC/SMC is ongoing, the scope for Western influence over the Syrian opposition has now been diminished considerably.
This puts the U.S. in a difficult situation. The core Western-backed SNC is now considerably weaker, with many of its most strategically impactful insurgent actors having joined this new movement. The momentum is without a doubt with the Islamist portions of the opposition and this will likely have a notably detrimental effect on the morale of the SNC and its capacity to influence developments on the ground inside Syria. As such, the scope with which the U.S. or the West in general is capable of influencing the opposition has now weakened. This is a huge challenge to those currently presenting the view that the majority of the Syrian opposition is liberal and moderate. Such an argument has less to hold it up every week. Certainly, there do remain several key moderate groupings in Syria, but if this development leads to a consolidated Islamic Alliance, the capacity for such moderates to maintain a long-term grip over the future of Syria will be considerably weakened. This can only be interpreted as damaging to U.S. and Western interests in Syria.
UPDATE: On 25 September, the official statement signed by the 13 groups was removed from Liwa al-Tawhid’s website – the source of the announcement late on 24 September – and replaced with a list of 11 groups, with Liwa al-Furqan and Liwa al-Haq missing. Despite attending negotiations in the days leading to the 24 September announcement, and being involved in the drafting of the statement, the two groups had instead asserted support for the statement but had not signed it.
UPDATE II: In a series of posts on its official Twitter account late on September 27, Jabhat al-Nusra pulled back from reports it had entered into “a coalition” and insisted that if it had done so, its media wing, Al-Manara al-Bayda, would have announced such a development. In fact, Nusra insisted the statement was aimed solely at condemning the SNC and its foreign-based leadership. As such, Nusra claimed reports of “a coalition” were attempts at instigating divisions between itself and ISIS.
Taken at face value, this statement suggests that Nusra either doesn’t perceive the September 24 statement issued via Liwa al-Tawhid as a particularly significant development, or possibly that the statement itself has stirred up tensions it doesn’t want existing. Therefore, the key to interpreting the true long-term significance of the September statement 24 lies in how group alignment dynamics evolve in the coming days and weeks. In any case, the most significant aspect of the statement still stands in that the condemnation of the SNC by three of its most significant members (Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Islam, and Suqor al-Sham) has concretely brought into question the fundamental on-the-ground value of the SNC itself.