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Syria Deeply Asks: What’s the Difference Between ISIS and the Islamic Front?

This week, rumors were rife that members of the Islamic Front were behind the kidnapping of prominent activist Razan Zeitouneh, her husband and two colleagues, who were taken by masked gunmen from an office in the Damascus neighborhood of Douma.

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

The incident points to escalating concerns that the Islamic Front’s behavior, a newly formed alliance of seven of Syria’s biggest rebel fighting groups, could start to resemble that of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), al-Qaida’s Syrian arm. 

We asked experts to weigh in on the similarities between the two groups, and whether the fears are well-founded.

Noah Bonsey, Senior Syria researcher, International Crisis Group:

Competition for territory and resources among rebel groups is certainly not unique to ISIS; they’re not the only group that’s sought to expand its zone of control. But ISIS has been more aggressive, brutally and systematically. To some extent it’s not surprising that you have the Islamic Front seeking to flex its muscles on the ground – they can in a way force the opposition’s backers into dealing with them by pushing out the Supreme Military Council.

I don’t think of this behavior as the Front “behaving like ISIS,” because they’re doing it in a different way – we haven’t seen a systematic pattern of them using brutal tactics to push out other rebel groups. But it’s certainly something worth watching.

One of the most important factors to watch will be the approach the Islamic Front takes in dealing with the opposition’s backers. You have certain state backers that have a positive relationship with the Islamic Front – Turkey and Qatar have to an extent enabled its communications with the U.S.

But then you have Saudi Arabia, which is rumored to support Jaish al-Islam, but does not have a history of ties with other main groups in the Front and may see them, to an extent, as competition. If you had a unified approach among these states, they might be capable of developing incentives for the Islamic Front to take a more pragmatic tack, with regards to Geneva and how they deal with other groups on the ground. But we haven’t seen that emerge. It will be very interesting to see how this develops, particularly given that the U.S. is clearly open to a level of political engagement.

Faysal Itani, fellow, the Atlantic Council:

It’s an important question. These guys are probably the most important coalition of actors in Syria. They’re going to have a key role in shaping the conflict in the future. The question of whether they become extremists – it’s a coalition of groups that fall in various places on the Islamist spectrum, some of which, depending on what your definition is, are extremist. Particularly Ahrar al-sham, which is on the extreme end, and also Jaish al-Islam, which is headed by a man who, according to his own statements, has a deeply sectarian worldview and has spoken quite toxically against Alawites and Shia and appears to see the conflict very much in those terms.

Is that an effort for him to rally a Sunni support base or compete with ISIS over who [of the two] is the most ideologically committed? Who knows. But it’s very troubling that there is already a tendency for some of these groups to be extremist.

There have been accusations, particularly from Human Rights Watch, that some of the Islamic Front groups, particularly Ahrar al-Sham, were involved in atrocities against Alawite civilians in Latakia. The group denies it, but these are all troubling indications.

On the other side of the spectrum, you have groups like Soohor al-Sham or Liwa al-Tawhid, which are significantly less extremist. They’re slightly more moderate, a bit more inclusive and rhetorically deferential to minorities. The main difference in general between these guys and ISIS is that there is a level of brutality in ISIS that we haven’t seen in the Front, and the Front’s focus tends to be Syria, not the wider world. They do intend to set up an Islamic state there, but don’t think it’s part of a wider transcendental caliphate.

So those are the differences: message and tactics, and ideology and focus.

The Front is still a collection of groups – it’s not at the point of being a cohesive governing entity. They have set up, in various parts of the rebel-held territory, a significant social and governing infrastructure where they provide government and judicial services as well as law enforcement. But it’s still a loose coalition of actors.

It would be interesting if one or two of these members succeed in consolidating their control over the Coalition – and after that, you could see them going in a more unified direction. These guys are each dominant in different geographies of Syria, whereas ISIS has put as much effort into consolidating its stance as it has into the fighting on the ground.

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