Meet what might soon be the West's unpredictable new friend in Syria -- the Islamic Front.
BEIRUT — When he was a fighter with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), waging war against President Bashar al-Assad's forces in the northern economic hub of Aleppo, Abu Muhannad's confidence verged on presumptuousness. He spent 2012 and part of 2013 fighting alongside his comrades in the Martyrs' Swords battalion and, upon their return from the front lines, the young fighters would gather to reflect on their most recent victory as they smoked arguileh and drank cups of bitter tea.
The Free Syrian Army, the loose-knit, Western-backed rebel umbrella group, eventually succumbed to irrelevance due to poor funding and lack of cohesiveness. Abu Muhannad's small battalion disbanded and he found himself stranded, without the safety afforded by membership into a group. Still, he chose to remain in his home country, hoping to find himself a place among the new rebel realignments.
Then, a few weeks ago, he sat down for tea with a young French fighter.
The Frenchman was a member of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), an al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. Their conversation devolved into a heated argument -- the French jihadist felt that Abu Muhannad, a devout Muslim, was too focused on fighting for the liberation of Syria rather than waging a global jihad. He chided Abu Muhannad for calling the country Syria instead of bilad al-sham, an expression favored by global jihadists that refers to the entire Levant, which they believe should be the focal point of a new Islamic state.
"It was a fight over terminology," said Abu Muhannad, who was reached via Skype in the Turkish city of Antakya where he has been staying with a friend. "He accused me of being secretly secular because I was being patriotic instead of referring to the country as an Islamic emirate. I told him he wasn't here to teach me about my own religion."
The French fighter walked away in the middle of the argument. The following day, Abu Muhannad's friends informed him that ISIS was planning to assassinate him. Abu Muhannad claimed the al Qaeda-linked group had tried to kill him once before, and that he had narrowly escaped. Shortly after Abu Muhannad fled to Turkey, ISIS captured his younger brother, a citizen journalist, who remains imprisoned to this day. Abu Muhannad suspects the group is holding his brother indefinitely to lure him back to Syria.
This is not the first time that an FSA fighter finds himself driven out of the country by ISIS. The extremist group has repeatedly clashed with not only FSA rebels, but also with like-minded Islamist brigades, often over petty disputes. An undercurrent of tension pervades the relationship between ISIS, which ultimately seeks to establish and Islamic emirate in Syria, and the constellation of moderate Sunni fighters who simply want to oust Bashar al-Assad from power.
The experience of being exiled from his own country by foreign Jihadists has left Abu Muhannad as livid at ISIS as he is at the Syrian regime.
"They have these disgusting, smelly beards. They won't even comb their hair. If I knew the revolution would bring them here, I swear I would never have participated in it," he said. "Did I rebel against the regime to end up in hiding? And who am I running away from? Chechens? European fanatics? Who are those people? They have overstayed their welcome."
With the Supreme Military Council, the Turkey-based military opposition body, failing to secure significant funding for the Free Syrian Army, the mainstream rebel group has been growing weaker by the day. Abu Muhannad, like many disillusioned fighters, is now placing his bet on the new Islamic Front. The new alliance was announced in November, and has become the largest rebel force in Syria by merging together seven influential Islamist groups, including the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham brigade; the Army of Islam, which is prominent in the Damascus suburbs; and the Aleppo-based Al-Tawheed brigade. Abu Muhannad says its leaders have been household names since the beginning of the uprising, and its fighters were brothers-in-arms when the FSA was still a fledgling enterprise. The group notably excludes al Qaeda's two affiliates in Syria, and may be an attempt by one of the rebels' primary patrons, Saudi Arabia, to check the influence of ISIS.
It's not only Abu Muhannad who sees the Islamic Front as a potential antidote to the expanding influence of extremists within Syrian rebel ranks. The group is made up of Salafist fighters who ascribe to a puritanical interpretation of the Quran -- but it nevertheless remains a local movement that is amenable to Syrians, and which is seemingly willing to adjust its ways to preserve its popular base. Earlier this month, U.S. diplomats attempted to arrange a meeting with leaders of the new alliance, where they hoped to convince them to support peace talks with the Assad regime and warn them against any collaboration with al Qaeda-affiliated groups. The Islamic Front flatly refused to meet with the U.S. envoys, without providing a reason why.
While many observers believe an eventual face-off between ISIS and the Islamic Front is inevitable, it remains unclear what role the other al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, will play. The group, seen as a homegrown extension of ISIS, may have sworn allegiance to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, but Islamic Front fighters contend that it has been drawing closer to their movement in the past few months. The two groups regularly cooperate on the front lines.
This poses a significant problem for the United States, which has officially designated Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organization.
"We engage with a broad cross section of Syrian people, including a variety of Islamist groups. We do not engage with terrorists, however," said a U.S. official interviewed on condition of anonymity. "It is a given that the opposition is comprised of a variety of groups, all with different views and ideologies. And we deal with the opposition understanding that not all of these groups agree with each other or the positions of the United States. But again: we do not engage with terrorists or violent extremists."
Further complicating matters, factions in the Islamist alliance have recently challenged the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army. Last month, it seized warehouses of U.S.-provided non-lethal assistance to the Free Syrian Army, and its leaders have been known to employ fanatical rhetoric against Syrian minorities. Perhaps most important, even as Islamic Front leaders shun any cooperation with the United States, they appear to be working hard to smooth over differences with al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria.
Abu Obeida, a spokesman for the political department of the Islamic Front, is adamant that all factions must steer clear of clashes with ISIS because any divisions within the rebel ranks would embolden the Syrian regime. Earlier this month, for instance, the Islamic Front moved quickly to try to ease tensions after ISIS members clashed with fighters from Ahrar al-Sham over a court dispute in Maskana, a town in Aleppo province. While most secular activists and disgruntled FSA fighters believe ISIS was created by the Syrian regime to undermine the uprising, Islamists tend to dismiss such accusations.
"There were minor disagreements between the Islamic Front and ISIS in Maskana but, God willing, it should all be resolved soon," said Abu Obeida. "We try not to respond to any provocations without the mediation of a third party."
Abu al-Hasan, a 36-year-old spokesman for the Tawheed Brigade, dismisses the suggestion that the Islamic Front plans to confront ISIS. "I've been to ISIS headquarters in Aleppo, and they have warmly welcomed me," he said. "ISIS fighters are always accused of carrying out kidnappings but we have no proof so far".
That doesn't mean tensions are non-existent. While Islamic Front commanders may be reluctant to pick a fight, ISIS fighters don't shy away from criticizing their would-be allies.
Abu Mohamed, a 28-yearold fighter who was introduced by a reliable source as a member of ISIS based in Eastern Ghouta, readily criticized one of the Islamic Front's most prominent commanders -- Army of Islam leader Zahran Alloush. Abu Mohamed described Alloush as a crook who purposefully failed to lift the regime's siege on the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta. The ISIS fighter claims Alloush was in a position to bring relief to the people of Ghouta, but failed to bargain with regime forces.
"The people here were starving -- and we were starving along with them -- while Sheikh Alloush was filling his pockets with gold," he said, echoing a complaint also expressed by other activists in the area.
When pressed, Islamic Front fighters admit that relations with ISIS are strained. The two sides fundamentally agree on the end goal of an Islamic state, but differ in how to achieve that goal and on the scope of the new state. The Islamic Front is almost exclusively made up of Syrian fighters based in areas where they grew up, whereas ISIS has transformed the Syrian war into a transnational Sunni struggle, introducing a steady stream of foreign jihadists and brutal retributive practices, such as public beheadings and lashings for trivial reasons.
Abu Abed al-Rahman, the spokesman of the Ahrar al-Sham brigade, notes that the al Qaeda affiliate tends to opt for conflict when his brigade would prefer bridge-building.
"They have their own special approach in laying out their ideology, and it is rather confrontational, whereas we look at Islamic work as something all like-minded folks must participate in," he said. "Even if there are minor disagreements in our points of views, they must be overcome so we can defeat this regime."
In a jab at ISIS which is rushing to impose its own version of Islamic law, Abu Abed al-Rahman notes, "the building of states is not the monopoly of certain factions and it must have practical steps. It's not enough to start drumming to the sound of a hollow name".
Like several other Islamic Front members interviewed, Abu Abed al-Rahman is quick to add that fighters belonging to Jabhat al-Nusra are much easier to cooperate with. While Jabhat al-Nusra has publicly sworn allegiance to Zawahiri, it has so far acted as a well-meaning mediator between different Islamist factions. According to several fighters interviewed for this article, the al Qaeda affiliate is known to intervene in skirmishes between rebel battalions of different ideological leanings, in an effort to prevent the situation from spiraling out of control. Islamic Front fighters also stress that the group collaborates closely with them on the front lines.
"Their policies are more lenient and they have managed to integrate more seamlessly in Syrian society," Abu Abed al-Rahman said.
The relationship between ISIS and the Islamic Front is further complicated by the fact that these ties vary greatly depending on the province. In the northern province of Raqqa, for instance, Ahrar al-Sham has clashed repeatedly with ISIS but does not trust Jabhat al-Nusra either, according to an activist in the areaAs a result, the two Islamist groups have failed to forge an alliance against the most extreme al Qaeda affiliate.. In the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, however, the Army of Islam maintains a joint operations room with Jabhat al-Nusra, allowing the two groups to work closely together.
The formation of the Islamic Front may have provided a veneer of homogeneity to Syria's most powerful Islamist brigades, but factional differences have so far prevented the Islamic Front from adopting a uniform stance toward ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.
"The situation is just too complex to identify an overall pattern governing relations," said the activist in Raqqa.
What is clear, however, is that the Free Syrian Army is steadily losing ground to Islamist brigades. On Dec. 9, 14 FSA factions banded together under the banner of the Syria Revolutionaries Front, headed by Jamal Maarouf, to contest the growing strength of the Islamic Front. For his part, Maarouf accuses Saudi Arabia and Qatar of orchestrating the creation of the Islamist alliance, and of throwing their financial and military backing behind the group. While most factions that joined Maarouf's alliance have strong roots in the areas where they first emerged, they have struggled with internal divisions and competition over scarce resources, and some have gravitated toward the better-equipped Islamic Front.
"My own faction hasn't received any funding in five months," Maarouf said. "But we reap spoils when we win battles. We have access to oil and grain silos in liberated areas. I know we can sustain ourselves."
Islamists are not just sidelining seculars and acquiring swathes of territory in Syria, they also appear to be winning the hearts and minds of devout Syrians disillusioned by four decades of oppressive secular rule. With the weakening of the FSA, secular activists find themselves hoping that the more restrained Islamists will come out on top.
Asaad Kanjo, the Idlib-based activist, has misgivings about Islamic rule. He believes that ISIS will eventually drag both the Islamic Front and more secular groups into a direct confrontation. Like many Syrians, he is convinced the al Qaeda-affiliate is working covertly for the regime, and against the revolution.
"The military operations of ISIS are negligible," he said. "They never participate in fierce clashes. All the media fanfare comes from one of their suicide bombers.... They just send a guy to blow himself up to make some media noise."
For Kanjo, none of the Islamist brigades hold much promise for the future of Syria as their aspirations go against the original goals of the uprising, which he defines as equality, justice, freedom and coexistence. Kanjo says some Syrians were quick to welcome the Islamists to power because, having been failed by a regime that portrays itself as secular, they were ripe for emotional appeals to their faith.
"They are craving a clean pure religious leader because they have come to associate secular rule with the brutal ways of the Assad regime," he said.
The behavior of factions within the Free Syrian Army also contributed to their decline in fortunes. Former FSA fighters admit that their demise can't be solely attributed to the Americans' tepid support, and some are beginning to acknowledge their personal failures.
"We committed many mistakes," admits Abu Muhannad. "Citizens were already exhausted from the aerial bombardments of the regime, and we mistreated them. They got sick of us."
Nowadays, Syrian activists complain of an atmosphere of moral stagnation where warlordism has become the accepted norm. Powerful rebel alignments, which have repeatedly failed to unite around their shared goal of overthrowing the regime, exist in a state of delicate symbiosis. As inter-rebel clashes erupt with increasing frequency, activists are trying to avoid getting caught in the crossfire between the dizzying array of Islamist factions.
"The problem is that now we are facing a situation of multiple sharias [version of Islamic law]. Jabhat al-Nusra has its own sharia, ISIS has its sharia, and now the Islamic Front has its sharia," Kanjo said. "They all want an Islamic state, but they can't even agree on one kind of sharia."
Salih Mahmud Leyla/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images