December 20, 2016 Special Dispatch No. 6717

Syrian Opposition Worried By Reports That New Islamic Political Entity, Led By Jabhat Fath Al-Sham, Is Emerging In Northern Syria

December 20, 2016
Syria | Special Dispatch No. 6717

Following Aleppo's fall to the Syrian regime and the realization that the opposition's defeat there was caused, at least in part, by the divisions among the various fighting factions, the Arab press and Arab social media have in recent days featured numerous reports that some of the main fighting factions in northern Syria aim to declare a military-political entity, to be called the Syrian Islamic Commission. This entity will control all the territory that remains in opposition hands, especially in Idlib province – the last remaining opposition stronghold and the destination of opposition fighters leaving regions where reconciliation agreements expelling them were signed with the regime. This initiative, most likely conceived by Abu Muhammad Al-Joulani, the leader of Jabhat Fath Al-Sham (formerly Jabhat Al-Nusra), could, if actualized, complete the Islamization of the Syrian revolution and its takeover by Salafi-jihadis.

This paper will review the reports about the emerging new entity and reactions to these reports.

Abu Muhammad Al-Joulani (image:, September 17, 2016)

According to reports, in the past week Al-Joulani initiated meetings in Idlib province with the leaders of 12 to 15 military factions, some of them Islamist and some of them part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Among them were: Ahrar Al-Sham, Harakat Nour Al-Din Al-Zinki, Jaysh Al-Islam, Jund Al-Aqsa, Al-Jabha Al-Shamiyya, Jaysh Al-Mujahideen, and Sawt Al-Haq. The factions had reportedly arrived at understandings about uniting to form a single military-political state-like entity, with an estimated 100,000 fighters.[1]

In this emerging state, the powers are divided among the leaders of the main factions, with Al-Joulani as military commander and main decision-maker, while the entity itself is to be headed by Ahrar Al-Sham commander Abu 'Ammar Al-Omar. The Shura Council is to be headed by Harakat Nour Al-Din Al-Zinki leader Tawfiq Shihab Al-Din.

Also according to reports, the factions are, under these understandings, to announce their dissolution and their full incorporation into the new body within a week at most. The faction commanders will relinquish their status and roles, the faction flags will be burned, and the use of the names of the faction will be banned.

The entity will have a legislative branch, the Shura Council, comprising the various faction leaders, and will draw up a shari'a-compliant constitution. It will have an executive branch that includes a judiciary in charge of all courts and tribunals, a police force, a Ministry of Religious Endowments, and a Ministry of Defense. It will also establish TV and radio networks.[2]

These reports were accompanied by announcements by some faction leaders that they would be merging. Thus, Jaysh Al-Mujahideen commander Abu Bakr tweeted: "Stand by for joyous news from us regarding a coming union that will gladden you and sadden your enemies – a national program that represents the people's revolution..."[3]

Abu Bakr's tweet

The new entity was reportedly set to be declared December 18, but at the time of this writing this had not yet happened, indicating that preparations are still underway. Also according to reports, some factions are examining the possibility of a unified operations room overseeing the various battlefronts, as well as the creation of a united military apparatus for operations leading up to the establishment of the united military-political entity.[4]

Syria's Moderate Opposition Fears Islamization Of Syrian Revolution

The Syrian moderate opposition was divided on this emerging new entity. Its supporters included Abu Muhammad Al-'Asmi, of the Free Syrian Army's leadership council, who called it "a rescue plan for the Syrian revolution" and said: "This plan includes the merger of the factions under a single leadership, distant from any ideology. This is despite the Islamic nature of most of the Syrian factions, including the FSA factions." The entity,  he added, will be "a purely Syrian faction. Non-Syrian elements, if they exist, will not take leadership positions."[5]

Al-'Asmi, however, appears to be in the minority; most of the moderate military and political opposition factions are against the new entity, fearing that it is an attempt by Al-Joulani to take over the other factions and fully Islamize the Syrian revolution. Thus, it was reported that several opposition factions, some part of the FSA and some of them Islamists who oppose the entity and refuse to accept Al-Joulani as leader, were discussing their own merger, but have yet to reach understandings on what its nature would be and whether it would be solely military or political as well.[6]

Samir Al-Nashar, a former member of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary Opposition Forces, said that he feared that this Islamic entity would turn Idlib into "Kandahar 2."[7] He said he had sent a clear message to the factions that reportedly intended to join Al-Joulani telling them they had been fooled and that "they will face a holocaust with no one to protect them... All the factions that are forced into joining Jabhat Fath Al-Sham will suffer an unprecedented holocaust in terms of victims and losses... It is not only countries that will oppose this entity, but the Syrian people as well, which rejects such trends."[8]

Other oppositionists warned that the merger "will provide a pretext for Russia and the regime to bomb and destroy Idlib and its rural areas, just as they did in Aleppo on the pretext of combating terrorism."[9]

Arab supporters of the Syrian opposition also fear the merger, and its takeover by Jabhat Fath Al-Sham. The London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat cited 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Hajj, an expert on extremist organizations, who said that the emergence of such an entity is "the emergence of the fourth generation of Al-Qaeda," and called it "a warning bell for the international community, because [this entity] is pushing in the direction of a global extremist stream and will eliminate [any possibility of] control in northern Syria." It also cited sources comparing the merger to "putting all the factions into the uniform of those who are condemned to death internationally" which would "eliminate the Syrians' dream of a revolution."[10]


[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 19, 2016.

[2] Al-Sharq Al_Awsat (London), December 18, 2016.

[3], December 18, 2016.

[4], December 19, 2016.

[5] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 18, 2016.

[6], December 19, 2016.

[7] A reference to the Taliban's takeover of Kandahar, Afghanistan, in the 1990s and its transformation into the Taliban capital.

[8] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 18, 2016.

[9], December 18, 2016.

[10] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 19, 2016.

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