by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College and a reporter for War Is Boring. He focuses on the relationship between Islam and conflict in Syria and Sudan.The Islamic Front, a now-defunct coalition of Syrian Islamic revolutionary movements, started a history of opportunities for dialog in the Syrian Civil War. Formed by uniting the strongest units of the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) and the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF) November 22, 2013, the coalition declined as three years of fighting the world’s most violent war weakened its factions one by one. The SIF contributed the Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant (Ahrar al-Sham), led by Hassan Abboud†, and its allies while the SILF offered the Army of Islam (Jaish al-Islam), led by Zahrain Alloush†; the Falcons of the Levant Brigade (Suqour al-Sham Brigade), led by Ahmad Eissa al-Sheikh; and the al-Tawhid Brigade, led by Abdul Qader al-Saleh†. Though all wanting an Islamic state, the factions ranged from planning an Islamic republic to proposing an emirate.
Many Western analysts saw in al-Saleh a mediator between moderates and extremists and a Syrian leader with whom the international community could work to reform the country. The airstrike that killed him only days before the formation of the Islamic Front ended that possibility. “Mr. Saleh’s story, much like that of the movement for which he left his life as a seed trader and father of five, unfolded as one of optimism and possibility diverted by war’s disappointments and, it seemed, its moral exigencies and dark alliances,” wrote The New York Times. He had existed in a region of moral ambiguity, trying to settle conflicts between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) yet contradicting his seeming ideals of pluralism by often obliging the extremists. Though Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam, and the Suqour al-Sham Brigade would distance themselves from terrorism, their leaders tended to lack al-Saleh’s Western-friendly pragmatism.As the al-Tawhid Brigade dissolved from the Syrian opposition, Ahrar al-Sham evolved away from the rest of the Islamic Front. An airstrike or a suicide attack — the circumstances remain ambiguous — removed Abboud and most of the revolutionary movement’s other leaders September 9, 2014. Some analysts expected that, without him, Ahrar al-Sham might implode. “Most powerful in the northern provinces near the Turkish border, Ahrar al-Sham has followed an ultraconservative Islamist ideology that has often made it a bridge between more mainline rebels and the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria,” observed The New York Times in another article. “While its leaders have said they would like to see Syria become an Islamic state, they have never publicly endorsed an international jihadist agenda, instead keeping their focus on toppling Mr. Assad. Ahrar al-Sham also joined with other rebels to battle ISIS in parts of northern Syria.” Despite losing Abboud, other members of Ahrar al-Sham managed to maintain what he had built, even expanding the movement. It absorbed Suqour al-Sham, which had suffered from infighting after ISIS executed some of its leaders and recruited others. Last year, an official from Ahrar al-Sham tried contacting the American and British governments through op-eds in The Washington Post and The Daily Telegraph, criticizing their foreign relations policy but encouraging them to work with all factions of the Syrian opposition, Ahrar al-Sham in particular. The movement had eclipsed the Suqour al-Sham Brigade and replaced the al-Tawhid Brigade. Little remained of the Islamic Front.
Jaish al-Islam pursued its own goals, strengthening itself around Damascus. Alloush reigned over the eastern suburbs of the Syrian capital, threatening the Syrian government with artillery and soldiery. Even so, an airstrike, maybe Russian, managed to kill him too only last month. The New York Times claimed that Jaish al-Islam might struggle to copy Ahrar al-Sham’s ability to rebound from such a loss, noting, “The Army of Islam could be particularly vulnerable because it was organized around a single charismatic individual, more so than many other rebel groups.”
The only faction of the Islamic Front that could rival Ahrar al-Sham no longer possessed its best competitor. “He reflected the difficulties in identifying moderate rebels from extremists and other militants in Syria,” said another article by The Associated Press. “He was widely known to be supported by Saudi Arabia and Turkey but also fought pitched battles against rival Islamic State group near Damascus, with many crediting his group for keeping IS from making further advances toward the Syrian capital.” Alloush represented one of the last revolutionaries to have joined the Syrian opposition from the start. When he died, so did another opportunity to finish the war.
Jaish al-Islam weakened, Ahrar al-Sham is trying to position itself within the balance of power between Islam and the Western world. “The Ahrar al-Sham movement is totally independent,” one of its spokesmen told The New York Times. “It is a Syrian movement and it has no links, organizationally or ideologically, with any international organizations.” It concerned American officials, however, that Ahrar al-Sham worked with members of al-Qaeda, even harboring some of them. Hassan Abboud’s faction of the Islamic Front, like its diminished allies, continues to exist in ambiguity.
Ahrar al-Sham often leads the Syrian opposition, fighting alongside moderates and extremists and hoping to unite them. If America and Ahrar al-Sham want to cooperate (whether against terrorism, the Syrian government, or both), they must find common ground. One of them will need to compromise its ideals to achieve cooperation. The moderate may have to submit to the extremist.