Antakya, Asharq Al-Awsat—Following weeks of preparations, seven major Islamist rebel groups fighting against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria announced a merger on Friday. The new Islamist coalition is set to be called the Islamic Front.
A statement posted online confirmed that the Islamic Front will comprise at least seven rebel groups: Liwa Al-Tawhid, Ahrar Al-Sham, Soqour Al-Sham, the Al-Haq Brigades, Ansar Al-Sham, the Army of Islam, and the Kurdish Islamic Front. Observers believe that following this merger, the Islamic Front will be one of the largest and strongest opposition groups on the ground.
However, the exclusion of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) represents an important change within Syria’s shifting Islamist and rebel alliances. Both hardline groups have clashed with other rebel forces, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other Islamist groups.
The Islamic Front has confirmed that it will seek to establish an Islamic state in Syria, adding that it will be an “independent political, military and social formation” seeking to topple the Assad regime.
Army of Islam commander Zahran Alloush has been announced as the Islamic Front’s military commander. Hassan Aboud, a Salafist rebel who was formerly imprisoned in Assad’s infamous Sednaya Prison, has been chosen to head the coalition’s political council. Ahmed Issa Al-Sheikh, leader of the Soqour Al-Sham Brigade, was announced as head of the Islamic Front’s Shura Council, with Western and international press describing him as the coalition’s overall leader.
In a video recording posted online, Ahmed Issa Al-Sheikh announced that the coalition aims to establish an Islamic state and bring down the Assad regime.
The merger came days after a key Syrian rebel leader and head of Liwa Al-Tawhid, Abdul-Qadir Saleh, was killed in a government air strike on a rebel-held air base near Aleppo. Activists said that Saleh had been set to lead the new Islamist coalition.
Media reports said that Sheikh had been appointed in his place. The Soqour Al-Sham leader previously commanded the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, a coalition of Islamist factions aligned to the FSA’s Supreme Military Council.
Earlier this week, ISIS urged jihadist groups in Syria to join its project to establish an Islamic caliphate in the country.
In exclusive comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, a spokesman for Liwa Al-Tawhid, Abu Firas Al-Halabi, said the announcement of the establishment of the Islamic Front was initially scheduled to be made last Sunday but had been delayed due to Saleh’s death.
“All the military, relief, media and administrative organizations will be united within three months in order to reach complete integration,” Halabi said. He added that the Islamic Front had invited all Islamist rebel forces except ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front to join.
A senior leader from the Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade, which is active in the Aleppo and Idlib governorates, denied receiving an invitation to join the Islamic Front.
“We wish them luck. But they formed the organization, then they asked us to join. A prior coordination should have been made with us,” Mousa Hamido told Asharq Al-Awsat.
The member groups of the Islamic Front reportedly held several meetings in Turkey earlier this month in which they expressed their objection to the Geneva II talks with the Syrian government expected to take place in mid-December.