BEIRUT: The latest announcement of a broad coalition of rebel groups, calling itself the Revolutionary Command Council, is a clear sign of rising Islamist influence in opposition-controlled northern Syria – particularly that of Salafist group Ahrar al-Sham.
The RCC’s formation was announced over recent days during a news conference in Gaziantep, Turkey, and with the issuing of statements outlining the group’s goals. At first glance, it is an interesting merger of militias fighting under two different banners: the mainstream Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front, a conservative, largely Salafist alliance.
Notably, the new alliance excludes the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, and some hard-line Islamist groups active in the north, such as Nusra’s close ally Jund al-Aqsa.
Some of the rhetoric contained in the RCC’s founding statements can be read as broadly supportive of the mainstream goals of the uprising, and not as representative of a hard-line religious ideology.
Its charter repeatedly uses terms such as “the Syrian people,” “civilian,” and “revolution,” which are anathema to the ideology espoused by groups such as the Nusra Front or its Al-Qaeda-inspired rival, ISIS.
The new body claims it represents just over 70 rebel militias, with each group expected to contribute at least 100 fighters to a proposed rapid intervention force. Members of the new group have stated that it was established after several months of discussions on the need for a unified military body, to counter the huge fragmentation in rebel ranks, both mainstream and Islamist.
The RCC elected Qais al-Sheikh, a judge, as its head. Sheikh signaled his displeasure last week with the performance of the opposition-in-exile National Coalition by resigning from the group.
A Syrian observer who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak freely said that on the surface, the new group brings together key elements of the FSA and Islamist rebel militias. However, he predicted that it will remain hampered by its ties to Turkey and a strong behind-the-scenes role for the Ahrar al-Sham Salafist network, one of the dozens of members of the new alliance.
“Salafist groups are trying to adapt to the situation on the ground and secure a foothold in all areas of the country, which is undergoing a [de facto] process of partition,” he said.
“Ahrar al-Sham is the best option for Turkey at the moment,” the observer continued, saying that its ideological aspect could accommodate both conservative Salafists and the more pragmatic strand of political Islam represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey’s more natural ally. Ahrar al-Sham also enjoys good ties to the Nusra Front.
“There were two main groupings in the north,” the observer said.
“One was the FSA alliance, led by U.S.-equipped groups such as Hazm and the Syria Rebel Front and the Mujahedeen Army. The other, which took shape over the last month or so, was an informal alliance between the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham.”
Early last month, Nusra led an offensive against the FSA groups, taking advantage of the unpopularity of Jamal Maarouf, the head of the Syria Rebel Front. The clashes saw the FSA militias lose their strongholds in Idlib province to the Islamists.
“This alliance finally collapsed, due to the corruption of Jamal Maarouf,” the observer said.
However, he pointed to a second dynamic at play in the north, which has received much less attention than the Nusra Front’s campaign against FSA groups.
“Ahrar al-Sham has been overpowering other members of the Islamic Front,” the observer said.
The group in recent weeks has ejected its fellow Islamic Front member the Islam Army from the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, an important source of revenue and clout. Another member, Suqour al-Sham, has been hurt by defections to Ahrar al-Sham, although the leaders of the former group deny this.
“The latest indications point to Suqour al-Sham having only around 400 fighters, meaning that it has dropped off the map for all intents and purposes,” the observer said.
“Ahrar al-Sham has dominated all other members of the Islamic Front in the north, especially the Tawhid Brigade, and its most latest accomplishment was to push out its last rival, the Islam Army, from the Bab al-Hawa crossing.”
The moves suit the agenda of Turkey, he continued, which he said would prefer to see the Islamists of Ahrar al-Sham have a commanding role in the north, without a significant presence for the FSA.
It would mark a stunning comeback for the militia, which lost most of its top leaders in a mysterious blast in Idlib province in early October.
At the time, Ahrar al-Sham’s leaders were hinting that they would prefer to see a more inclusive rebel military command, citing the need to counter the huge level of fragmentation and the danger of the ultra-extremists of ISIS to rebel military efforts.