With the regime's recapture of Aleppo city in its entirety, the wider insurgency finds itself in a moment of crisis. The rebellion's main centre is now the rural northwest province of Idlib, as the regime also looks set to clear up remaining pockets in the wider Damascus area, thereby firmly cementing its control over the two most important conurbations in the country.
It is not unreasonable to put down many of the failings of the rebellion to a lack of unity among the various factions on the ground. Though many of the factions are capable of issuing joint political statements, such actions do not translate to actual unity inside the territories they control.
To be sure, many unity initiatives have been tried in the past, such as the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) set up in late 2014. Despite looking superficially impressive in terms of the number of factions involved, its significance was overstated. The RCC failed to bring about real mergers and eventually the entire body was quietly forgotten over the course of 2015.
The current crisis being faced by the rebellion has given renewed energy to notions of mergers. At the present time, two such trends can be identified. One is embodied in a statement issued on 28 December 2016 by ten factions declaring a grand unity initiative. Issued in the name of the "Free Syrian Army," its signatories include Faylaq al-Sham (Syrian Muslim Brotherhood-linked), the Shami Front (mostly ex-Liwa al-Tawheed affiliates of Aleppo), Suqur al-Sham (generally Salafi and merged at one point with Ahrar al-Sham, then split off) and Liwa Shuhada' al-Islam (a faction from the Damascus suburb of Darayya that went north to Idlib as per a final surrender of the suburb negotiated with the regime).
The other trend represents a continuity of perhaps the raison d'etre behind the rebranding of Jabhat al-Nusra to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and ostensible breaking of ties with al-Qa'ida: that is, to embed the entity more deeply in the wider insurgency as part of a more long-term game to realize the end goals of a transnational jihadist project. Unity talks quickly followed the formation of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham but did not produce meaningful results, despite the surge in popularity gained from the breaking of the siege of Aleppo in August 2016.
Right now, merger ideas surrounding this latter trend involve two other main groups: at least part of Ahrar al-Sham, and Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki. I say 'part' of Ahrar al-Sham because it is clear there is a deep division in the movement about the notion of a merger with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. The part in favour of the merger is best represented in Hashim al-Sheikh (Abu Jaber), who tweeted yesterday: "What the coalition wants from targeting our brothers in Fatah al-Sham: beware of getting near them, otherwise your fate will be as their fate. So we say to them: #FatahalShamisofusandweareofthem." Abu Jaber is also the leader of the "Jaysh al-Ahrar" sub-group of Ahrar al-Sham that was controversially announced last month. Indicative of Jaysh al-Ahrar's orientation, one Ahrar al-Sham fighter in Idlib going by the handle of @shamel1020 tweeted on 4 January 2017:
"#Jaysh al-Ahrar soon if God wills with its brothers Fatah al-Sham, Liwa al-Haq, al-Zinki [Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki], al-Turkistan [Turkestan Islamic Party: Uyghur jihadi faction linked to al-Qa'ida]: one army and one leader."
@shamel1020 proceeded to follow up explaining the formation of Jaysh al-Ahrar. He ties its formation to internal tensions created in Ahrar al-Sham over the official decision to deploy manpower and weapons (in particular heavy weaponry) to north Aleppo countryside as part of Turkey's "Euphrates Shield" project that began in August 2016 and aims to clear the Islamic State off the border and block Kurdish PYD ambitions to link its three regions. Ahrar al-Sham's Shari'i council released an official statement permitting coordination with the Turkish army, something opposed by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. Ahrar al-Sham units to this day remain participants in Euphrates Shield as one of more than twenty factions involved in the operations. More widely, the operation has been criticised for drawing away resources that could have been used to break the siege of Aleppo again. Perhaps supporting @shamel1020's explanation here is the fact that some of the Jaysh al-Ahrar signatories are artillery, missile and armoured vehicle units- all important heavy assets in warfare. That said, some sub-units within the auxiliary artillery brigade in particular rejected the formation of Jaysh al-Ahrar. Of the other signatories to the statement, some can be easily identified: Liwa al-Tamkeen, for example, has been involved in fighting against the regime in Aleppo, declaring some 'martyrs' in November 2016, while Liwa Ahrar al-Jabal al-Wustani has been involved in fighting in the Latakia area against the regime.
Eisa al-Sayyid Ali, a Liwa al-Tamkeen 'martyr' whose death was announced on 8 November 2016.
Abu al-Bara' al-Qalamouni, another Liwa al-Tamkeen 'martyr' whose death was announced on 8 November 2016.
Notable also is @shamel1020's attack on Labib al-Nahhas, who heads Ahrar al-Sham's external political relations and is seen at least as an actor within the movement that foreign powers can reliably engage. He is a strong critic of the notions of a merger with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, seeing it as political suicide for the wider rebellion. This does not necessarily mean that Nahhas and others sceptical of a merger with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham support the other unity initiative. Indeed, as an insightful article in the Arabic outlet al-Modon (H/T: Sam Heller) characterized the situation, Ahrar al-Sham essentially finds itself caught in the middle. Both sides undoubtedly want Ahrar al-Sham as it is one of the most powerful rebel groups in northern Syria.
Below are @shamel1020's relevant tweets:
"Jaysh al-Ahrar and the reasons for its formation: The order came from the political committee to withdraw heavy weaponry to the north of Aleppo (Jarabulus), and that was so after a lot of the weaponry was withdrawn previously. Some of the leaders rejected this order because it was harmful and weakening the movement in Idlib. They insisted on withdrawing it [the weaponry] to the north of Aleppo. So some of the security officials suggested a solution to stop this order and that was to form the army. The matter was studied for a number of days and from it came the agreement of most of the leaders and brigades supporting the formation of the army, and that was so to stop the political committee that is trying to weaken the movement for [their own] goals.
To show the truth of this talk: the brothers from Fatah al-Sham, al-Turkistan and Liwa al-Haq met before the formation of the army to undertake battle to reduce the pressure on the city of Aleppo. The operation was set upon Shgidila dam and al-Hadhir, and the plan was put in place to assault these two villages. And the leaders were surprised that the brothers in the movement rejected participation in the operation. The reason for rejection was that there were no heavy weapons. And the official said that most of the weapons were with Faylaq al-Sham in the north of Aleppo and that the movement was not in a situation to allow it to participate in battle.
And among the reasons for the malice of some of the political officials and military officials against Jaysh al-Ahrar is that it eradicated a brigade from the Kafr Halab area and Damascus-Aleppo road. This brigade specialised in checkpoints and robbing the civilians and most of the people of that area, knowing who Liwa Ahfad al-Sahaba are. Jaysh al-Ahrar eradicated it for killing one of the mujahideen affiliated with Jaysh al-Ahrar. This young man was killed in a clash with them in the village of Ma'ara. So it was not for the brothers to arrest the members of this corrupt brigade- Ahfad al-Sahaba. So the malice of Labib al-Nahhas and his friends has increased against Jaysh al-Ahrar. And it should be noted that the leader of this brigade- called Basim Mustafa Sha'aban- has strong relations with Labib al-Nahhas. They say that Jaysh al-Ahrar is a covert defection. Yes, a fine defection. Were it not for the formation of this army, we would be seeing Assad and the Rafidites [derogatory for Shi'a] entering Idlib. Sheikh Abu Jaber has not been seeking authority."
An overview of the merger debates here brings us to Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki. Led by one Sheikh Tawfiq Shahab al-Din, who traced the formation of the group to November 2011 in an interview with al-Jazeera, Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki (previously known as Kata'ib Nour al-Din al-Zinki) has gone through a number of alliances over the years, including the establishment of the Jaysh al-Mujahideen ("Army of the Mujahideen") coalition at the turn of 2014 that clearly had an intention in its formation to fight what was then known as the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham. Once a vetted faction for the CIA-backed operations room in Turkey, the group lost this support by late 2015. In the popular imagination, Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki has gained notoriety as the archetype 'baddie/not-so-moderate rebels' on account of the beheading of a youth by some members in Aleppo last year. This kind of analysis is simplistic. The reality is that there are a wide variety of human rights abuses by an assortment of rebel groups: the only difference is that this beheading incident happened to make its way onto video. Beheading has become a widespread practice among groups on many different sides of the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, including pro-Assad militias in Syria as well as Sunni, Shi'a and Christian militias fighting the Islamic State in Iraq. This trend represents a normalisation of brutality partly on account of the rise of the Islamic State, rather than an instant gateway to determine whether a particular group is 'moderate.'
That said, there are legitimate concerns to be raised over the closeness of Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. A series of tweets that I have translated at the bottom of this post come from a member of Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki's political office (Turki Abd al-Hameed). These tweets, which were promoted on the Telegram account of the Shari'i office, offer an interesting insight into a line of thinking behind merging with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. Key obstacles for many factions to merge with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham include the fear of losing their identity to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and becoming subordinate to it, as well as becoming a potential target for the U.S., which does not of course accept the idea that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has really broken with al-Qa'ida (an entirely reasonable position).
Turki Abd al-Hameed appears to want a merger that has it both ways. He deems a merger with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham an obligation, undoubtedly valuing it as a military partner. Yet he also deems it necessary to continue political engagement and use the flag of the Syrian revolution, hoping that it can be used to protect Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and the foreign jihadis who have come to Syria in shielding them from the U.S. and the coalition and thus limiting the enemies to the regime, Russia and Iran. He has particular praise for the Turkestan Islamic Party, seeing it as a faction that has not tried to impose its rule on Syrians.
Ultimately though, Turki Abd al-Hameed's reasoning appears to be wishful thinking. To be sure, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham publicly denies that it is intending to subordinate other factions. On Telegram on 21 December 2016, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham spokesman Husam al-Shafi'i wrote:
"The pens of the Shayateen [evil ones] have begun to terrify the factions that the merger project will be swallowed up and led by the Jabha [Jabhat Fatah al-Sham], publishing lies and falsehoods to turn them away from the Shari'i obligation to merge and unite. We condemn this talk, for the project is not a project of bay'a [allegiance pledge] to the Jabha, but rather a comprehensive project whose sectors will be headed by all the groups...but we affirm that is likewise not a project of muhassasa [i.e. not giving out positions based on mere factional interests], for within the one wing you will encounter the competencies of all the factions, and the most competent and one of experience will be given preference."
However, it is difficult to imagine that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham will not try to claim some kind of leadership role (at least military command), considering the group's particular importance as a military actor in northern Syria. In which case, the merger will almost certainly incur the hostility of the U.S. and its coalition and be a pariah to outside state backers whose overall enthusiasm for the Syrian rebels has waned. While Turki Abd al-Hameed pushes the idea of a break between al-Qa'ida and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (cf. @shamel1020 promotes this idea as well), that view is not the way the U.S. will see it even with a merger, well aware of al-Qa'ida's guiding role in the formation of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and the links that exist between al-Qa'ida members inside Syria and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. Indeed, in a recent interview with al-Jazeera, Hussam al-Shafi'i reverted to the original wording of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham not being affiliated to an "external entity," which still allows for the aforementioned links with al-Qa'ida members inside Syria.
In any case, it is also hard to see Jabhat Fatah al-Sham agreeing to a coalition that adopts the banner of the Syrian revolution and practises political engagement with the outside world. Such moves would likely be viewed as excessive ideological compromise on the part of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. In this light, therefore, Turki Abd al-Hameed's depiction of the group as a "Syrian revolutionary faction" comes across as very naïve.
Below are Turki Abd al-Hameed's tweets. I give explanatory notes in square brackets where needed and have made sure numbering of the tweets coincides with expressing whole sentences rather than ending in mid-sentence on account of character limitations per tweet in the original format:
1. Unity with Fatah al-Sham is obligatory. Abstaining from leadership is not abstaining from an acquired right. Accepting the conditions of the success of unity is obligatory, not abstaining. Breaking the connection [seems to be referring to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham] is obligatory, not abstaining.
2. The jihad of the non-Syrian brothers under protection is obligatory, not abstaining. The presentation of Syrians to the outside is obligatory, not a gift. The presentation of Syrians for political speech is an interest for the Muslim masses.
3. The Turkistani brothers are among the most honest of those who have come to support the Syrian people. They have not put in place a checkpoint, they have not established a court, and they have not ruled a village, quarter or property. They have not occupied the leading positions of the Syrian people.
4. Protecting and embracing them are an obligation on our necks and not a gift from us. They are the ansar and they are the ones who have sacrificed without a worldly recompense. They are the ansar and not the muhajireen [latter: 'migrants'- referring to foreign fighters in this context]. Everyone who has come to support us is a brother.
5. The distinguished brothers working between the factions to unite them: do not stop, for every horse has a false step. The front you are setting up is one that no one else besides you will set up. I advise in what I see clearly as follows:
6. The merger beginning with a project that is Syrian in features will protect the non-Syrian mujahideen, before protecting the Syrians. The banner of the revolution is a shield to prevent broadening of the enemies and to narrow them down.
7. The banner of the revolution is a project one must use as a shield, for it obstructs the Russians and Iranians and blocks the way for them to bring together an international alliance to eradicate terrorism, for our enemy will be limited to the Russians and the Majus.
8. The regime strove from the beginning of the revolution to make it Islamic to make sure the minorities stay away from it, then it strove to make it Salafi to make sure non-Salafis stay away from it, then it strove to make it Salafi-jihadi only, to ensure those who are not Salafi-jihad stay away from it.
9. So what does the regime want from our unity? Is it in the interest of the regime that the aforementioned factions should unite themselves in black [i.e. the black flag of jihad] so it seeks the aid of the nations of the Earth against us, or that we should unite in green [i.e. the flag of the revolution] so that it cannot seek the aid of anyone except the Russians and the Majus [derogatory: 'Zoroastrians'- referring to Iranians]?
10. Is it in the regime's interest that our political speech should be black or green as the fighting is the fighting itself?
11. Someone may say: 'What did the people of Darayya and others besides them gain in benefit from the green and not black among them?' [referring to Liwa Shuhada' al-Islam, which had a 'Free Syrian Army' and revolutionary identity and remained that way]. I say: they benefited a lot, as they narrowed down their enemies to the Russians and the Majus without the nations of the Earth as happened in Afghanistan, Iraq and other Muslim states.
12. For the guidance of the Prophet commands us to keep away the greatest number of enemies possible, and this will be through knowing our limit and standing at it.
13. There is no Qa'ida in Syria, and Fatah al-Sham are not [Jabhat] al-Nusra and not terrorists. The factions are obliged to issue this address and not be ashamed of it, and we must not use the enemies' terms.
14. Fatah al-Sham is a Syrian revolutionary faction which some people of humanitarian conscience from the non-Syrians have joined to support the Syrian people. For all who have come to support the Syrian people are the same as we are.
15. Love of the one who has supported us is a matter of religion, humanity as well as a Shari'i matter. Embracing them is an obligation and honouring them from our people is Syrian identity. And the Muslim is a brother of the Muslim: he does not do wrong to him, forsake him or surrender him.
16. The targeting of Fatah al-Sham by the coalition aircraft will not distance us from them, but rather will increase our determination to defend them, unite with them, rise up with them, camouflage them and safeguard them.
17. Fatah al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham are brothers, and we are kin to them and they are our loved ones. We will unite soon to push back the aggressor enemy and we will move forward to gladden the oppressed and heal the hearts of believing people by God's permission.
(Update 8 January 2017): The al-Modon article referenced above in the piece makes reference to a third-way option between the two merger initiatives: that many think that the "only possible exit" from the mess is to revive the Revolutionary Command Council. In hindsight, I should have noted it in the piece above, as this third-way option seems to be the basis for a leaked document signed by nine major groups to create a new body called the Syria Liberation Command Council. The signatories are composed of the following groups:
- Ahrar al-Sham
- Faylaq al-Sham
- Ajnad al-Sham
- Suqur al-Sham
- Shami Front
- Tajammu Fa-Istaqim
- Faylaq al-Rahman
- Jaysh al-Islam
- Jabhat Ahl al-Sham (Jaysh al-Mujahideen, Thuwar al-Sham, Bayariq al-Islam)
The signatories, which notably do not include Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, agreed to form joint military and political committees, with the council adopting positions by consensus and the council leadership coming from the leadership of the groups. Abu Hamza al-Hamawi, the leader of Ajnad al-Sham, gave further context:
"Another meeting for a number of factions took place to study two matters of greatest importance: the first being the ceasefire, the Astana meeting and the risk of division in its decision-making, and the second being to preserve the liberated territory, prepare strategic military operations and develop military work so that the tragedy of Aleppo should not be repeated. It was agreed that military and political efforts must be united to prevent the dangers surrounding the revolution, so a rough draft for the establishment of a body including all was discussed, on the basis of working as a front, not a merger...but as usual narrow-minded people have begun to portray the matter as a coup against our efforts to merge and that it is a change in stance. This is a falsehood. We remain on our demand to unite ranks and cling together."
Iyad Sha'ar (an Ahrar al-Sham leader) also gave clarification, saying that the statement is a rough draft agreement, and that there was not to be an announcement about it until after the groundwork had been laid for the body after 3 months. He gave the same interpretation as Abu Hamza al-Hamawi in pointing out the agreement is not a merger but "a first step to confront the urgent challenges in the political realm." He also condemned the leaking of the document, saying that the leak "aims to distort and foil it."
Update (22 January 2017): A new message from Jaysh al-Ahrar leader Abu Jaber in which he announces the dissolution of Jaysh al-Ahrar (the relevant parts of which I have translated below). In this message Abu Jaber acknowledges the reason for the formation of the sub-movement as reformist in aim rather then separatist, with a push for Ahrar al-Sham to merger with other factions.
The failure of merger negotiations and renewed infighting between Ahrar al-Sham and elements of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (including the Jund al-Aqsa contingent that merged with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham last year) have effectively nullified Jaysh al-Ahrar's reason for existence. While Abu Jaber would have considered a merger with the likes of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham ideal, any kind of unilateral action towards a merger on Jaysh al-Ahrar's part would have simply added to internal tensions and worsen the overall situation for the rebellion, in addition to compromising what he considers to be Ahrar al-Sham's important position as nebulous middle ground between the more jihadist outlook for the rebellion and a more mainstream and nationally-oriented outlook. One has also seen that nebulous middle ground play out in Ahrar al-Sham's decision not to participate in the Astana peace talks partly out of a desire not to isolate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, despite participating in a third-way initiative for the Syria Liberation Command Council that should have led to signatories having a unified stance on something like those talks.
In effect, things are still at square one in that the merger debates have not alleviated the problem of factionalism that bedevils the wider insurgency. This outcome was predictable in the same way that Jabhat al-Nusra's rebranding in the summer of last year was unlikely to bring about real mergers.
"My brothers in Jaysh al-Ahrar:
The establishment of this group arose on the basis of the idea of pressuring to reform the movement's affairs and strive to resurrect and revive it, and correct its condition. Not for a day were we on the verge of abandoning the movement and separating from it unless for a general conglomeration for the mujahideen being a nucleus to bring together the field on the basis of one leadership.
And during the past time we have tried to attain a reasonable outcome from which the movement should proceed in what pleases God and we entered into merger negotiations with the brothers in the other factions in this spirit.
And indeed our role was integral with the rest of our brothers in the movement with the objective of preserving the group's middle path and the fact that it contains the diverse ideological mix that is the movement's distinguishing characteristic and in its role keeps the movement on the side of the middle path that will prevent the field from inclining towards one of the two dissimilar sides. And we see that preserving this middle path is an important message that we must bear and a great role we must fulfil. It is also appropriate that we should refrain for its sake from what we see as right for us and forgive it for what we see as wrongs issued against us.
Amid the rapid developments and colliding internal conflicts in the field of al-Sham, and taking up responsibility in these critical circumstances, we have found that our return to our prior situation in the movement, striving to reform it, giving an opportunity to the brother Abu Ammar [the general leader of Ahrar al-Sham] thus to undertake reform of it, and helping him in that regard is the preferred path and the ideal solution at the present time, as the field is on the hot-plate and pounding wave of seditious enticement from the outside and its pressures as well as the disturbance of the interior and its disagreements that have now urgently required for the movement to proceed as one cohesive body so that the evil ones do not have the strength to gain influence amid the openings of its ranks.
So I ask all the brigades and battalions to return to their prior state before the announcement of Jaysh al-Ahrar and become re-affiliated to their sectors in the movement. And I urge them to hear and obey the amir of the movement and to dedicate themselves to undertake the Shari'i obligation, command what is right, forbid what is wrong and work together on the basis of piety and fear of God with the rest of our brothers in the movement. I also ask the brothers to cancel working together on the basis of the name of Jaysh al-Ahrar, cancel its banner and cancel its features in the media.
And in our last meetings with our brother Abu Ammar we had acquired from him clear compliance with preserving the manhaj line of the movement, and to put behind the page of disagreement and keep complete distance from acts of revenge, while holding to account the sowers of corruption and frivolous ones in the movement and put an end to the military flabbiness inside it. And we had perceived from him during the last meetings and through some of his positions in the past days that which makes us put on top the aspect of soundness of thought and the predominance of the general interest."