The Netherlands has seen a large controversy arise over 'non-lethal' support that was given to a faction called the Shami Front (al-Jabhat al-Shamiya), which is based in the 'Euphrates Shield' zone of north Aleppo countryside.
As it stands, the controversy concerns whether the group can be considered a 'jihadist' group. I have known the Shami Front since its inception at the end of 2014. Indeed, in December 2014, days before the Shami Front was announced, I conducted a research trip that partly involved embedding in north Aleppo countryside with the Northern Storm Brigade, which became one of the constituent groups of the Shami Front. Thus, I feel that I ought to comment on the matter.
In general, one of the main problems is how the term 'jihadist' is used in the context of polemical debate about the Syrian civil war. A common fallacy is to equate the term with 'bad guy' and merely apply it to rebel factions one does not like for a variety of reasons, such as allegations of corruption and human rights abuses. The Shami Front is no stranger to those allegations. For example, I remember speaking in May 2017 with the leader of a minor Syrian Turkmen-led rebel faction called Quwat Alap Arslan. The leader of this group, Abu Ali Raslan, defected to the Syrian government not long after he spoke with me and he now leads a formation (Liwa al-Shamal) affiliated with the military intelligence. After he defected, Quwat Alap Arslan ceased to exist. Prior to his defection, Abu Ali Raslan distinguished himself as a fierce critic of the Shami Front. Speaking to me, he derided them as corrupt thieves and claimed that there were oil deals between the Islamic State, the PKK and the Shami Front. In contrast, he portrayed his own group as an independent faction intended to save the Syrian revolution.
Of course, the Shami Front would reject Abu Ali Raslan's claims against it, but the discussion over whether the Shami Front is corrupt and has engaged in human rights abuses is distinct from the allegation that it is a jihadist group. A useful brief outline of a jihadist outlook comes in a recent interview I did with the jihadist faction Fursan al-Din, whose amir stated the following in terms of the group's goals beyond Syria:
"Our goal is for all superstitious [i.e. idolatrous/infidel] orders to disappear and for God's religion to rule over the world."
There is no evidence that the Shami Front espouses something like this transnational outlook. The more specific claim in the Netherlands is that the Shami Front supports the establishment of a Caliphate, effectively an Islamic empire spanning borders. For this claim too there is no evidence. As the director of the Shami Front's political office put it to me: "They [Shami Front members] have no link with any jihadi group or any projects connected with extremist external parties, but rather they have been subject to targeting by these groups that work for the interest of the enemies of the Syrian revolution and the Syrian people. And our political goal is to build a Syria devoid of oppression and tyranny. A Syria for all its sons." One can of course dismiss this as platitudes and meaningless rhetoric in terms of the situation on the ground, but those words are not the discourse of a jihadist group.
On the ground, the Shami Front is notable for being one of the main Aleppo rebel groups that fought the Islamic State in the north Aleppo countryside, with its component groups having fought the Islamic State in Aleppo and its countryside since the beginning of 2014, well before the international coalition against the Islamic State was established.
Whether the Shami Front was effective at fighting the Islamic State is a different matter. Until the Turkish ground intervention in summer 2016, an enduring problem was an inability to achieve major advances against the Islamic State, as villages on the very local level changed hands multiple times and most of the north Aleppo countryside remained under Islamic State control. I had thought at one point back in 2015 that the issue was insufficient material support for the Shami Front and others on the north Aleppo countryside front, but in retrospect only a Turkish ground intervention was ever really able to shift things in their favour.
Still, the Shami Front, along with other rebel formations, lost many fighters in the war against the Islamic State. Further, in the end, the Shami Front and other groups backed by Turkish ground forces ended up clearing the Islamic State off the remaining northern borders with Turkey. The al-Qa'ida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, in contrast, ultimately rejected participation in such efforts as it considered cooperation with Turkish forces in this matter to be unacceptable.
Again, it should be emphasised here that the issue is not whether the Shami Front should be considered a 'good' group or worth supporting at the present stage. The issue is whether there is solid evidence to back the claim that it is a jihadist group. There is none. Such evidence, if it existed, would have to draw on the group's own statements and discourse. It does little good, for example, merely to note instances where the Shami Front and its predecessor constituents may have fought alongside jihadist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra in prior years for military reasons. One can criticise various rebel groups for such cooperation in that one can easily argue that the cooperation enabled those jihadist factions, but that argument is not the same as proving those various rebel groups are themselves jihadist. Would anyone argue that various pro-government factions that work alongside Hezbollah on the battlefield espouse Hezbollah's religious and political outlook merely because of battlefield cooperation?
Likewise, noting the widespread looting in the aftermath of Turkey's operations against the Afrin enclave (operations in which the Shami Front participated) is not evidence that the Shami Front is a jihadist group. Indeed, the Shami Front's political office director acknowledges that such looting took place and claims to disavow it. Looting in any case is not somehow an act only carried out by jihadist groups. It is a pervasive phenomenon throughout Syria.
One may think that all these points I have made should have been self-evident. Apparently that is not the case in the Netherlands. As the history of the Syrian conflict is likely to be subject to greater revisionism as time goes on, it is important to adhere to appropriate usage of defining terms and keep the debate within the proper confines of what the evidence allows.
Update 12 September 2018: For interest, here are the full comments of the director of the Shami Front's political office:
On the Shami Front's origins:
"The Shami Front was formed on 25 December 2014 and included most of the factions of Aleppo at the time. And in the middle of that year a significant portion withdrew from it. And the rest continued within the Shami Front."
On the claim that the Shami Front is jihadist:
"Note that members of the Shami Front are in origin peaceful revolutionaries, but the crimes of the Assad regime and sectarian militias and Lebanon's Hezbollah compelled them to bear arms in defence of themselves and their regions and they are the sons of these areas and their aim is to remove the oppression of the regime from them and attain their rights in freedom, justice and dignity. And they have no relation with any jihadi group or any projects connected with the extremist external parties. But rather they have on the contrary been subject to targeting by these groups that work for the interest of the enemies of the Syrian revolution and the Syrian people. And our political aim is to build a Syria free from oppression and tyranny: a Syria for all its sons."
The role of the Shami Front against Islamic State:
"The Shami Front and ts components fought Da'esh [Islamic State] since the beginning of 2014 and expelled them from the city of Aleppo and its countryside. And that was before the formation of the international coalition to fight Da'esh. And the fighting front with Da'esh sometimes reached a length of 60km, and hundreds of martyrs died in this fight."
On Afrin looting and its aftermath:
"Yes, excesses in Afrin happened but the Shami Front worked to put in place inspection points since the second day after Afrin's liberation to rein in these excesses and hold those who commit them to account. It became clear that most of them were from weak-minded people who came in particular for the purpose of stealing and embezzlement. The Shami Front also gathered the stolen things and restored them to their owners after verifying from them. The Shami Front strongly rejects these kinds of violations and strives and supports any efforts to stand against them."