The Rise of the Army of Islam – Liwa al-Islam and the Salafi Movement in Syria


By joining with 50 brigades across Syria and forming the umbrella army “Jaish al-Islam” (the Army of Islam), Liwaa al-Islam (LAI) have become a force to be reckoned with, as powerful or more-so than heavy-hitters like Harakat Ahrar al-Sham or al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra. Liwaa al-Islam’s character is conservative Salafi, but they are also one of the most willing to express the desire to reconcile with the Syrian population at large, even those serving in the Assad regime (those who “do not have blood on their hands”). This should serve (is likely designed to serve) to reassure anyone in fear of an uprooting of the Syrian state in the eventuality of the Assad regime’s overthrow, and the chaos that will result.

Although many of these supposed new-comers were already fighting with Liwaa al-Islam, and some of the brigades seem to have been created (or invented) on the spot, the declaration of an “army of Islam” has significant implications on its own; it shows that the consistently frayed web of Syrian rebel groups has been stretched between three poles; the Salafis supported by Gulf Arab donors (primarily, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait), the secular Free Syrian Army with supplies coming from the Saudi and Qatari governments themselves (and, in much smaller part, from the USA and France), and the Jihadi-Salafis of al Nusra Front and Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, whose supporters remain mostly anonymous, the most likely candidate being wealthy donors from Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. But with ISIS making new enemies every week, the “moderate” Salafis have seized the opportunity to co-opt the Salafi-friendly demographics.

liwaa al islam
The religious inclinations of Syrians, so long crushed under threat of death by a repressive “secular” government, (in reality, a semi-sectarian/ethnic minority military-civilian dictatorship) have returned with a vengeance. A Liwaa al-Islam member expressed to me that the formation of the Army of Islam was “our dream coming true”. The future of Syria will have to be reconciled with the Islam practiced by these Salafi-minded Sunnis. The question remains as to how ready these Salafi Syrians are ready to reconcile themselves with a population that includes secular liberals and leftists, atheists, Christians, Alawites and Shi’a.

This unification comes after nearly three years of struggle against the Assad regime, during which Liwaa al-Islam has scored a number of major victories: a bomb attack on the regime’s “crisis cell” which killed a handful of the main decision-makers behind the regime’s campaign of repression, the use of highly-advanced anti-aircraft missiles against regime aircraft (as noted in this blog) and two events which demonstrated the potency of this force: the vigorous defense of the Ghouta neighborhoods in Damascus, and an August assassination attempt on the presidential convoy. Rumors were circulating in Syria that the August 21 Sarin nerve-gas attack on Liwaa al-Islam‘s home neighborhoods in the the Ghouta, which provoked world-wide condemnation as well as conspiracy theories, was at least partly executed in retaliation for this attempt on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s life, when his motorcade was struck by several mortar rounds, reportedly injuring a number of those in the vehicles but missing Assad. Liwaa al-Islam‘s YouTube page has showcased a technique they termed “mortar sniping”, which is the tactic of targeting enemy positions with one or a few extremely well-aimed mortar rounds, often using Google Earth and a tablet or laptop computer to align the mortar tube.

Having twice struck at the heart of the Assad regime, Liwaa al-Islam demonstrated not only their access to good intelligence, but strategic forethought and the ability to project their power into regime-held areas. It should come as little surprise that they have been able to recruit a large number of smaller brigades into their command structure. Jaish al-Islam is not a loose collection of groups like the Islamic Alliance, but a true unification under a single commander, founder of Liwaa al-Islam, Sheikh Zahran Abdulluh Alloush, whose father, Muhammad, and brother are prominent Salafi clerics living in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).

The KSA is known among Syrians to be the backer of Liwaa al-Islam, and this close relationship could explain LAI’s ability to obtain and use key intelligence to strike at the highest echelons of the Assad regime’s power-structure. As a brigade, LAI represented a clear and present threat to the regime’s existence. But now as the Army of Islam, they are seeking to represent something even more dangerous to the Assad clique: a credible governing alternative to the existing regime. But their relations with the grassroots revolutionaries (those who started this revolution, including the Local Coordinating Committees)  are questionable. Sheikh Zahran’s twitter feed has been criticized to me by young Syrian activists in terms such as “absurd” and “embarrassing” for its broad appeals to Islamic chauvanism.

The Army of Islam may have been a second choice for their backers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. By threatening action, and then backing down, United States empowered Syria’s Islamists in a stroke. This was the final discrediting of American president Obama’s Syria policy, and a mortal injury to Syria’s secular opposition. And so the Kingdom activated Plan ‘B’. Now, any one of the three largest Islamist militias; Jabhat al Nusra, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham (‘Movement of the Free Men of Syria’), and now Jaish al-Islam, can match the Free Syrian Army in men, weapons and credibility among Syrians. And from Jabhat al-Nusra to the moderates, the announcement of the Army of Islam was greeted with applause from a great plurality of Syrian rebels, even those that could be called rivals. The winds are blowing the way of Islam, and we are seeing an attempt by many parties to occupy the ground of, and co-opt the rising popularity of Islamic ideology and style. This is befitting of a nation whose modern power structures have collapsed in on top of the people.

Days before the announcement of the Army of Islam, a looser collection of Syria’s main opposition groups, including Liwaa al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham, and Jabhat al-Nusra, signed on to the ‘Islamic Alliance’, declaring their desire for an Islamic state, whose legislation is exclusively based on Shari’a law. The outlier in this picture, excluded from this big Salafi group-hug, is the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham’ (ISIS), the more vicious and divisive of two al Qaeda franchises in Syria. The announcement of the Islamic Alliance came after weeks of tense and sometimes violent confrontations with other rebel groups, even those like Jabhat al-Nusra with similar ideologies. So their exclusion is likely to be intentional. The fact that this development comes so late is instructive; it follows several (perhaps a dozen or more) chemical attacks by the Assad regime, the abdication of America’s declared responsibilities, and these cases of fighting between, on one side, “moderate” Salafis/the secular Free Syrian Army, and on the other, the ISIS, jihadis who consider the Syrian revolution not a demand for democracy, but a continuation of their struggle against “infidels” and the unquestionable goal of a pan-Arab Caliphate (Khalifa) (Bashar al-Assad is an infidel, but so are the Shi’a (and Alawites) of Syria.) In Iraq, the holy war of the jihadis was a driving force behind the bloody internecine chaos between Iraq’s sects that followed the American invasion and failed occupation, which was only brought under control by an all-out counter-terrorist bloodbath by Stanley McCrystal’s Special Forces, and the “Sahwa”/Awakening movement, former Sunni insurgents that were paid and backed up by the US Coalition. The chances that this will happen in Syria are small. Any Awakening will have to challenge ISIS on their own terms. Unless they leave voluntarily, the Islamic State is likely there to stay.

These two events (the forming of a loose coalition between moderate Salafis and Salafi-Jihadists, and the unification of a “moderate” Salafi Army) need to be examined together. The new Army of Islam, in small or large part, is defined by its Saudi sponsorship. Sheikh Zahran, in public, vehement denies that he is controlled from outside Syria, and he is probably not lying. But the influence is clear. Strong distinctions exist between Salafis and Salafi-Jihadis. The Salafism of the Saudi royal family is clearly a different beast than the nihilistic ultra-violence of al Qaeda. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham falls well within the latter, and Jabhat al-Nusra members occupy both camps. The main point of importance to understand is that Syrian rebel fighters’ membership and loyalty is often fluid; one man might hold membership, even active membership, in more than one brigade or battalion, depending on who can pay them and supply ammunition and other resources. With supply issues a constant limiting factor on the Syrian battlefield, even for well-connected forces like Liwaa al-Islam, the ability to consistently pay, equip and supply large numbers of fighters over long periods of time is the main element in a group’s credibility with rebel fighters. This is why, after almost three years of fighting, the process of organization is still ongoing.

The roots of Liwa al-Islam‘s success might be more understandable when we know that Sheikh Adnan Ar’our, early and vocal supporter of the Syrian uprising, is close to Liwaa al-Islam and is point-man for one of the most lucrative channels of cash donations to the Salafi rebel cause.

Amid questions about the legitimacy of the Jihadis’ commitment to the final overthrow of the Assad regime, we must ask the question: Who benefits from the continuation of the regime? The Jihadis keep open oil pipelines to the regime from their new Emirates in the north. The Free Syrian Army is unable to fight a battle on two fronts and so cannot respond to the provocations of the Islamic State, like the murder of a Supreme Military Council member in Deir az-Zour; the people of Syria, sick to death of tyranny, must hold their tongues while foreigners make a new Afghanistan in their backyards, for fear of a rebel collapse and regime revenge. And all the while, rumors follow the Jihadis regarding their former alliance with the Assad regime, and the widely-believed story of Assad releasing dozens, even hundreds, of Jihadis from Saidnaya Prison a few months after the revolution began. The presence of al Qaeda was a lynch-pin of Assad’s justification for his brutal crackdown on what was a mostly peaceful, democracy-friendly uprising.

Democracy is antithetical to groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. But what about the new Army of Islam? The question asked by most Syrians of Liwaa al-Islam, and now the Army of Islam, is, democracy or Khalifa? A secular state or a theocracy? Elections or Shura? Sheikh Zahran addressed this when he spoke to The Independent on the topic of the Egyptian military coup this summer; “Secularism has shown its ugly face to those who were blind, and the mask of democracy has fallen in the struggle between right and wrong,” said Sheikh Zahran. “As the mujahedeen leaders say, we chose ammunition boxes over ballot boxes.”

~ by Red Lines editor Marcus Henry Weber

footnotes: — Liwa al-Islam uses captured Russian air-defense system — Mortar strike on Assad presidential convoy. — Syrian rebels use Google Earth-directed mortar. — Quote from Sheikh Zahran re: secularism. — [We are not too worried about Jabhat al-Nusra,” said one Free Syrian Army -affiliated officer in the eastern governorate of Deir Ezzor who said he worked in intelligence operations. “Once the fighting ends, we’ll bring them back. We know them. They’re our brothers, cousins, and neighbors — they’re the sons of our tribes. Our true struggle will be against (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) and the Nusra leaders.”]


5 thoughts on “The Rise of the Army of Islam – Liwa al-Islam and the Salafi Movement in Syria

  1. Pingback: Courting Disaster: The Campaign to Topple Ahmad Jarba | Democratic Revolution, Syrian Style

  2. Pingback: تحرير سوري | Courting Disaster: The campaign to topple Ahmad Jarba

  3. Pingback: The Syrian Revolution Is a Class War | الثورة الديمقراطية، الطراز السوري Democratic Revolution, Syrian Style

  4. Pingback: The Syrian Revolution Is a Class War | notgeorgesabra archive

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s