What became of the four rebel groups that once dominated the Syrian conflict?

In the conflict, alliances quickly unravel as the realities on the ground change, writes Hassan Hassan

TOPSHOT - Children look out of the window of a bus upon their arrival at the Abu al-Zindeen checkpoint near the northern Syrian town of al-Bab after Jaish al-Islam fighters and their families from the former rebel bastion's main town of Douma were evacuated from the last rebel-held pocket in Eastern Ghouta on April 3, 2018.
Russia-backed regime forces have retaken control of 95 percent of Eastern Ghouta since February 18 through a combination of a deadly air and ground assault and evacuation deals. / AFP PHOTO / Nazeer al-Khatib
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Since 2013, a number of powerful extremist forces have positioned themselves as the public face of the Syrian rebels. Those factions have become the single largest rebel force opposed to the regime in Damascus after coming together under the so-called Islamic Front in December 2013, eclipsing the previously all-encompassing canopy of the Free Syrian Army. 

Their dominance also came against the backdrop of the rise of both ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra, which had clashed with each other after the latter split from the former in the spring of 2013. The Islamic Front then entered a protracted conflict with ISIL shortly after its formation.

Even though the Islamic Front was formed on ideological proximity, the alliance quickly began to unravel as a result of inter-factional and strategic differences. Those differences often involved the fight against ISIL, which launched a relentless campaign that eventually contributed to the demise of the Islamic Front alliance a few months after its establishment.

By the time it collapsed, some of its factions had effectively vanished. Other groups, such as Ahrar Al Sham and Jaish Al Islam, continued to play a central role in shaping events in the conflict. Jabhat Al Nusra, having survived the upheaval of its infighting with ISIL, bounced back and also became a key player in the conflict, as did ISIL. Acting against or in alliance with each other, these four groups have since dominated the scene in Syria.

Recently, however, each has faced unprecedented misfortune: ISIL lost vast territories it seized in the summer of 2014 and Jabhat Al Nusra's presence has become largely concentrated in the remaining rebel pockets in northwestern Syria, even though it is not seriously weakened.

For the two other groups, Ahrar Al Sham and Jaish Al Islam, the story of their transformation might be more consequential for the Syrian opposition as both claim to be part of the mainstream rebellion against the regime, unlike Jabhat Al Nusra and ISIL.

Ahrar Al Sham has suffered two near-death experiences. The first came after a mysterious blast wiped out almost its entire leadership in September 2014. After a brief period of paralysis, the group quickly rose to prominence again – not because it was institutionally strong but due to the massive logistical and financial support from its foreign backers, especially Turkey. 

That backing ensured a dominant role for the group in northern Syria, near the Turkish borders in Idlib and Aleppo. Six months after the elimination of its leadership, the group joined forces with Jabhat Al Nusra and several other factions to form the Army of Conquest. The new alliance made a string of gains that included the expulsion of the regime forces from Idlib, the only provincial capital still under rebel control. The Army of Conquest's advances ultimately led to the Russian intervention in September 2015.

The second test for Ahrar Al Sham came last year after Jabhat Al Nusra turned on it in an attempt in 2016 and 2017 to dominate the rebel landscape in north-western Syria. to dominate the rebel landscape in northwestern Syria. The Jabhat Al Nusra attacks against Ahrar Al Sham surprised many because the two groups had maintained a close relationship since the early days of their existence in Syria and, despite the former’s increased hostility to rebel groups, not many expected it to turn against its most useful ally. 


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Ahrar Al Sham also proved too weak to protect itself against attacks from Jabhat Al Nusra, shocking its supporters. It eventually lost hundreds of its most battle-hardened fighters and the organisation largely crumbled. Despite attempts to restore it under a new leadership last year, Ahrar Al Sham is a shell of its former – retrospectively inflated – self.

Ahrar Al Sham’s first re-emergence was made possible by Turkish support. But after the developments last year, Turkey has shown no such desire to prop up its former proxy. Ahrar Al Sham’s true weakness was demonstrated recently when it partook in a campaign to push back Jabhat Al Nusra in Idlib, which many hoped and expected would be backed by Turkey. Without Turkish support, it went nowhere. Ahrar Al Sham is now a minor player. 

The same might be soon happening to the final, once-powerful group Jaish Al Islam, which is currently in negotiations with Russia for a peaceful resolution to the vicious campaign launched by Moscow and Damascus in Eastern Ghouta. Other militants who operated in the Damascene suburbs have already evacuated the area as part of separate deals with Russia.

Jaish Al Islam has insisted it will not leave its strongholds outside Damascus. Alternative scenarios include remaining in control of its strongholds through a peace deal with the regime, which could mean operating as a local administrative force. 

Both the opposition and the regime, though, believe evacuation is the likely scenario. Like a fish out of water, Jaish Al Islam will not survive evacuation. As a result, informed sources say, a deal has been delayed while Jaish Al Islam seeks an alternative fish tank.

Jaish Al Islam's strength emanated from being a local organisation rooted in local dynamics. Its founder, Zahran Alloush, was a Salafi cleric from Douma with a track record of opposing the regime before the uprisings. The local environment enabled Jaish Al Islam to entrench itself and establish near monopoly over critical terrain. 

By contrast, the rebel-held north is a hostile environment for it. The group made bitter enemies near Damascus and those enemies, especially Jabhat Al Nusra, are dominant in the northwest. Jaish Al Islam, as part of its outreach, is touting itself as a viable Turkish ally in the north against the Kurdish militias that Ankara despises and against Jabhat Al Nusra, which many view as a potential pretext for attacking Idlib.

The group has already hinted at such scenarios, either by expressing solidarity with Turkey in its operation in Afrin against the Kurdish YPG, the People's Protection Units, or by referring to YPG-held Manbij as a potential alternative stronghold. Whether Turkey will provide such a lifeline for Jaish Al Islam or not, the departure of the group from Damascus will open up new possibilities in the Syrian conflict.

Hassan Hassan is co-author of the New York Times bestseller ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror and a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, Washington DC