The New Power On The Ground In Syria

Islamist commanders like Zahran Alloush now dominate the Syrian rebellion — will they work with Washington?

ISTANBUL — One former inmate of Sednaya prison, a notorious compound north of Damascus, still remembers its floors. The prisoners' quarters weren't heated in winter, and guards sometimes made him sleep on the ground in the icy corridors. This was one of the prison's lesser torments, but it left a lasting memory. "Right on the floor, for three or four days at a time," he recalled. "It's freezing cold."

Sednaya is part of a network of prisons across Syria that house and abuse dissidents — one link in what Human Rights Watch has called a "torture archipelago" in the country. The prison is known to house Islamists, like the former inmate, who asked not to be named. More than two years after his release, he said, "memories of it still come to me" — the hunger, the overcrowded cells. Being tortured was "a matter of luck," subject to the whims of the guards. But there was a silver lining, he said. "The one benefit was to get to know Zahran Alloush up close."

Alloush, the son of a prominent Syrian sheikh based in Saudi Arabia, was arrested in 2009 during a countrywide campaign against Islamists and found himself in Sednaya. Like Islamist prisoners across Syria, both he and the former inmate were released in the summer of 2011 as part of a so-called amnesty package from a government shaken by mounting protests, which had broken out that spring. And like many of their newly freed counterparts, both men quickly joined the insurrection's fledgling armed wing. The former inmate is now a fighter with Ahrar Al-Sham, one of the most powerful groups in the rebellion and also among its most Islamist, founded by former inmates of Sednaya.

Alloush, meanwhile, has become one of the most influential rebels in Syria, with a fighting force that rivals Ahrar Al-Sham's as the opposition's largest, and an increasingly outsize reputation — for his skill as a commander and also his religiosity.

As the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) loses ground, Islamist groups like Alloush's are surging — making the case inside Syria and abroad that they are the new power center on the ground. Alloush's group, called the Army of Islam, is "probably the strongest fighting force in the rebellion right now," said Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "And they're known for being good on the battlefield."

Based in the Damascus suburbs, the Army of Islam has made its name by succeeding in one of Syria's toughest fronts. It also builds its brand with an intensive media campaign, with YouTube propaganda videos, regular updates on Twitter and Facebook, and even an English-language webpage. Much of it is focused on promoting Alloush. "He seems to want the attention," Zelin said. "He likes being out there."

Before his 2009 arrest for Islamic activism, Alloush, a sheikh like his father, was reportedly a honey trader in Douma, just outside Damascus. The suburb is known for its conservatism, and is now a rebel stronghold, making it a constant target of the regime. The former Sednaya inmate, speaking from Syria over Skype, remembered Alloush as extremely pious and avidly involved in the prison's religious life — someone who made a lasting mark on his fellow inmates. "Sheikh Zahran was meant to be a leader. That was my first impression," he said.

Alloush, he said, talked often about the Syrian uprising, which started as a peaceful protest movement. But the sheikh was quick to warn: "This regime will not be brought to its knees except by force."

Alloush is believed to be backed by Saudi Arabia, helping to account for his prominence. He was a key player behind last month's formation of the Islamic Front, a rebel coalition that instantly became Syria's largest — taking over the mantle from the FSA. He is its head of military operations, a position that "seems to make him the strongest man in rebel-held Syria," said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University.

The U.S. has long promoted the FSA as Syria's main rebel force, but has provided only sparing assistance, limited mainly to non-lethal aid like satellite phones and medical supplies. The FSA has received much of its support from U.S. allies, namely Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. A strong FSA was important to U.S. efforts to push a political solution on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at a peace conference in Geneva next month.

Now, the FSA has withered as its leaders call for more meaningful military assistance. Islamist rebels, including two groups tied to al-Qaeda, have eaten into its territory and pulled fighters from its ranks. Late last month, the Islamic Front sounded what some analysts and rebels alike considered the death knell for the FSA, overtaking its main bases and warehouses near a critical border crossing into Turkey. The takeover forced the U.S. to suspend its aid deliveries into northern Syria over concerns that the supplies would end up with the Islamic Front.

The turn of events seemed to catch the U.S. off guard, and it sparked warnings that its influence is fading inside Syria. Some in the Syrian opposition have suggested a potential remedy: a new, expanded rebel coalition that includes both the Islamic Front and the FSA. U.S. officials now appear to be considering this idea, saying that the U.S. is open to dealing with the Islamic Front. "The U.S. would not rule out the possibility of meeting with the Islamic Front," a spokesperson at the U.S. embassy in Ankara told BuzzFeed. "I would also note that the [FSA's political leadership] has begun reaching out to representatives of the Islamic Front, which is a step that we welcome as the opposition prepares for the Geneva II conference."

Foreign Policy first reported Washington's willingness to engage with the Islamic Front — despite its recent takeover of FSA facilities — on Monday.

But while the U.S. exerted considerable pull over the FSA — even vetting prospective battalions — analysts tracking the conflict say it will have a hard time influencing the Islamic Front.

The Islamic Front has said that it wants to build an Islamic State in Syria. It has also rejected the idea of negotiating with Assad, saying that anyone who does is a traitor. "They want to rule an Islamic state in terms of their interpretation of Sharia Law. They have no interest in a transition," said Zelin of the Washington Institute. "They want the destruction of the regime."

Of the Islamic Front's four most important leaders, three are hardline Islamists. Besides Alloush, there's Hassan Aboud, a former teacher and Sednaya inmate who heads Ahrar Al-Sham, and Ahmed Issa, who leads Suqour Al-Sham, another influential group based in the province of Idlib, bordering Turkey.

Those urging an open-minded approach to the Islamic Front point out that until recently many of its key groups either were part of the FSA — such as Suqour Al-Sham — or coordinated with the FSA, such as the Army of Islam and Ahrar Al-Sham. "They're not completely new players on the ground, and it's not like they came from the outside with a completely radical agenda and ideas that are unworkable," a Turkish official told BuzzFeed last week. The official was quick to stress Turkey's commitment to the FSA.

Islamic Front fighters have worked alongside groups linked to al-Qaeda, but these groups were left out of the alliance, an effort by the Islamic Front to distance itself from the extremists. Some analysts believe that a strong Islamic Front may be able to counter al-Qaeda's growing influence in Syria better than the struggling FSA could have done — in effect, tapping into the rebellion's rising religiosity and diverting that momentum from the al-Qaeda groups, while at the same time forming a counterweight to them.

Alloush's brigade has long "occupied this strange middle ground" between the extremist groups and more moderate rebels, careful to avoid major confrontation with either side, said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute. "That right-of-center Salafi space is now at the core of the Islamic Front."

Boosting these Salafi groups at the expense of al-Qaeda appeared to be the calculation made by Saudi Arabia, believed to be a driving force behind the Islamic Front's formation, Tabler said. "They wanted to do two things: One was to strengthen the opposition to Assad, and the other was to get them to back away from the extremists," Tabler said. "They just don't want the [Al-Qaeda groups] to come to power. It's a subtle difference [between them and the Islamic Front]. But it's a difference."

Some analysts tracking the conflict see the Islamic Front's rise as evidence of the growing rift between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, which is angry over America's inaction in Syria and also its rapprochement with Iran. Yet while Alloush's alleged ties to Saudi Arabia are well publicized — improbably, he has denied receiving funding from anyone — many of the Islamic Front's key groups are backed by Qatar, Saudi Arabia's rival for influence inside the rebellion. "On the one hand you have the funding networks [from] all the states and governments and private networks, and then on the other hand you have all these personal contacts between rebel leaders. And most of those are impenetrable," said Aron Lund, editor of the Carnegie Endowment's Syria in Crisis website. "I'm sure there are a few groups that respond very well to instruction, [but] there are many others, especially the big groups, that are not so easily controlled."

The Islamic Front's rhetoric has fed into the turbo-charged language that is ratcheting up sectarian tensions in the war. Assad hails from the Alawite sect of Shiite Islam and is backed by Shiite allies such as Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah. The rebels are mostly Sunni Muslims and backed by the region's leading Sunni states.

Alloush is a particularly troubling offender on this front. He "calls for cleansing Damascus of all Shiites and Alawites and of ridding it of their evil works and dirty remains, using Koranic language throughout to underline their impurity," Landis, the Syria expert at Oklahoma University, said.

Landis pointed to a propaganda video produced by Alloush this summer, which is infused with sectarian calls to arms. "They threaten a Shiite intifada, and we say that Shiite are still servile and small," Alloush said in the video. "Throughout history, Islam has destroyed the Shiite state repeatedly, and destroyed their skulls repeatedly, despite their noses, thanks to Allah."

The Army of Islam hasn't acted on Alloush's sectarian rhetoric, suggesting that these speeches might say more about the group's recruitment efforts than its on-the-ground policy. But the language shows "how demonized the Alawites are in the propaganda of the new Islamic Front," Landis said. "The regime treats the opposition in the same sort of extreme language, calling them terrorists, takfiris, and al-Qaeda who are not true Syrians."

The Islamic Front confines its ambitions to Syria, in contrast to al-Qaeda's global aims. But "both idealize Islamic Empire," Landis wrote in a recent blog post. "[B]oth reject democracy and embrace what they call Sharia, both welcome [foreign] jihadis [and] both fly the black flag of Islam rather than the Syrian flag as their predominant emblem."

Islam Alloush, the spokesman for the Army of Islam, is also the military spokesman for the Islamic Front. He said that foreign fighters were "welcome" in Syria. But he blamed their presence on "Western indifference to what's happening" there. "The United States is a major military power, meaning that they can do a lot," he said. "The fact that they have done nothing throughout the situation in Syria has allowed people from outside of the country to get involved."

"As Hassan Aboud"—who heads the Islamic Front's political office—"has said, we still haven't had any meeting with U.S. officials, and in the event that this happens, it will happen in public, and all Syrians will know about," he added. "We would welcome assistance—provided that it's not conditional to foreign agendas.

Islam Alloush also suggested a disconnect between the Islamic Front and Al-Qaeda groups. "We in the Islamic Front cannot speak for Al-Qaeda," he said. "We judge those fighting against Assad based on two pillars. The first pillar is fighting against the Assad regime based on sound military strategy. And the second pillar is whether or not these groups commit [human rights] violations."

"A lot of groups are committing violations," he added, refraining from mentioning Al-Qaeda by name.

He said that the Army of Islam and other groups were setting up courts in the areas under their control in order to "bring people to heel and get the situation under control."

Asked whether the Islamic Front would fight Al-Qaeda, he replied, "I can't answer a hypothetical question about the future."

Note: The original version of this article misquoted Islam Alloush, the spokesman of the Army of Islam and military spokesman of the Islamic Front. His responses to written questions were embellished by a translator. His quotations, based on an additional interview, have been amended in the text.

Alloush did not say that there was "no chance of [the Islamic Front] cooperating with the U.S. … We do not trust the U.S."

The following section has also been removed from the article:

The Islamic Front spokesman, who goes by the nickname Islam Alloush, holds the same position for the Army of Islam. In response to written questions, he said that the Islamic Front welcomed all fighters who oppose Assad, regardless of their ideology. Groups linked to al-Qaeda "will stay until this regime comes to an end," he said. "But they are not our friends, and neither are we cooperating with them militarily."

As long as Assad remains in power, he added, "the Islamic Front will avoid fighting" the al-Qaeda-linked groups. He didn't respond to questions about their future in Syria if Assad falls.

Islam Alloush blamed the U.S. for al-Qaeda's growing prominence in Syria. "The U.S. is directly responsible," he said, "because if the U.S. were really with the Syrian people and against Assad, it would help the rebels. It would make a no-fly zone, arm the rebels, and intervene as Obama said [when he talked] about chemical weapons and red lines."

He continued, "If they are going to supply the Islamic Front with help, then OK. But we will not succumb to the agendas of the West."