Syria's Islamists unite to form Islamic Front alliance

Photo: AFP

Islamist groups fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and replace it with an Islamic state joined forces on Friday to form Syria’s largest rebel alliance, the new Islamic Front announced in a statement.


Islamist groups fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and replace it with an Islamic state joined forces on Friday to form Syria’s largest rebel alliance, the new group announced in a statement.

"The Islamic Front is an independent military and social force that is aimed at bringing down Assad's regime in Syria and at replacing it with a just Islamic state," said a statement released by the group.

A rebel spokesman, Abu Firas, earlier declared "the complete merger of the major military factions fighting in Syria".

The merger of at least six separate Islamist groups comes after repeated calls for unity from opposition fighters and their foreign backers, and international frustration over a lack of solidarity among rebel groups.

But the new alliance threatens to undermine the leadership of the mainstream Free Syrian Army, which has lost credibility over its inability to secure arms demanded by its fighters.

Among those joining the new coalition are Aleppo's biggest fighting force Liwa al-Tawhid (Tawhid Brigade), the Salafist group Ahrar al-Sham, Suqour al-Sham, al-Haq Brigades, Ansar al-Sham and the Islamic Army, which is centred around Damascus. The Kurdish Islamic Front also reportedly joined the alliance.

The groups are seen as not being as hard-line as the al Qaeda-linked rebels of al Nusra Front or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which also operate in Syria.

Speaking to AFP via the Internet from the northern province of Aleppo, Firas said the Islamic Front, which unites tens of thousands of rebels, would have "one policy and one military command".

Aron Lund, an expert on the Syrian conflict and a Middle Eastern affairs analyst, described as significant the new coalition of mainstream and hard-line Islamists, excluding any al Qaeda factions.

"It's something that could be very important if it holds up," Lund told AFP.

The Islamic Front's formation was a response to both regime advances and the "aggressive posture" of jihadists against other rebels, he said, adding: "I assume there's a good deal of foreign involvement as well."

"There's been a lot of talk about how Saudi [Arabia] and the Gulf have been pushing to unify the rebels," he said.

The move came days after the death of Liwa al-Tawhid's charismatic military chief Abdel Qader Saleh, who had called for unity.

Bad news for Assad, al Qaeda

Firas said "the doors are open to all the military factions, and a committee is working to study the entrance of all groups that also want to join".

"It has been decided that all the factions' military, media, humanitarian and administrative offices will merge over a transitional period of three months," he added.

Saleh died from his wounds Monday, after an air strike on a building in Aleppo where he and other faction leaders had been meeting.

Activists welcomed the merger as "bad news" both for Assad and al Qaeda-linked ISIL, which has fought against rebel brigades in opposition-held areas, including some rival Islamists.

"The news will terrorise the regime and ISIL at the same time," said one activist group.

In the latest fighting, rebels, including jihadists, seized Deir Attiya on the Lebanese border, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The majority Christian town in the Qalamoun area north of Damascus is on a strategic route linking the capital to Homs in central Syria. It was seized by ISIL and al Nusra Front as well as other Islamist groups, the Observatory said.

Three days earlier, the Syrian army took nearby Qara, which had been under opposition control for months.

Regime warplanes staged 16 air strikes on Qalamoun on Friday, the Observatory said.

More than 120,000 people have died in Syria's war, which erupted after Assad's regime launched a crackdown on pro-democracy protests, sparking a brutal insurgency.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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