Syria's moderate rebels wane as extremist forces dominate

A power shift is underway within the Syrian rebels - and it is not one that Western backers will like

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Islamists in Syria

Charles Lister

The most notable trend in Syria in 2013 has been the increasing strategic supremacy of Islamist groups, particularly in the northern half of the country. Every major opposition military victory since September 2012 has been Islamist-led.

The success of Islamist groups has damaged the image of the uprising and undermined the West-backed Syrian Military Council (SMC). And the latest claims of clashes between the Free Syrian Army and Al Qaeda's Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) - which dominated the media headlines a little over two weeks ago, though rebel fighters denied the clashes took place - appeared related to this shift in power.

The SMC has sought to reverse this shift by appealing for military assistance. So far, the SMC's appeals have resulted in pledges by the United States but no apparent action, making the SMC's leadership in Syria seem increasingly unconvincing. Apparent attempts by SMC commanders to present ISIL militants and their allies as a negative influence on the conflict are almost certainly an attempt to persuade the West of the council's urgent need for increased backing.

That the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG in Kurdish) felt the need to launch pre-emptive attacks on Islamist forces in the northeastern province of Hasakah on July 17 underlined that Kurds are also aware of the increasing dominance of Islamists in Syria.

Today, opposition military forces can be divided into three categories: groups loyal to the SMC, most of whom maintain the FSA brand name; Salafists, whose ranks are dominated by Syrians; and jihadists, who increasingly recruit from across the Islamic world and many of whom have at least sympathy for Al Qaeda.

While the first two overlap somewhat, with several large Salafist group leaders present within the SMC, the increasingly questionable extent of their ultimate allegiance to the SMC and their clearly tight coordination with jihadists is seeing their alignment shifting, especially in northern Syria.

As such, Salafist groups, notably Harakat Ahrar Al Sham Al Islamiyya, now represent the most strategically powerful players in the conflict and serious rivals to the moderate SMC leadership.

The Salafist contingent within Syria's insurgency is dominated by the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) and the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF). While the former has taken a hard line in avoiding relations with the SMC, several SILF constituent group leaders are members of the SMC. However, SILF's organisational value as a singly organised and commanded front appears to have eroded in recent months. Moreover, on the ground, major SILF groups have developed increasingly close relations with Harakat Ahrar Al Sham Al Islamiyya, the SIF's pre-eminent force.

While the SILF has described itself as "moderately Islamist" and as keen to maintain relations with the FSA, several core members - Suqor Al Sham, Liwa Dawud, Liwa Al Islam and Liwa Al Tawhid, each containing several thousand members - have operated increasingly independently in 2013. Rumours exchanged among Islamist militants in June 2013 went so far as to claim any or all three of Suqor Al Sham, Liwa Dawud and Liwa Al Tawhid could one day join the SIF.

In northern Syria, these three groups coordinate on a daily basis with Harakat Ahrar Al Sham Al Islamiyya, which is arguably the most powerful insurgent actor in Syria. It regularly initiates multi-group offensives, consistently including Jabhat Al Nusra and members of SILF, and is unique in having been involved in every major base or military facility capture in Syria since September 2012.

In addition to its military capabilities, it operates a "technical division", which has conducted successful cyber attacks on the pro-government Syrian Electronic Army and Addounia TV. The division was likely responsible for designing the group's freely downloadable application for Android mobile phones, released on July 10.

On June 8, Harakat Ahrar Al Sham Al Islamiyya leader Hassan Aboud appeared publicly for the first time - revealing his real name and identity - in an interview on Al Jazeera. Over the next week, he gave a keynote speech at a conference of the International Union of Islamic Scholars in Cairo and an interview on Egypt's Salafist Al Nas TV.

This rapid move into the public eye, on a regional level, suggested Mr Aboud and the SIF were being presented, with the backing of external actors, as a viable Salafist alternative to the existing moderate SMC-led opposition.

After Mr Aboud's public appearances, his group's militants launched several new offensives and the technical division began operations. Crucially, Harakat Ahrar Al Sham Al Islamiyya has demonstrated competence in governance within areas under its control, running extensive networks of food, water and fuel provision across northern Syria. It even operates the eastern province of Raqqah's largest water pumping station, several dams and a road and bridge repair company. The group also provides free Islamic education to children in Idlib, Aleppo and Hama.

Since the fall of Qusayr in Homs on June 5, the Syrian military has led successful offensives in Homs and in northern Damascus, placing increasing pressure on areas controlled largely by FSA-branded and SMC-linked groups. As such, the moderate opposition has come under increasing strain while northern Syria remains dominated by Salafists and jihadists and faces a lesser level of military pressure. The Salafists also appear to be benefiting from higher levels of backing from regional, Gulf-based states and individuals.

There is a power shift underway within the Syrian insurgency and it is not one that will be welcomed in western government circles.

Charles Lister is an analyst at IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, London UK. An expanded version of this article was first published in IHS Jane's Islamic Affairs Analyst

On Twitter: @Charles_Lister