As Islamist rebels were negotiating a merger to form the Islamic Front, their Qatari sponsors approached them with a proposal. The Qataris asked the rebel groups to issue a moderate founding statement that would make no reference to an Islamic state, in exchange for public and official backing. (In Syria, only rebel groups affiliated to the western-backed Supreme Military Command can be officially supported. Other factions are supported by informal networks that can still be indirectly run by governments.)
The groups declined. Instead, they issued a strongly worded sectarian and conspiracy-tinged statement declaring commitment to a “rightly-guided Islamic state, in which sovereignty is to God alone”.
In a surprising turn of events, the Islamic Front, and four major Islamist groups, issued a covenant on Saturday that made no reference to an Islamic state, unequivocally rejected extremism and emphasised that foreign fighters are not playing a role in the rebellion.
That latter point enraged the two foreign-dominated fighting groups, Jabhat Al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL). Sami Al Oridi, a top religious consultant at Jabhat Al Nusra, publicly deplored the Islamic Front’s “concessions” and “defeatism” – a rare show of indignation, as Jabhat Al Nusra has consistently maintained a conciliatory tone. ISIL issued a fatwa declaring war on the “apostate” Islamic Front.
The statement called for a “state of justice, rule of law and freedom” and pledged commitment to Syria’s “diverse multi-ethnical and multi-sectarian social fabric”. Hassan Aboud, the Islamic Front’s political leader, told Al Jazeera that the purpose of the covenant was to counter the regime’s propaganda about the extremism of its detractors and reassure foreign capitals about the Islamists’ intentions.
Since previous efforts to unify the other signatories to the pact under the Islamic Front have failed, there is a question to be asked about the political force behind the initiative.
The development comes in the context of diplomatic tours by the opposition coalition’s chief, Ahmed Al Jarba, from Riyadh to Washington to London and Paris asking for advanced weapons. One of Mr Al Jarba’s key themes was to present the moderate opposition as a “third way” instead of the regime and the extremists.
His message reflects palpable moves on the ground and within the political opposition to push that narrative, embodied by the consolidation of a moderate bloc in the coalition at the expense of Islamists, and the rising fortunes of the Free Syrian Army relative to the Islamist groups that suffered considerable tribulations in recent months due to jihadist infighting. To sum up the situation on the ground: the Islamic Front, though it is still a major force, has shrunk since the beginning of the year with the rise of local Islamist competitors and the FSA, creating what seems to be a stable equilibrium among the rebels instead of the domination of Salafist and jihadist groups just a few months ago.
Islamists suddenly face a new reality: Bashar Al Assad is politically more powerful than ever before, not because of any military gains but because of the recognition by most of the opposition backers and even considerable segments of the opposition that the entrenchment of extremism requires a real compromise between the regime and the moderate opposition – regardless of the merit of this thinking. And the rebels more likely to be included in any such deal, or to replace the regime, are those aligned to the FSA and the coalition. Until recently, the FSA had all but vanished as Islamists dominated.
Another objective factor that presaged the shift is the ideological realignment within the Islamist landscape that began in the weeks running up to the formation of the Islamic Front, specifically since October. There was a need for many Islamist groups to emphasise their religious rhetoric to survive the profound polarisation that resulted from fighting with ISIL. Warring parties were trying to out-Muslim each other to either neutralise radical fighters or to get them to side with them. That episode saw the alignment of the Islamic Front with Jabhat Al Nusra against ISIL and secular rebels.
The situation has now changed, and that rhetoric no longer seems as convenient. There is popular momentum against ISIL and its violent, indiscriminate doctrine.
Who is behind the move? Informed opposition figures point to a Qatari, Kuwaiti and Turkish role, as Islamists started to lose political and military grounds. Also, sources say that the effort is in part to save Ahrar Al Sham from being designated as a terrorist group. In the covenant, read by Ahrar Al Sham’s leader, the groups stated that they rely in their military operations on Syrian elements only, believe that the decisions in the revolution should be entirely Syrian.
But, make no mistake, it is not easy for the Islamists to make such a statement.
The covenant is an important step in the right direction serving as a benchmark to which Islamists will be held. The covenant, which might as well be issued by a secular group, has clearly put some groups in an awkward position. Ahrar Al Sham’s leader, Mr Aboud, was also at pain to justify the covenant to Jabhat Al Nusra officials on Twitter.
Hassan Hassan is an analyst based in Abu Dhabi who focuses on Islamic groups and regional politics
On Twitter: @hhassan140