The formation of the Army of Islam in Syria on September 29, 2013, signifies the ongoing trend of the Islamization of the struggle against Bashar Assad’s Alawite regime in Syria. Forty-three combat organizations have joined together to establish the Army of Islam under the command of Sheikh Zahran Alush, and they were soon joined by seven additional organizations.
The immediate purpose of creating the Army of Islam (at first, the name “Army of Muhammad” was considered) was to unite the fighting forces under a single command to enable coordination of the military campaign and administration of manpower, weapons, and ammunition.
Beyond the tactical aspects, this move is intended to build up a central military force in anticipation of shaping a new Syria once the Assad regime falls. At present, the rebel forces control extensive parts of the country, holding positions that threaten the capital, Damascus, and the Alawite enclaves in the west. The rebels believe the fate of the Assad regime is sealed and his rule will come to an end sooner or later, whether or not there is military intervention by the West.
The entrenchment of rebel rule in broad swaths of Syria, particularly in the north in Aleppo Province, in Deir al-Zour to the east, and in Daraa to the south, makes it all the more important to craft an ideological platform for the struggle. The rebels have no love for the National Coalition, which won international recognition as the representative of the Syrian people. They view it as an external body that was imposed upon them that does not deserve trust, given its willingness to take part in negotiations on the future of Syria (a Geneva II conference being on the agenda), under conditions they regard as entailing excessive concessions by the uprising.
On September 24, some of the main rebel organizations announced their departure from the National Coalition. They were joined by senior officers of the Free Syrian Army, who also officially proclaimed that they reject the authority of the overall commander, Salim Idris.
The Islamic organizations that are associated with al-Qaeda, with Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham at the forefront, constitute an independent and powerful military force that does not accept the authority of the exile leadership. These groups are already acting to implement the radical Islamist agenda in liberated territories within Syria.
In areas under its control, Jabhat al-Nusra has announced the establishment of an Islamic state and the founding of a Sharia court, while beginning to apply Islamic law. At the same time, the organization is acting to build public support, including for its ideological platform, by providing assistance to the population. Its activities include supplying food, repairing electrical systems that had collapsed, setting up a local police force to maintain law and order, investing in Islamic study groups for children and teenagers, and mounting public relations campaigns.
Jabhat al-Nusra’s independent activity has led to severe clashes with Kurdish groups, which fear radical Islam and insist on maintaining their autonomy in northern Syria. Scores on both sides have been killed in the violence.
Another significant force in the rebel camp is the Authority for the Protection of the Citizens, which is actually a military organization associated with the military arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. After over three decades in exile, this organization officially returned to the country several months ago, seeking to play a leading role when the “day after” arrives.
The Army of Islam, for its part, is trying to take the helm of the rebels and entrench the power of the local leadership (and not the exile leadership) as the exclusive representative of the Syrian people vis-a-vis the international community. The leadership of the Army of Islam sees all the combat organizations, including those associated with al-Qaeda, as partners in jihad and does not rule out a possible alliance with them. At present, the Army of Islam’s leadership is trying to put together an ideological platform that will set forth its vision for the future of Syria.
Syria is becoming more and more Islamic as it moves between the pole of the Muslim Brotherhood, which aims to gradually implement Sharia law, and that of Jabhat al-Nusra, which is already implementing and enforcing it. At present, there are no indications in the rebel camp of organizations that have what the West might view as a liberal-democratic ideology. The opposition organizations’ competition over positions of influence will likely escalate to violent clashes once the Assad regime falls, and could well drag Syria into a further stage of civil war until a stable central government emerges.