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Q+A: How Syria’s New Islamic Front Could Change the Game

On Friday, Syria’s six largest Islamist rebel groups declared a new Islamic Front, forming the largest opposition alliance thus far in the conflict. Syria’s rebel fighters have tried to unite before, with dismal results.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

As extremist groups make inroads against a fractious opposition, some say the new alliance has been heralded as the game changer that could turn the tide. Others argue that it will critically undermine the Free Syrian Army and the opposition in exile.

Noah Bonsey, the International Crisis Group’s senior Syria analyst, weighs in. 

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Syria Deeply: Is this alliance really a game changer?

Noah Bonsey: It’s too early to tell whether this will be a game changer or not. It’s certainly not the first alliance announced among rebel groups. But it is arguably the biggest, and some of its members have expressed desire for this to go beyond the level of an alliance — to the point of a full merger by these groups.

SD: What are a few things to watch out for in the coming weeks?

NB: There are four things.

The first is the nature of coordination among these groups. Is it really deepening? Are we seeing something beyond the ad hoc coordination we see during regular battles, something that approaches actual strategic coordination?

Second, is who else will be joining? A week or so before the alliance was announced, I was told by a rep from one of the groups involved that in the coming days we’ll see other prominent groups joining, including factions based in Deraa and Damascus. They portray this alliance as something that is going to grow.

Third, to what extent will this alliance enjoy coordinated support from the opposition’s central backers? Up to now, there’s no evidence of that happening. The opposition has been undermined from the beginning by poor coordination, and at times direct competition, between its key backers, notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Thus far there is no reason to believe that this has changed.

This is important because this alliance aspires to be something national. You have component factions in the north who are dependent on Turkey and Qatar for their state support, but in the south Saudi plays a much bigger role. So a group like [Damascus’s largest faction] Jaish al-Islam will need to be more concerned with Saudi policy. Thus another question becomes, can this alliance coordinate meaningfully throughout the country? I don’t expect much on that front unless the dynamics among the backers shift. The alliance is not entirely dependent on the opposition’s state supporters, but they hold significant leverage.

And fourth, what becomes of the Supreme Military Council led by General Selim Idriss? The core groups involved in this alliance have either directly taken part in, or at least cooperated with, the SMC. But relations have deteriorated over the past few months. There have reportedly been talks attended by Qatari and Turkish reps to address that issue, but it’s unclear where those have led. One group’s rep told me they’d like their alliance to be a part of a restructured SMC in which they would enjoy more influence. The opposition’s state backers may push for such an arrangement, given that–on paper at least– they have committed to channel support through the SMC.

SD: How much is the alliance concerning extremist rebel groups?

NB: It likely is of concern to ISIS. ISIS’s relationship with some of these groups has been slowly deteriorating, partly due to ISIS’s strategy of asserting dominance over rebel-held areas — the aggressive, often brutal way they’ve been pursuing that has put them increasingly at odds with groups in the north and the mountains along the coast.

ISIS has been able to gain ground partly because they are better organized than their mainstream counterparts. A coherent mainstream alliance could potentially contain ISIS, make it more difficult for ISIS to continue to expand in rebel-held areas. Looking ahead, the alliance will present more of a problem to ISIS the further ISIS’ relations with other groups continue to deteriorate.

SD: How is the new alliance different from alliances announced in the past, like the Army of Islam or the Islamic Liberation Front?

NB: The Army of Islam is basically Liwa al-Islam, which began in Douma and steadily expanded in the Damascus region and to some extent outside of it. The “Army” [Jaish] is seen as an expansion of the Liwa. Unlike Jaish al -Islam, the new alliance is multi-polar and incorporates four of the biggest, most powerful groups in the country.

And the groups composing this alliance [the Islamic Front] aspire to a deeper level of coordination than the Islamic Liberation Front, but whether or not they will achieve that remains to be seen.

SD: What have they done this week, what was their first move after the announcement?

NB: They’ve named people to various positions — you have Saqour al-Sham leader Abu Issa as head of the Shura Council, Jaish al-Islam leader Zahran Alloush as military commander, Ahrar al-Sham leader Hassan Aboud as head of the political bureau. It’s unclear what any of that really means, on the ground or politically.

In the coming weeks, you’ll want to keep an eye out regarding claims made that this alliance will grow bigger than it currently is. A significant thing will be if we see additional groups join that have centers of gravity outside the north.

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