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Syria’s Secular Rebels, Now Unified Under a New Banner

Much has been made recently in the Western press of the supposed demise of the Free Syrian Army (invariably and erroneously described as “U.S.-backed”).

Written by Aymenn al-Tamimi and Evan Helmuth Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

While it’s true that some moderate factions have declined in power and prominence due to a lack of support, the brigades that made up the combat power of what was called the Free Syrian Army are still very much alive and well.

They have simply been restructured into two new organizations, under new names, each of which represents an actual, unified chain of command, unlike the Free Syrian Army, a media construct that was always a loose confederation rather than an actual, coherent army.

The largest and most powerful of these new unified commands, the Islamic Front, formed in November and is widely viewed as a Saudi-backed effort to both fight the regime more effectively and to marginalize and contain the al-Qaida-linked jihadis of Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS.

It likely accounts for between 50 and 60,000 men, or slightly over half of all armed rebels in Syria. Notably, groups like Liwa al-Tawhid, Suqoor al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam that now make up the Islamic Front, used to constitute much, if not most, of what was called the FSA.

The Syrian Revolutionary Front, as the new command is called, is separate from the IF. It consists of 14 brigades, totaling some 25,000 fighters. The largest is Jamal Marouf’s Martyrs of Syria brigade, whose fighters comprise around half of the SRF’s total strength.

Marouf was selected as the overall commander of the Front. Other large units making up the new SRF include Northern Farouk and Farouk in Hama (both large splinters from the original Farouk Brigades), the Zea’ab al-Ghab brigade, The Idlib Martyrs brigade and the Habib Mustafa brigade.

Between them, the SRF and the IF probably account for between 70% and 80% of all armed rebels in Syria. The remainder are composed of the Authenticity and Development Front and various independent FSA brigades in southern Syria on the one hand and (largely foreign) al-Qaida-affiliated jihadis on the other.

Relations between the SRF and the IF seem to have gotten off to a rocky start. One activist from Idlib said the Islamic Front’s seizure by force of several warehouses full of equipment and light weapons was a source of severe tension shortly after the formation of the SRF.

He said the weapons and equipment had been provided by Western governments, including the United States, to the brigades that were under the banner of the FSA, which now make up the SRF, and that the two sides had agreed to submit the matter to a Shari’a court and the dispute would likely be resolved quietly.

Brigadier General Ibrahim Nasif, commander of the approximately 900 men of the Idlib Martyrs brigade of the SRF, said that relations with “our brothers” in the Islamic Front are quite good and the groups periodically cooperate operationally. He distinguished between the Islamic Front and the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Nasif described the latter group as “full of criminals, not from us, but rather agents of the regime.”

The shooting started last Friday with a confederation of independent Islamist brigades called the Army of the Mujahideen, attacking ISIS positions across Aleppo province and in Aleppo proper over the killing of Dr. Suleiman.

The combined assault on ISIS has freed dozens of prisoners held by the jihadi group and seen the capture of their local bases and many of their fighters by brigades of the SRF and the IF in towns as far afield as Manbij, Marat al-Numan, Saraqeb, Adana, Deir Ezzor and Aleppo itself. Most recently, a military push by the SRF expelled ISIS from its local headquarters in Darkush, Idlib province.

The backlash against ISIS is intended to end their presence in Syria. “We will expel them back to Iraq or whatever countries they came from,” said General Nasif of the Idlib Martyrs brigade.

“They have shown that they are against the revolution and only want to harm the Syrian people, not help us to secure our freedom.” Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Suri, an Idlib-based commander with Ahrar al-Sham, told Syria Deeply that “ISIS spends more time creating fitna [dissension] and provoking infighting with the mujahideen than they do fighting Assad.”

Given how far the fighting has spread and how far into the open hostilities have gotten between ISIS and pretty much all other Syrian rebels, any renewed alliance between ISIS and either the IF or the SRF seems highly unlikely in the foreseeable future.

The fighting with ISIS may well weaken the rebels against the Assad regime in the short term. The end result may be an opposition that is less fractious and more palatable to foreign backers.

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