Syrian Islamic Front (SIF)
The 37,000-strong Syrian Islamic Liberation Front [aka Syrian Liberation Front] and the Syrian Islamic Front - which includes some 13,000 Salafi combatants - are two other militant groups supported by Saudi Arabia. Qatar supports a separate Salafi group known as Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigade with around 15,000 combatants. They have fewer fighters than the Free Syrian Army and adhere to an Islamist ideology.
Aron Lund noted in February 2013 that "Of the Syrian Islamist alliances in general, I think the recently created Syrian Islamic Front is the thing currently most worth watching. Unlike the Liberation Front, they’ve managed to agree on a clearly defined ideology, and some member factions are already merging their forces and leaderships, as opposed to merely conducting joint operations."
The Islamic Ahrar al-Sham Movement, which is the leading faction of the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) and probably the biggest salafi group in Syria, issued a statement in May 2013 about Jabhat al-Nosra’s recent declaration of allegiance to al-Qaida’s Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Haqq Battalions Gathering, a militant group in Hama province, announced mid-April 2013 that they were joining the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF). This is the first time since the SIF’s creation in December 2012 that an independent outside organization of any consequence decides to join the front.
Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam), a coalition of over 50 rebel groups formed in September 2013, is dominated by Liwa al-Islam, a large rebel group formerly of “FSA” branding led by Saudi-backed Zahran Alloush. Jaish al-Islam is arguably the strongest of the seven rebel groups fighting under the Islamic Front umbrella. The flow of money was apparently enough to allow Jaish al-Islam to work on two L-39s in an effort to establish a local air force. Based at Kshesh, this project was abandoned after the capture of the airbase by the Islamic State. Armored fighting vehicles always had an important status within Jaish al-Islam, it being the only group in Syria which operates various types of armour and infantry in a mechanized force. The group founded a local arms industry, capable of both manufacturing a wide array of munitions, performing overhauls and upgrades on captured fighting vehicles and producing small arms.
On 23 November 2013 a new Islamist group emerged in Syria, a coalescence of seven major Islamist fighting forces in Syria calling itself the Islamic Front. Estimated to consist of about 45,000 fighters, the group included the Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, Suqour al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Haqq, Ansar al-Sham, and the Kurdish Islamic Front. Its stated aim is to "topple the Assad regime..... and build an Islamic state," according to the new group's leader, Ahmed Issa al-Sheikh, of Suqour al-Sham.
Islamic Front was careful to position itself within a nationalist framework, rejecting the “near enemy/far enemy” internationalism of al-Qaeda and the state-building project of the Islamic State (IS).
The success of any alliance or coalition attempting to be the “third way” between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and more extremist militias like the Al Nusrah Front will depend on its ability to acquire a sufficient level of funding to sustain its ambitious bid for salafi leadership. Otherwise, it is likely to fragment with time, like so many Syrian rebel alliances before it.
Hassan Hassan, Syrian-born author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, referred to the formation of the Islamic Front as an opportunity for the Syrian opposition to distance itself from Al Qaeda-type organisations. “The Islamic Front and like-minded Salafi groups should be seen as an opportunity to counter Al Qaeda rather than a threat to Syria’s future,” he wrote in the National. “Additionally, it is worth mentioning that rank-and-file fighters are not completely in sync with their leaders in terms of ideology, including members of Jabhat Al Nusra.”
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