Last week, Human Rights Watch confirmed that armed rebel groups in Eastern Ghouta, a suburb to the east of Damascus, had captured people loyal to the Syrian government, including army soldiers and Alawite women, and paraded them around in metal cages on trucks in order to deter the government from carrying out airstrikes in the area.
The rights group noted that the use of detained soldiers and civilians in this manner is a war crime, constituting hostage-taking and an outrage against the prisoners' personal dignity. "Nothing can justify caging people and intentionally putting them in harm's way, even if the purpose is to stop indiscriminate government attacks," said HRW's Middle East Director Nadim Houry, commenting on the loathsome spectacle.
Commenting on the affair, French daily newspaper Le Figaro asked Alain Rodier, a terrorism expert and retired French intelligence officer about who these thugs are, and what they're about.
Rodier, a senior fellow at the French Intelligence Research Center, explained that the Army of Islam "is a nationalist Salafi movement, which limits its fight to within Syria's borders, and not an 'internationalist' group, in contrast to Al-Qaeda (Jabhat al-Nusra) or ISIL." The group "is headed by Mohammad Zahran Allouche, a former member of the Free Syrian Army. This is the largest group of rebels in the suburbs of Damascus, particularly in Ghouta. The group is believed to have about 10,000 fighters, some of whom were released from Syrian prisons in 2011, when Bashar Assad was trying to show his openness to the opposition. The Army of Islam is supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar."
According to Rodier, the group had "refused to join a new coalition of rebels formed in Damascus in October called the Jund al-Malahim (the 'Soldiers of the Epics'). The latter group had absorbed the Jabhat al-Nusra Front (the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda), Ahrar al-Sham (the 'Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant') and the Ajnad al-Sham (the 'Islamic Union of the Soldiers of the Levant'). Upon its formation, the Jund al-Malahim declared that the Ummah (community of believers) had been subjected to a 'violent attack' in the Levant and beyond, with 'the Russians joining in, having gone along the footsteps of the apostates, the crusaders and their allies'."
Hundreds of Islamist Groups Operating in Syria
Commenting on the connections between the various Islamist groups operating in Syria, and their common cause against Assad, Rodier noted that the reality is that there are literally "hundreds of groups, but in most cases they are very small, operating in a single village, quarter, or some other small area. Their goals are essentially local."
"The situation is [further] complicated," the expert explained, "by the fact that several groups can claim the same name simultaneously, and others are periodically renamed. Finally, their members can move from one organization to another, or may even be part of several at the same time. Therefore, determining their precise affiliation can actually be extremely difficult."
"Put more simply," the terrorism expert noted, "in addition to the special case of the Islamic State, there are several coalitions fighting on different fronts in Syria."
These, in Rodier's words, include the Jaish al-Fateh (the Army of Conquest) an umbrella organization which has 30,000 fighters, including Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and five other movements. "This coalition took Idlib [northwestern Syria] in the spring of 2015, and is a threat to Latakia to the southwest, to Aleppo in the northeast and to Hama in the south. The group threatened to destabilize the Syrian government, forcing Russia to start its intervention in September. It is worth noting that in Aleppo (also in the northwest), there exists another coalition, consisting of 13 groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. As we have already noted, a single group can often be found in several coalitions simultaneously. The Jaish al-Fateh has rear bases in Turkey, and enjoys the secret support of a number of Gulf States."
As far as Damascus is concerned, the expert reiterated that its suburbs are populated primarily by the Army of Islam, adding that "ISIL has also sent its fighters to the area."
In Daraa, in the country's south, bordering Jordan, "the opposition has formed the 'Southern Front' coalition, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Majid al-Sayyid Ahmad. The fighters of the FSA have joined together with the Yarmuk brigade (one of over 50 groups in the coalition). Southern Front is supported by Jordan, the US and Saudi Arabia."
The intelligence expert noted that generally, "all of these groups get along with one another, even though financial disputes may arise here and there, especially on the division of funding by patrons from the Persian Gulf."
In addition to these groups, Rodier pointed to the special case of the Kurds, "who hold part of the Syrian-Turkish border. They have also formed a coalition – the 'Syrian Democratic Forces', out of the Kurdish self-defense groups, including the armed movement of the Democratic Union party (which maintains close links with the Kurdistan Workers Party) and various Arab and Syrian forces."
"It is worth noting," the expert recalled, "that these forces have never entered into a confrontation with Assad's forces, who withdrew from the Kurdish areas in 2011-2012. When the US says that they want Raqqa [ISIL's Syrian capital] to be taken by the opposition, they mean the Kurdish coalition. The only problem here is that the Kurds are interested not so much in a push to the south (to Raqqa) as they are in a push to the west, through the Euphrates, west from Kobani, to join up their territories in the Rojava [Syrian Kurdistan]. But the Turks do not see things that way, and the Turkish army has even fired a few warning shots in the direction of Kurdish forces."
Radier noted that "the Kurds do not usually fight with other insurgent groups, except for a few clashes with Jabhat al-Nusra. At the same time, they are in an open war with ISIL, and will not tolerate those who swore their allegiance to ISIL's Calipha al-Baghdadi."
Smaller Jihadi Groups Have No Long-Term Strategy
According to the expert, apart from the big players, including ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra, none of the other anti-Assad rebel groups really have a clear long-term strategy, "seeming to have at best short-term plans. Above all, they seek to preserve their autonomy at the local level, or to slightly expand their territories."