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Holy Warriors

A field guide to Syria's jihadi groups.

D. Leal Olivas/AFP/GettyImages
D. Leal Olivas/AFP/GettyImages
D. Leal Olivas/AFP/GettyImages

Eighteen months into the Syrian uprising, the country's Sunni Arab insurgency is now fighting a largely sectarian war against a regime dominated by religious minorities, most notably the Alawite sect to which the Assad family belongs. While the exiled opposition movement in Turkey and elsewhere remains reasonably pluralistic, the armed insurgency that took off in mid-to-late 2011 has always been a Sunni Muslim Arab affair.

Eighteen months into the Syrian uprising, the country’s Sunni Arab insurgency is now fighting a largely sectarian war against a regime dominated by religious minorities, most notably the Alawite sect to which the Assad family belongs. While the exiled opposition movement in Turkey and elsewhere remains reasonably pluralistic, the armed insurgency that took off in mid-to-late 2011 has always been a Sunni Muslim Arab affair.

This climate of sectarian polarization has triggered a slow but certain "Islamization" of the armed movement.  Ultraconservative Salafi-jihadis, in particular, have made rapid inroads among the rebels. They tend to organize in small, close-knit groups, but their ideological impact is visible across the rebel movement, with other factions increasingly adopting their religious discourse. 

Even the most well-known insurgent alliance, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a loose umbrella term used by several inter-related insurgent networks, is hardly the secular movement it is portrayed as in the West, where it is represented by a small coterie of exiled military defectors. In Syria, the main body of FSA networks has come to resemble a Sunni sectarian movement, which is increasingly influenced by Islamist ideology. For example, when a group of Western-backed FSA commanders established a Joint Command recently, they were seen to represent the most "secular" element of the armed uprising. But virtually all of the participants were Sunni Arabs, and in a nasty slap to minority sensibilities, they invited as their guest of honor Adnan al-Arour, a Salafi preacher infamous for his incitement against non-Sunni religious groups.

The reasons for this shift towards overt sectarianism and Islamic radicalism are complex and interrelated. The war’s sectarian polarization is a self-reinforcing process, which automatically brings religious distinctions to the fore. Fighters are naturally drawn to religion as a tool to cope with the strains of war — there are no atheists in foxholes, as the saying goes. Foreign funding is also a factor, with most major donors (including Salafi networks, Syrian expats, and the governments of Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia) favoring Islamist rebels over more moderate groups. As the New York Times reported Monday, most of the weapons donated or financed by conservative Gulf Arab states have gone to hard-line Islamists of one stripe or another. Finally, the growing trickle of foreign fighters coming in through Turkey contributes not only resources and guerrilla know-how, but also an aggressive strain of religious radicalism.

Jihadis still make up a minority of the Syrian rebel movement and do not represent the opposition as a whole, but they punch far above their weight in terms of both military effectiveness and ideological influence. As such, they will play a role in the battle for Syria’s future, though it remains to be seen just how large of a role that will be.  

The following is a list of Syria’s most significant jihadi and Islamist armed groups.

Jabhat al-Nusra

Here’s your next big al-Qaida franchise. Jabhat al-Nusra emerged in January 2012 under the unwieldy name Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham min Mujahedi al-Sham fi Sahat al-Jihad or "The Front for Aid to the People of the Levant by the Mujahideen of the Levant on the Battlefields of the Jihad." It isn’t the biggest jihadi group in Syria, but it is the most notorious, having skillfully employed urban terrorism to draw media attention.

U.S. intelligence has indicated that the group is a spinoff from the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), an al-Qaida faction, and while many Syrian opposition groups claim that Jabhat al-Nusra is a regime creation, the jihadi community has embraced it with open arms. It is supported by numerous Salafi-jihadi ideologues, including the influential Mauritanian scholar Abul-Mondher al-Chinguetti, Lebanon’s Abul-Zahra al-Zubeidi, as well as Abu Mohammed al-Tahawi and Mohammed al-Shalabi (Abu Sayyaf), leaders of the Salafi-jihadi current in Jordan. However, neither al Qaida nor Jabhat al-Nusra itself has commented on the allegations of an ISI connection.

Jabhat al-Nusra is active across all Sunni areas of the country, but most of its attacks have occurred in the Damascus region. It also has a powerful presence in Syria’s eastern border region, and to some extent in the rebel strongholds of Idleb, rural Aleppo, and northern Hama Province. It has built its reputation on media-grabbing suicide attacks on landmark government and military installations. Recent examples include the Sept. 26 raid on the Syrian Army General Staff headquarters in Damascus, and the Oct. 3 triple suicide bombing in Aleppo.

Ahrar al-Sham Brigades

The Ahrar al-Sham Brigades are probably Syria’s largest jihadi faction, with at least a few thousand fighters. Although Ahrar al-Sham frequently uses suicide bombers against government targets, it has not engaged in the type of spectacular urban attacks that Jabhat al-Nosra specializes in, being more geared towards traditional guerrilla warfare.

When it was first established in late 2011, Ahrar al-Sham claimed to consist of about 25 rebel brigades spread across Syria. Since then it has expanded, and the group’s website now lists some 60 member factions. Most of these are headquartered in villages in the Idleb Province, but many others are located in Hama and Aleppo. Some Ahrar al-Sham units that have been involved in heavy fighting include the Qawafel al-Shuhada and Ansar al-Haqq Brigades (both in Khan Sheikhoun, Idleb Province), the al-Tawhid wal-Iman Brigade (Maarrat al-Nouman, Idleb Province), the Shahba Brigade (Aleppo City), the Hassane bin Thabet Brigade (Darat Ezza, Aleppo Province), and the Salahaddin and Abul-Fida Brigades (both in Hama City). Like many Islamist organizations, Ahrar al-Sham also engages in non-military activities, such as children’s education, aid distribution, and the administration of sharia courts in rebel-held areas.

Ahrar al-Sham is headed by an emir, known to outsiders only as Abu Abdullah. In the media, the organization has sometimes been represented by its Idleb-based military leader, Abul-Hassan. The group is funded by Islamist networks in the Persian Gulf, and prominent donors include sheikh Hajjaj al-Ajami, a salafi preacher in Kuwait who collects money for Syrian Islamist groups. Like Jabhat al-Nosra, it relies to some extent on non-Syrian jihadi fighters.

Fatah al-Islam

The Salafi-jihadi group Fatah al-Islam was created in Lebanon in 2006, through a split in a Syrian-controlled Palestinian militant faction. Damascus authorities initially seemed to encourage the group in order to destabilize the anti-Syrian government in Lebanon, raising suspicions among many anti-Assad dissidents. In 2007, Fatah al-Islam attacks on Lebanese security forces provoked a massive clash with the army in Nahr al-Bared, a Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli. The group suffered heavy losses and its emir, Shaker al-Absi, was forced underground. He was caught or killed in Damascus in late 2008.

The new leadership of Fatah al-Islam has given enthusiastic support to the Syrian uprising, and the allegations of a Syrian intelligence connection have now mostly subsided. Beginning in the spring of 2012, Fatah al-Islam has reported a small number of attacks in Syria, but its leadership has been decimated in recent months. The chief of its military wing (the Caliphate Brigades), Nidal al-Asha, was killed in Aleppo in July, and the group’s emir, Abdelaziz al-Kourakli (Abu Hussam al-Shami), died in an ambush on the Deraa-Damascus road in September. No successor has been announced yet. In early October, another founding member and former chief organizer in North Lebanon, Abu Qaswara al-Qurashi, was killed in a gun battle in Homs. While the Syrian revolution has presented Fatah al-Islam with an excellent opportunity to reorganize and recruit, it is far from clear that the group can sustain such a high pace of losses.

The Haqq Division

The Haqq Division is a radical Islamist alliance formed in August 2012, which includes several groups based in the Homs Province. The organization has attracted less attention than the main militant faction in Homs, the Farouq Brigades, which led the resistance against Assad’s seige of the city last spring. Nevertheless, Haqq Division militants have been active in the rebel movement since the early days of the uprising.

The largest and most well-known member faction is the Ansar Brigade, a well-organized independent Salafi-jihadi organization with affiliate factions as far away as Palmyra. Other members include the Atbaa al-Rasoul Brigade, the Baba Amr Martyrs Brigade, the al-Fatah al-Mubin Brigades, and the Sadiq Brigades, all of them Islamist groups formed during the uprising.

The Haqq Division is led by Abderrahman Suways, a former paratrooper who spent 12 years in prison for membership in the Salafi group Hezb al-Tahrir, before being released in an amnesty in the early months of the Syrian revolution.

Suleiman Fighting Company

The Suleiman Fighting Company is a large conglomerate of Islamist rebel units concentrated in the Idleb and northern Hama provinces, and to some extent Aleppo. Its leader, Abu Suleiman al-Hamawi, is a former high-security prisoner, who is variously described as a drug smuggler and a Salafi militant. Member factions, which have been involved in numerous attacks on the Assad regime, use harsh Islamist rhetoric and black jihadi flags, but are also accused of being heavily involved in non-religious criminal activity. 

The Tawhid Division

The Tawhid Division is the dominant insurgent group in the Aleppo region and is based in the villages and suburbs ringing the city. Founded as a merger between numerous FSA rebel factions in July 2012, the group claims to control at least 8,000 fighters. It is led by Abdelaziz al-Salama and Abdelqader Saleh, both of whom hail from the countryside north of Aleppo.

Most Tawhid Division member factions seem to be traditional religious conservatives, with a vocal minority of ideological Islamists. In villages under Tawhid Division control, sharia law forms the basis of local rule, but leaders have indicated that non-Sunni minorities would be allowed run their own communities as they see fit in a post-Assad Syria.

The group describes itself as a FSA faction and has accepted some funding from "official" FSA structures, but it refuses to take orders from any of the competing FSA leaders. In early September, the Tawhid Division backed an attempt to merge the main FSA factions into a new military leadership called the Syrian National Army, but that alliance appears to have been stillborn.

Commission for Civilian Protection (CCP)

The Muslim Brotherhood is Syria’s oldest and largest Islamist group, but decades of repression have left it with few members and limited organizational capacity inside the country. Since the uprising began in March 2011, the Brotherhood’s exiled leadership has been trying to catch up with events on the ground. On the political side, it has done well, commanding a central role in the Syrian National Council (SNC), a coalition of exiled dissidents favored by most of the West, Turkey and the Gulf States.

But the Brotherhood remains far behind in terms of military organization. To compensate for its weak presence inside Syria, it has tried to play on its strengths — political contacts, wealthy sponsors in the Gulf, and a cadre of diligent and well-educated diaspora activists. The idea is to draw armed units into the Brotherhood’s orbit by offering them funding, media support, and access to the organization’s contact network.

To this end, pro-Brotherhood activists have created the Commission for Civilian Protection (CCP). The CCP denies having any special relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood, but it is in fact a front for the Islamist organization, tasked with helping armed units inside Syria connect with each other and with sponsors abroad. Its website currently lists 18 CCP-affiliated factions, distributed across Homs, Damascus, Idleb, and elsewhere. Most of these groups are small and generally identify as FSA factions, though a few consider themselves part of the Syrian Liberation Front.

Syria Liberation Front (SLF)

The recently formed Syria Liberation Front (SLF) is one of Syria’s biggest insurgent alliances, a loosely knit network of Islamist groups that overshadows the FSA in several regions. It includes about twenty Islamist groups, which collectively command perhaps  20,000 fighters. The SLF denies any conflict with the FSA, though most of its member groups originally fought under the FSA banner, but subsequently switched their allegiance. Some groups appear to consider themselves members of both alliances and several SLF factions still use the FSA moniker as a general term for the armed resistance.

While the SLF is overtly Islamist, it is not an ideologically jihadi alliance. It includes "soft" Islamists as well as Salafi groups. They share a minimalist political platform, which promises to protect minorities and notes simply that "sharia law is the point of reference for this front."

The SLF is often represented by Mazen Sheikhani, its London-based media spokesperson, but its formal head is Ahmed Eissa al-Sheikh (Abu Eissa), from the village of Sarja in Idleb’s Jabal al-Zawia highland. He is the leader of one of northern Syria’s largest rebel factions, a Salafi movement known as the Suqour al-Sham Divisions which controls much of the Jabal al-Zawiya region as well as minor areas of Idleb and the northern Hama province. It claims to have some 6,000-7,000 fighters.

In Damascus, the SLF is represented by the Ansar al-Islam Gathering, an alliance formed by FSA-aligned Islamist factions in August 2012, comprising at least a few thousand fighters, some of whom still refer to themselves as members of the FSA. One of Ansar al-Islam’s best known factions is the Islam Division, a radical Salafi organization which claimed responsiblity for the July 18 bombing that killed several top regime officials, including Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, and Syria’s Defense Minister Daoud Rajha. Other large member groups include the Furqan Division, which controls part of the countryside west of Damascus, and the al-Habib Mustafa Division, which has also carried out major bombings inside Damascus.

The SLF also has a significant presence in Homs, where the Farouq Brigades dominate the insurgency. Previously the FSA’s most iconic unit of military defectors, this large and well funded rebel group has gradually taken on an Islamist character, and in September, it opted to join the SLF. Since they were formed in mid-2011,The Farouq Brigades have spawned affiliates in several regions outside of Homs. One of its northern wings, the Farouq al-Shamal, recently wrested control of two key border posts from other rebels and has apparently been using control of border traffic to influence other groups.

Estimates of the Farouq Brigades’ numbers vary, but its various factions could very well total more than 10,000 fighters. The group faced a public setback in August, however, when its founding commander, Abdurrazzaq Tlass, was caught in a sex scandal. He was replaced on Oct. 6 by Abu Sayeh Juneidi, but the switch is threatening to split the Farouq Brigades. Tlass has since announced the formation of his own group called the 1st Corps.  Several smaller Homs-based groups have also joined the SLF, including the the Fursan al-Haqq Brigade, the al-Bara bin Malek Brigade, the Jund Allah Brigade, and the Dhoul-Nourain Brigade.

SLF factions in other areas of Syria include the Deir al-Zor Revolutionary Council, the Amr ibn al-As Division of Aleppo, and the al-Naser Salaheddin Brigade in Latakia. While the SLF currently includes some of the most important rebel factions in Syria, it has yet to prove its ability to coordinate actions effectively. Its member groups are geographically scattered, varied in size and influence, and dependent on different sources of funding. For these reasons, the organization is likely to remain a fractious alliance, if it survives in the longer term at all. But for now, the SLF can credibly claim to be Syria’s single most powerful insurgent alliance.

* * *

This list of jihadi and other Islamist groups should not be taken as a portrait of the insurgent movement as a whole. Several important non-Islamist factions have been excluded, such as the FSA’s Omari Brigade in Deraa Province. Even so, the Syrian revolution’s gradual descent into sectarian warfare is now empowering the most extreme factions within what is already effectively an all-Sunni insurgency. If the conflict continues down its current path, the "Islamization" of the rebel movement is likely to engulf even the most pro-Western factions of the FSA. In such a situation, jihadi factions will grow in influence very rapidly.

The Iraq War offers a sobering portrait of what this might look like. The Iraqi resistance was originally spawned from a secular albeit Sunni-dominated regime, but in little more than a year the sectarian conflict had transformed it into a jihadi insurgency spearheaded by al-Qaida. For Syria, a similar development would be catastrophic — and the Middle East would likely feel its broader effects for years to come.

Aron Lund is a Swedish writer on Middle Eastern affairs and a fellow with The Century Foundation. He tweets about Syria at @aronlund. This work was supported by a research grant from The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. Twitter: @aronlund

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