NGC is very pleased to announce that Romain Caillet, a French researcher specialized in Islamist movements, has joined our team. Romain brings along his precious expertise on Salafist and Jihadist movements, the Syrian civil war and more generally on the Sunni/Shia relation in the Arab world. Find out more about him on our website.
NGC sat with Romain to discuss the status of the armed opposition to the Syrian regime, and try to identify:
(1) The current balance of power between the different groups,
(2) Their tactical and long-term goals as well as potential future scenarios
Balance of power among key opposition fighters
For clarification purposes, we decided to focus on the four main armed groups (below, left to right from the most radical to the most moderate).
JAN and ISIS, officially in Syria since January 2012 and spring 2013 respectively, are jihadist groups fighting the Syrian regime. They both resort to kamikaze attacks against military targets, attract many foreign fighters and have a clear religious agenda (strict imposition of the Sharia, predication, reestablishment of the Caliphate). JAN is the official Al Qaeda branch in Syria, while ISIS follows Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, a jihadist leader from Iraq and commander of the Faithful.
The Islamic Front (IF) recently formed in November 2013 is an umbrella organization bringing together seven different Islamic factions. This unification process of non-jihadist islamic forces is probably one the latest most significant developments of the Syrian civil war. None of these groups are classified as terrrorist organizations by the US who are reaching out to them in the context of the upcoming Montreux Peace Conference (January 22, 2014) and the continuous weakening of the SMC.
The SMC is the military organ established in December 2012 to coordinate operations of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) on the ground (secular fighters, former syrian army officers who defected…). The FSA fights for a political transition towards a democratic system; it opposes Jihadist forces and rejects foreign fighters’ presence in Syria. It has been weakened by the lack fof Western support and recently lost most of its troops to the benefit of other Islamic groups perceived as more efficient, better equipped and organized.
Based on Romain’s assessment, we have established below a tentative summary of the estimated balance of power among these four groups. These estimates should be taken with precaution as information is scarce and difficult to verify, the balance of power is very dynamic and relations between groups are always evolving.
Tactical Objectives and Long Term Agenda
Our research and internal discussions lead to the following assessment of current tactics of the different groups and their long term goals in Syria and in the region.
After a series of spectacular attacks against regime targets and a fast surge in numbers, ISIS seems to be shifting towards the consolidation of its structure as an Islamic State in its key strongholds (Raqqah, surroundings of Idlib, and Aleppo).
During the first phase, ISIS swiftly established its own religious police and courts leading to clashes with the FSA and other groups, including in particular with Kurdish armed groups in northeastern regions. It reached out to orphans and street children as a means to prepare future generations of fighters and to take root as a homegrown force.
There are now signs indicating that the group is institutionalizing its hold on “liberated areas” by monopolizing key Public Services such as transportation, schools, telecommunication, bakeries and oil fields, thus widening local acceptance while giving ISIS more leverage on the population.
In parallel, ISIS is progressively imposing a stricter application of the sharia in small-to medium size cities (compulsory veil, banning of tobacco and shisha, mandatory closing of shops for Friday prayers, public lashing for adultery…). In a next phase, ISIS could try to impose such policies in larger cities.
On the long term, ISIS seems to have a regional expansionist agenda to recreate the Caliphate. This implies securing territorial continuity with Eastern Iraq and expanding towards North Lebanon. ISIS main specificities as a jihadist movement lies in its fierce anti-Shia focus, as opposed to the more anti-western ideology of JAN, and its “State-building” efforts as opposed to the global, de-territorialized Jihad.
The group’s clear priority is to topple the Syrian regime. Like ISIS, JAN set up its own religious courts that play an important role in conflict resolution, including with other rebel groups.
JAN also got involved in Public Services delivery, but unlike ISIS, it did not aim at monopolizing the operations. Rather, it organized and controlled the delegation of Public services to local groups. JAN also uses an anti-Shia rhetoric and there have been reports of destructions of signs of Shia Islam (Shrines and Husseiniyas).
On the long run, JAN could be faced with two main options:
- focus on the implementation of the Sharia in Syria or
- take advantage of its presence in South Syria to launch operations against Israel.
The Islamic Front’s priority is to topple the Syrian regime by “bringing an end to its legislative, executive, and judicial authority along with its military and security institutions, as well as the just and fair prosecution of all involved in shedding innocent blood”. To that end, the group, despite its numerical superiority and its more moderate stance, still requires ISIS and JAN’s Kamikaze operations.
IF clearly rejected the Geneva peace talks – even threatening to prosecute for treason the opposition members who would attend. However, were Saudi Arabia to be convinced of the interest of the peace process, it would have the needed leverage to bring the IF at the table of negotiations.
IF Charter calls in general terms for an Islamic State and the implementation of sharia, but also refers to the respect of minority rights. On the long run, IF could become a central player in a transition process as a mainstream Islamic political force. Others believe that the Islamic Front could turn against the jihadists force, following the Iraqi precedent of the Sahwa.
There seem to be a structuration process of the armed opposition around thre Islamist poles, ISIS, JAN and the IF, while the SMC appears to be seriously and maybe irreversibly marginalized, unless an alliance with the Islamic Force is secured.
The emergence of the IF, the most numerous Islamic force on the ground with the active involvement of Saudi Arabia, represents a significant turn in the Syrian civil war. Riyadh now has a serious leverage on the conflict – and its future potential resolution.
Relations between the different groups on the ground are complex, ranging from cases of tactical joint operations to take over regime targets to turf war and serious clashes over limited resources (oil, bread, warehouses…). This unstable balance of power where ideology matters less than the everyday necessities of a civil war will probably remain the reality on the ground for the time being.
On the long run, serious questions remain to be answered:
- What will the global jihad target as a priority: anti-Shia objectives, Sunni moderates collaborating in the context of a negotiated transition, or Israeli and western targets?
- Who will the tribes, who can really tip the balance in some strategic areas, chose to support?
- Will the IF end up turning against the Jihadists in a Sahwa-like effort?
This latest scenario, intensely discussed by experts and dreaded by jihadists, seems for now far from Syrian reality. However, it cannot be excluded in a context of a transition backed by Western powers and Arab States sharing the objective of eradicating jihadist’s strongholds from Syria.
NGC team, together with Romain, will keep on monitoring and reflecting on these difficult questions.
 For a detailed account of foreign fighters in Syria (“muhajireens”), see http://www.aymennjawad.org/14144/muhajireen-battalions-in-syria. there are also experienced Chechens and some Caucasians from the Diaspora.
 For a precise breakdown of European fighters in Syria, see: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2013/11/27/number-of-foreign-fighters-from-europe-in-syria-is-historically-unprecedented-who-should-be-worried/
 ISIS is thought to take in some $8 million a month from the inhabitants of Mosul: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/10/al-qaeda-mosul-iraq-sunnis-minorities.html
 Zawahiri confirmed in an audio message his support to JAN as the official representative of Al Qaeda in the Levant.
 Local tribes exploit the oil, resell it to the regime thus making sure they will not be bombed, and then share the benefits with JAN.
 A military formation of Sunni fighters, established by the US Army to confront al-Qaeda in Iraq.
 Alawite strongholds and religious symbols, Shia militias, Iranian, hezbollahi and maybe Iraqi targets in Syria and in the region.