This article will be the last one that presents the current state of play and the five categories of actors fighting in and over Syria.

The rise of the two groups of factions presented below – the Syrian Sunni factions intending to install an Islamist state in Syria and the Sunni extremist factions with a global jihadi agenda – as well as their mobilization power has been, first, eased by the protracted quality of the conflict and the despair it implied among Syrian people. It was then facilitated by the initial inability of the moderates to find support in the West, thus to demonstrate their power.

Syrian Sunni factions intending to install an Islamist state in Syria

The first nexus is composed of more extreme Islamist groups – compared with those seen previously – and of “Nationalist Salafis” groups – to use Lund (2013:14) terminology, noting that scholar of Jihad in Syria, Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi questions the very dichotomy between Nationalist Salafis and Jihadi Salafis (see below update 8 July).

Nationalist Salafis want to create an Islamic Sharia state in Syria. Lund (2013: 14) quotes Abdulrahman Alhaj, an expert on Syrian Islamism he interviewed in January 2013:

“When it comes to the salafis, we have to separate between two things. There are publicly declared salafi groups who have an experience of [armed] salafi work outside Syria, and who have a systematic salafi thinking. These groups, the salafiya-jihadiya [salafi-jihadism], are not many, but they affect people’s thinking.”

“The others are young, extremist people. They are Sunni Muslims who just follow this path because there is a lot of violence. Day after day, they come face to face with violence, so they adopt salafism, but they are not really part of the salafiya-jihadiya ideologically. Like Ahrar al-Sham: they are not part of the salafi-jihadi movement. There are of course real salafis among them, but mostly they are just extremist sunnis without a systematic salafi ideology. It’s very different from Jabhat al-Nosra.”

Within those groups one finds two major alliances, who are attempting to unite factions.

The Syria Liberation Front (SLF) also known as the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF) factions (Jabhat Tahrir Souriya or Jabhat al-Tahrir al-Souriya al-Islamiya) was created in September 2012 when some factions ended their associations with the FSA and dissolved with the creation of the Islamic Front on 22 November 2013. The groups that are mentioned as belonging to the SLF are: two of Syria largest Islamist groups, Kataeb al-Farouq and Suqour al-Sham (Lund 2013: 16), Liwa al-Tawhid and Liwa al-Islam (Lund 3013: 27 using Noah Bonsey, Lund, 3 April 2013). According to Lund, most of the SLF factions are also now part of the Supreme Joint Military Command Council (Ibid: 13), despite their ideological outlook, which also underlines again the pragmatic feature of affiliations and the shifting and lose characteristic of alliances, as suggested previously.

The SILF/SLF would count an estimated 37.000 fighters (Ignatius, 2 Avril 2013; see also Lund’s related comment, 3 April 2013).

The Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) (Al-Jabha al-Islamiya al-Souriya) was created in December 2012 under the leadership of the more powerful Ahrar al-Sham and dissolved with the creation of the Islamic Front on 22 November 2013. It initially included 11 factions, covering most of the territory (see mapping below and previous versions of the mapping accessible below), which were, in January and February 2013, reduced to 7 through the merging of various groups  (Lund, 2013: 25-27). Since April 2013, the SIF counts one new member, the Haqq Battalions Gathering (Tajammou Kataeb al-Haqq) (Lund, May 3 2013). Between 10.000 and 30.000 fighters could be part of the SIF (Lund, 2013: 23).

Talks between initial SIF groups and the SLF had taken place when the SLF was created  but failed for various reasons, from ideological to disagreements between groups.

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Lund (Ibid: 17-19) qualifies the SIF as an Islamist “Third Way,” strictly salafist but also pragmatic, able to discuss with the West, and to cooperate on the ground with the SMC or with salafi-jihadi groups, while also criticizing the latter, as shows the 4 May 2013 statement by Ahrar al-Sham on “Jabhat al-Nosra’s recent declaration of allegiance to al-Qaida’s Ayman al-Zawahiri.” (Lund, 4 May 2013):

“It seeks to demonstrate a strict salafi identity, and makes no attempt to hide its opposition to secularism and democracy. but it also tries to highlight a streak of pragmatism and moderation, intended to reassure both syrians and foreign policymakers. In this way, it sets itself apart as an Islamist ”third way”, different from both the most radical fringe of the uprising, and from its Western-backed islamist mainstream.” (Lund, 2013: 17)

However, the SIF aims at establishing a Sunni Islamist Theocracy, allowing only some modicum of consultation and political freedom within the bounds of sharia law (Ibid: 19). It has already started working towards this goal when, as described by Lund (Ibid: 25), it develops a “humanitarian and non-military activity.” It does not only fight but also plays the role of a real political authority, which strengthens both its mobilization power and its resource-base. Thus, overthrowing the regime of Bashar al-Assad is only a step towards achieving its objectives, and the “Third Way” may only last temporarily, assuming the SIF continues its current course, and finds access to sufficient and secure resources and fundings (for details on funding see Ibid: 27).

For more details on the SIF and, among others, salafism in Syria, I highly recommend Lund’s report.

Update 27 January 2014

A logical evolution: the Islamic Front

If the “Islamic framework” (see update 21 Oct), created on 24 September 2013, was short-lived, as expected by many experts, it was nevertheless an important indication of the changes taking place on the ground, while its very composition foretold the current configuration.

To facilitate the understanding of the dynamics and historical evolutions, we have kept, for the latest version of the mapping of the nationalist groups above (click on the image for a larger picture), the outline of the Islamic framework (the signatories being within a dotted frame) as well as dissolved groups (defunct groupings or alliances are now displayed with a white background surrounded by a dotted green line (one dot, one block, for alliances; only blocks for tighter groups). The current alliances have a green background surrounded by a red line. The Islam Army’s (Jaysh al-Islam – see update 21 Oct) bright green frame underlines its strong Salafi orientation.

We thus see clearly, first, the emergence of the most powerful of the new group, the Islamic Front, created November 22 2013, out of the strongest groups that previously composed the framework. Those groups also share a commitment to the nationalist brand of Salafism as usefully characterized by Lund. As the core factions of the two previous dominant groupings (the SIF and the SILF) join in the Front, they disappear, as is made graphically clear in the video announcing the creation of the Islamic Front.

the creation of the IF logo

Two groups from the SIF, Liwa al-Haqq (Homs) and Kataeb Ansar al-Sham (Northern Latakia), also joined the Islamic Front. We may also not that a small Kurdish group was added to the Islamic Front, most probably to make sure it could be seen as representative of all fighters in Syria.

Those groups that signed the Islamic framework and did not become part of the Islamic Front formed the Army of the Mujahideen (Jaysh al-Mujahideen), which was created on 3 January 2014, around Aleppo (Suhaib Anjarini on Al-Akhbar, 6 Jan 2014).  Jaysh al-Mujahideen is a relatively small fighting force of 5000 fighters ,according to Lund (7 Jan 2014). However, and as described by Suhaib Anjarini, a relatively small force may be crucial both tactically and strategically, notably in guerrilla warfare.

The Islamic Front, a military and political power?

Militarily, the Islamic Front represents between 45000 (Landis 15 Dec 2013, Lister from IHS Jane’s) and 70000 (Lund, 15 Jan 2014) fighters. If we take various estimates of the components of the Islamic Front, we find: Liwa al-Tawhid 10000 to 11000 (Suahib Anjarini, 22 Oct 2013, al-Monitor); Harakat Ahrar al-Sham between 10000 and 12000  (Omar Kayed, 2 Dec 2013, Al-Monitor); Islam Army 25000 (Ibid); Suquour al-Sham between 8000 and 10000 (Ibid.), which adds up for the lower figure to 53000 to which should be added the groups from Homs and Latakia.

What is also most interesting regarding the Islamic Front is its political structure, reaffirming the will to implement an Islamic State, as well as its communication policy. For example, besides its official twitter account, @Islamic_front, we can follow, the IF’s Political body (@ IslamicFront_p), its Shariah Board (@ IslamicFront_R). Meanwhile the twitter account of the Army of Islam @ IslamArmy01 and its Facebook page also uses the same logo and thus underline its belonging to the IF. Lund has written a very interesting series in the Carnegie’s blog he now leads, Syria in Crisis, on the Islamic Front emphasizing those aspects, which is definitely a must read (as the whole blog).

Salafi-Nationalists and Jihadis, a violent complex relationship

The main enemy of the Islamic Front is and remains the regime of Bashar al-Assad and its foreign allies. Meanwhile, as underlined by Lund (8 January 2014 – see also Landis “The Battle between ISIS and Syria’s Rebel Militias” 4 january 2013), the Islamic Front’s position regarding the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) (see Sunni extremist factions with a global jihadi agenda) is “ambiguous”: it stresses the negative side of its hegemonic character, many of its units fight ISIS de facto on the ground, it supports groups openly fighting ISIS such as Jaysh al Mujahideen (Anjarini, Al-Akhbar; Landis, Ibid), but there is no ‘official” all out war from the Islamic Front against ISIS.

Strategically, the Islamic Front’s position makes sense as trying to fight two enemies at once, while also consolidating power might be a recipe for disaster. Furthermore, it mays also need, at one stage or another, would it be only temporarily, act with ISIS or need it (for example transit points through Iraqi territory held by ISIS). Finally, as underlined by Lund, this position enhances the possibility the Front becomes increasingly attractive for ex-Jihadis.

Interestingly, the Islamic Front’s position is quite similar to what Anjarini (Al-Akhbar) describes regarding Jaysh al-Mujahideen’s ideology, notably stressing that, despite “not being extremist,” they are not the enemies of Jihadis:

“We distance ourselves from any confrontation with our brothers in al-Nusra Front, or any other jihadi faction, whether through direct fighting or in coordination with any faction against them.” … “We call on the honest ones among our brothers the mujahideen in ISIS to defect and join their brothers in Syria against the Nusairi [derogatory term for Alawi] Assad regime.” Suhaib Anjarini on Al-Akhbar (6 Jan 2014).

The Islamic Front and international relations

In terms of international relations, if any of the hypotheses we made previously regarding potential maneuvering between Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia, using and being used by the Islamic framework and Jaysh al-Islam held true, then the creation of the Front shows that pragmatism on the ground finally wins, and that quarrels external to Syria seem to have been put aside. It would thus show the ability of the Islamic Front and its components to successfully maneuver in the regional environment and to extract the best possible support from outside backers.

On the larger world scene, the Islamic Front has been adamant about its refusal to participate in Geneva, despite, according to Lund, repeated U.S. attempts to invite them. On 20 January 2014, as Geneva was about to start, the Islamic Front with the Army of the Mujahideen (see below) and the Islamic Union for Soldiers of the Levant (an alliance of five Islamist groups in Damascus created on 30 Nov 2013, see Zaman Alwasl, 1 Dec 2013), reiterated its position, while paying attention to thank “Turkey and Qatar and the other states that have helped our revolution” in “A statement from the forces on the ground regarding the Geneva II conference“:

“…It is inconceivable that a political solution will succeed. As we see it, the regime, through savage and criminal practices, has undermined any chances that a solution like Geneva could succeed…. It has left no room for dialogue, except for those who represent only themselves.
It has become common knowledge that long-delayed and procrastinated political solutions only serve to dilute the issue at hand, as has been the case with the series of conferences seeking a political solution to the Palestinian issue. The Palestinians’ concessions must not be repeated in the Syrian case.
The true military and political forces in Syria [my emphasis] have not authorized any Syrian party to neglect the rights of the Syrian people or compromise any of their demands. The Syrian people will not be satisfied by any one group attending Geneva II on their behalf, bringing with them a series of concessions and retreats rather than defending our legitimate human rights and demands….” (Syria Direct, 22 January 2014)

This statement is most probably not only directed at foreign powers but also at the delegation attending Geneva on behalf of the Syrian “opposition”,  a misnomer, as, let us not forget it, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (NC) is recognized as the legitimate authority in Syria by a large number of countries (see State of Play), including by the League of Arab States. It somehow defines the boundaries beyond which the NC cannot go without frontally opposing the Islamic Front, a force that it cannot dismiss.

This statement also emphasises the positive links, rather than tension, existing between the Islamic Front and other actively fighting yet much smaller groups.

Towards a new stronger state-like actor in Syria?

We may thus envision that the Islamic Front is currently building up its overall political apparatus, which could validly compete, complement or absorb the NC, should this become necessary, or when the time is ripe.

This emerging state-like institution, with its own shape that needs to respect its “alliance structure” and its positive relationships to other like-minded groups, if it succeeds, will be much stronger than the current NC as it is grounded and located in Syria, and is in an organic relationship with the means of violence and related mobilization, crucial components of a state and its construction. Once the Islamic Front is strong enough, then it may be able to negotiate with the NC and their still strong remaining forces (forthcoming) to try enhancing their international legitimacy and standing.

Update 21 October 2013 

It is within those groups that we have been witnessing throughout September-October 2013 the most potent changes. As always, and as Lund stressed again recently, the situation in Syria remains fluid and quickly evolving. However, Landis also suggested something else was happening:

“Over the last several months, the insurgency has undergone a “Darwinian” shakedown. Powerful leaders are emerging and smaller militias are lining up with the larger sharks. All the same, we are only at the beginning of this process. The opposition remains extremely fragmented and volatile. ” (Landis, Syria’s Top Five Insurgent Leaders, 1 October 2013, Syria Comment)

The “Islamic framework”

Islamic Framework SignatoriesIn a nutshell, and as synthesized on the new updated mapping below (click on image to see a larger picture), on 24 September, eleven factions, five of them being among the most powerful on the battleground (those factions are in bold on the mapping – from Landis, Syria’s Top Five Insurgent Leaders), have announced that they “should unify their ranks in an “Islamic framework”, which is based on “the rule of sharia and making it the sole source of legislation” (Lund translation – original here), and therefore did not recognize the NC, the latter being seen as “exile groups”. The detailed account by Lund (Islamist Groups Declare Opposition to National Coalition and US Strategy [updated], 24 September 2013, Syria Comment), stressing the potentialities and uncertainties of this event is a must read.

Considering the aim of the SMC to unite all armed opposition forces, this is a major blow to the “moderate” opposition forces. It has the potential to be even more damaging because, according to Nassief, six of those eleven groups were, loosely or strongly, “associated” with the SMC (Isabel Nassief, “Islamic Alliance Signatories“, 26 September 2013, ISWblog). However, President Jarba (see below), of course, minimizes the negative impact (7 October Press Conference) for the NC and the SMC.

Szybala of the ISW interprets the emergence of the framework as “a move against ISIS by its Syrian nationalist rivals”, focusing on clashes between the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS also ISIL) on the one hand, FSA forces and Jabhat al-Nusra fighters on the other, in the Northern part of Aleppo (Valerie Szybala, “The Islamic Alliance Emerges“, updated 9/26/13, ISWblog). Lund, for his part, being much more cautious, only suggests that those clashes may have played a part, but also underlines that “the statement is in no way hostile to the ISIS” (Ibid.).

Local tensions and battles may be part of the story, however, as often, events are more likely to have multiple causes. Another type of explanation may also be at work here, all the more so if we consider the importance of money (for an enlightening account, read Lund Syrian Jihadism, 2012: 18-21), of being supported and of clans – as reminded by Lund:

“Size, money and momentum are the things to look for in Syrian insurgent politics – ideology comes fourth, if even that.” (Ibid.)

If we note:

  • that, according to Lund, the SLF (which includes Liwa al-Tawhid) receives – probably among others – financial support from networks affiliated with Mohammed Surour Zeinelabidin “whose relations with the government of Saudi Arabia are not good at all,” (Lund, “Sorting out David Ignatius“, 04/03/13, Syria Comment andSyria’s salafi insurgents: The rise of The Syrian Islamic Front, 2013: 11 & 40),
  • that Liwa al-Tawhid, more specifically, is funded by “exiled Islamists including the Muslim Brotherhood (Lund, 2012: 17),
  • and that Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya received support from Salifi Kuwaiti (Hakim al-Moteiri), Salafi Qatari and from the Muslim Brotherhood (Lund, 2013: 30),

then the emergence of the “Islamic Framework” could be interpreted as an attempt by the “Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and Qatari side” to resist the new preeminence of Saudi Arabia as major support of the Syrian insurgency.

This might also explain the presence of Jabhat al-Nusra (see below section on Jihadis), an Al-Qaeda affiliate, knowing that Saudi Arabia is not in best terms with Al-Qaeda (among others Frederic Wehrey, “What to Make of Saudi Hand-Wringing“, 15 October 2013, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace). However, Jabhat al-Nusra declared it was actually not part of the “Islamic framework”, and refused to be set up against ISIS (Pieter Vanostaeyen “Syria – a new Islamic Union or an informal alliance?“, Sept 28, 2013, Pietervanostaeyen; Valerie Szybala, Developments in Syria’s Armed Opposition, 5 October 2013, ISWblog). President Jarba seems to ignore this development (see update for the NC below).

With or without Jahbat al-Nusra, we would still be potentially within the aftermath of the Egyptian blow to the MB, and the fight of the Brotherhood to remain relevant.

Such an interpretation could appear to be in contradiction with various statements by members of the “Islamic framework”, as reported by Lund, where they emphasize their rejection of representatives appointed externally. If external involvement and backing is not a novelty in Syria, its origin and thus nature may be seen as having changed. The members of the “Islamic framework” may have been sincere in reinterpreting previous support as being “more Syrian” (the Syrian branch of the MB and the “Syrian character” of other funding networks), which thus would remove the contradiction.

In no way an explanation of the evolution on the ground involving Qatar, the MB and Saudi Arabia means that the war in Syria is solely a proxy war, which would wrongly cast Syrian actors in a passive role. What we face are complex dynamics involving all actors, where each attempts to achieve its goal considering the overall situation.

Liwa al-Islam becomes Jaysh al-Islam or Islam Army

Syria, Syrian civil war, Islam Army, Red (team) AnalysisOn 29 September 2013, Zahran Alloush announced that the Islam Brigades were becoming the Islam Army, and that it was now constituted of “50 brigades”. The army “flies the black flag and not the Syrian flag and Alloush “calls for Muslims from the world over to come do their duty in Syria and fight Jihad” (Landis, Syria’s Top Five Insurgent Leaders, 1 October 2013, Syria Comment). The Islam Army operates mainly around Damascus. Read also Hassan Hassan, “The Army of Islam Is Winning in Syria“, 1 October 2013, Foreign Policy; Pieter Vanostaeyen, ”Al-Jaysh al-Islāmī ~ another Merger in Syria’s Opposition?“, 29 September 2013, pietervanostaeyen. See also Youtube Channel for Liwa al-Islam/Jaysh al-Islam.

According to Landis, Alloush is the “son of a Saudi-based religious scholar named sheikh Abdullah Mohammed Alloush”, and following Hassan Hassan, Saoudi Arabia is the main supporter behind the formation of the Islam Army (see also Khaled Yacoub Oweis, “Insight: Saudi Arabia boosts Salafist rivals to al Qaeda in Syria“, 1 October 2013, Reuters)

If we go back to our hypothesis regarding the reasons behind the creation of the “Islamic framework”, i.e. an answer by a nexus composed of Qatar, the MB and “their” supported factions, to the new preeminence of Saudi Arabia, then the creation of the Islam Army would be an answer by the Saudi and their supported faction to this move, as well as an effort against Al-Qaeda, as suggested by Oweis, and an attempt to position themselves more strongly in an international configuration that does not suit them (from the potentially better relationships between “the West” and Iran, to the way the chemical attacks in Syria were handled, as suggested by Oweis and Szybala) . But then, why would have Liwa al-Islam signed the “Islamic framework” in the first place?

It might have been, from Liwa al-Islam part, a way to gain more support from Saudi Arabia, while not cutting themselves initially completely from their former allies, yet allowing for isolating those powerful groups that were benefiting the most from Qatari support, as could let assume Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya’s reaction right after the creation of the Islam Army (see Hassan Hassan & Vanostaeyen). Alternatively, the presence of Liwa al-Islam as signatory of the framework could also have been a “sincere” move on the ground, followed by an offer by the “Saudi nexus” looking for a way to counteract both the formation of the “Islamic Framework” and thus a reassertion of a Qatar/MB nexus on the ground and an international evolution it disapproves. The 18 October 2013 refusal by Saudi Arabia of its seat at the security council shows how strong its discontent is (Angus McDowall, “Saudi Arabia, angered over Mideast, declines Security Council seat“, Oct 18, 2013, Reuters).

Would it make sense for Saudi Arabia to promote the NC and the SMC, while favouring other powerful groups on the ground? According to Wehrey (Ibid.), it does, and Wehrey calls this policy hedging. Oweis (Ibid.), using a “Western diplomatic source” agrees: “… Saudi strategy was [is] two tiered: back less extreme Islamist figures in the exile SNC political organization and woo Salafist brigades on the ground with arms and money.”

We should also note that the Islam Army, according to Oweis (Ibid.) has “avoided declaring personal opposition to Al-Qaeda or to the SNC. But … criticized failures to bring unity to rebel ranks in explaining the creation of the formation.”

As always during wars, we are faced with many possible hypotheses and only the future will confirm if one assumption or the other is correct.

Does it matter to understand the reasons behind the various moves of the actors? Yes, it does, all the more so for strategic foresight and warning because without proper understanding we can not anticipate the next move, and thus not allow policy-makers and decisions-makers to design the right policy.

If the hypothesis explored here is correct, then this could suggest that:

  • More tension might be expected on the battleground, that could be advantageous to the Al-Assad regime groups.
  • It could also mean, after a while, and if the Al-Assad regime groups fail to take full advantage, that the Syrian Nationalist-Salafi side, as suggested by Hassan Hassan, but with a jihadist component, will be strengthened.
  • As a result, either the NC and SMC could lose even more clout, or the Islam Army and other potentially close groups (see  Szybala, on an alliance in Deir Ez-Zor) could join it and, considering their strength, become preeminent within the SMC.
  • All potential evolutions appear to be to the detriment of a secular and moderate Syrian opposition, if no one steps in to support them (while understanding well enough all the intricacies of the situation to make a success of this support).
  • Similarly, the efforts towards Geneva II seem to be increasingly less likely to succeed, at least if no new major event takes place.
  • Meanwhile, the MB may radicalize in other areas and countries where it is stronger or less attacked.

Update 8 July 2013

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi in his meticulous analysis of the relationships between JAN and ISIS (see below), for the region of Raqqah (24 June 2013 for Jihadology), following common demonstrations, questions:

“In Raqqah itself, further evidence of an ISIS-JAN unity became clear in the counter-demonstrations on the ground. Here is one such video, featuring several youths holding the banners of Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham al-Islamiya (which, to recall, was the main group of battalions responsible for the rebel takeover of Raqqah in March), ISIS and the general flag of jihad.

… The recent developments should also debunk the false dichotomy posed by some commentators of ‘Salafist nationalist’ Syrian Islamic Front [SIF] groups like Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham al-Islamiya versus transnational jihadist groups (cf. my overview of statements put out by various factions on Sheikh Jowlani’s bayah to Sheikh Aymenn al-Zawahiri).”

Update 31 May 2013

  • 26 May 2013 – The SLF would have declared war on The Kurds: “a statement signed by no less than twenty-one armed groups declared ”Kurdish defense units, YPG, are traitors because they are against our Jihad.”The goal, according to the statement, is a “pending the completion of comprehensive cleansing process”, liberation from “PKK and Shabiha”. The statement was published by the “Syrian Islamic Liberation Front” – Syria Report, 27 May 2013 – “Insurgents Declare War on Syrian Kurds

Sunni extremist factions with a global jihadi agenda

Global Jihadi, Syria, Syrian actors, Al Qaida, Al-NusraThe last nexus is composed of salafi-jihadi groups or salafis groups with a global agenda, such as Al Qaida, and includes many foreign fighters – Tunisian, Libyan, Iraqi, Chechen (e.g. Solovieva, 26 April 2013, AlMonitorKavkav center, 26 March 2013) and European. ICSR Insight estimates that “between 140 and 600 Europeans” from fourteen countries, “have gone to Syria since early 2011, representing 7-11 per cent of the foreign fighter total” (April 2013).

The best known group is Jahbat Al-Nosra or Al-Nusra, created in January 2012 and declared a terrorist group by the U.S. in December 2012. It is seen “as the most effective fighting force in Syria” (Bergen and Rowland, 10 April 2013). In November 2012, Washington Post David Ignatius, using sources from the FSA, considered it included “between 6,000 and 10,000 fighters.”

In mid-April, Jabhat al-Nosra, answering to al-Zawahiri and then to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of Al Qaida in Iraq (ISI, Islamic State of Iraq) and as excellently summarized by Lund (4 May 2013) “promised to follow every order from Zawahiri as long as this does not contravene sharia law,” while refusing merging with ISI (see for full detailed analysis and translated documents, Barber, 14 April 2013). Jabhat al-Nosra thus asserts an Al Qaida in Syria, in a nationalist move that is not without recalling salafi-nationalist groups, and stresses its aim to establish an Islamist state in Syria, “The Islamic State of al-Sham” (ISIS – see below update 8 July). Al-Sham stands for Bilad al-Sham, i.e. The Levant (today’s Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, and potentially the Hatay Province of Turkey). The choice of words could potentially indicate a wish to revise borders, although such aim would need to be proven.

Until the more recent succesfull offensive of pro-Assad groups (Spyer, 3 May 2013), the salafis nationalists and the global jihadis tended to be most successful militarily, seizing important locations and infrastructure, while they mobilized effectively, somehow along the lines of a “People’s War” (less the Maoist ideology).


This, in turn, prompted progressively the beginning of a change of policy regarding the delivery and type of aid given to the moderate factions by their supporting external powers. It also potentially started to soften the position of Russia, concerned by the development of jihadi terrorism, thus allowing for improvement in diplomatic talks towards negotiations, as explained by Putin in an interview with German broadcaster ARD (Ria Novosti, 5 April 2013), and as seems to be ongoing even if chaotically.

Update 24 February 2014

The ISIS, now disavowed by Al-Qaeda, is still in Raqqa and in Aleppo, present but in a much lighter way in Hasakah and practically expelled from Deir al-Zour (see 21 February 2014 Wikipedia map showing the positions of the various forces and ongoing battles on the Syria battlefield. Black dots represent ISIS). The offensive against ISIS had mainly been carried out, according to the local situation, by Jaysh al Mujahideen (see The rise of the Salafi-Nationalists), as well as by the SRF (see above).

On 11 February 2014, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham (Salafi-Nationalist) as well as Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), the Syrian Salafi-Jihadi group recognised by Al-Qaeda, have for the first time declared they were officially fighting ISIS (for a detailed post Daniel Abdallah for Syria Comment, February 14, 2014), which may thus increase the number and intensity of battles. This new war declaration, added to the already existing forces fighting ISIS, including the Kurdish YPG, may stop the ISIS advance and entrenchment. The conspiratory allegations of collusion between Jihadi groups and the regime of Bashar al-Assad have been clarified in detail in the excellent post on the topic by Aymenn Al-Tamimi in Syria Comment (11 February 2014).

Update 8 July 2013

Aymen Jawad Al Tamimi evaluates the relationships between JAN and ISIS, where they sometimes designate the same entity, but not always, through a meticulous and thorough regional analyses:

Now we have described summarily all the actors on the Syrian battlefield, and before to turn more in detail to the international actors, we shall be able to put forward a few tentative scenarios.


To Scenario 1: Peace in Geneva.


Detailed bibliography.

Published by Dr Helene Lavoix (MSc PhD Lond)

Dr Helene Lavoix, PhD Lond (International Relations), is the President/CEO of The Red Team Analysis Society. She is specialised in strategic foresight and warning for national and international security issues. Her current focus is on the rise of China, the COVID-19 Pandemic, the methodology of SF&W, radicalisation as well as new tech and security.

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