BEIRUT — Seven Syrian Islamist rebel groups announced Friday that they’d combine operations in the face of a fierce offensive by troops loyal to President Bashar Assad, a move that would turn the disparate groups into the largest anti-Assad faction.
The groups said their new affiliation would be called the Islamic Front and would aim to replace Assad’s government with an Islamic state.
Two of the anti-Assad movement’s most effective forces, the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, both of which are al Qaida affiliates, weren’t named as part of the new coalition. But the new grouping left the door open to cooperating with them.
“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,” the groups said in a statement.
The Islamic Front would be composed of the largest rebel fighting force in the north, Liwa Tawhid, and the most powerful faction fighting in Damascus, Jaysh Islam. The other groups that agreed to the new unit are Ahrar al Sham, Liwa al Haq, Ansar al Sham and Suqour al Sham, as well as a smaller Kurdish group, the Kurdish Islamic Front.
In an interview with the Al Jazeera satellite news channel, an official from the new group said the negotiations to form the new command had taken seven months.
Amad Essa al Sheikh, the head of the Consultative Council of the new Islamic Front, said the goal of integrating the factions was to bring about “a paradigm shift in the armed rebellion by closing ranks and mobilizing them to become the real alternative to the dying regime.”
It was the second major reorganization of the rebels, and it seemed to cement the end of the role of the U.S.-backed Supreme Military Council as the primary coordinator of rebel factions. In September, some of the same groups announced that they’d no longer recognize the authority of either the Supreme Military Council or the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the civilian umbrella group that the United States and other Western countries have recognized as the legitimate Assad opposition.
Friday’s announcement also left out some of the major moderate rebel factions, such as the Farouk Brigade, which was once one of the most powerful anti-Assad groups.
Creation of the Islamic Front had been widely expected after Assad’s forces scored a string of victories in the north and around Damascus amid allegations of betrayal and infighting among the rebels. That fighting was particularly pronounced between Farouk and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, though it also pitted the Islamic State against Liwa Tawhid in Aleppo.
“They want a revolution and not politics and foreign agendas,” another official, Ahmed Musa, told Al Jazeera.
The move also was spurred by the death of one of the rebels’ most effective commanders in Aleppo, Liwa Tawhid’s Abdul-Qadir Saleh, in a regime airstrike that many of his followers suspected was the result of betrayal by other rebel groups.
Ahmed Issa al Sheikh, the commander of Suqour al Sham, a group whose fighters are primarily Salafists, followers of a conservative style of Islam, will head the Islamic Front after a three-month transition, the group announced.
The new military commander will be Zahran Alloush, who last month helped consolidate most of the rebel groups fighting in Damascus into a single command, Jaysh Islam.
“This is an extremely significant development, both in terms of symbolism and the military effect it will likely have on the ground,” said Charles Lister of IHS Jane’s, a defense consultancy. “The most militarily powerful Islamist rebel groups have effectively united their forces under a front intended specifically to be representative of the on-the-ground realities.”
Lister estimated that combining the groups would create a force of at least 45,000.
In other statements, several other factions said they’d work with any group that was intent on removing the Assad regime and replacing it with Islamic rule, a clear indication of a willingness to work with the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
“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,” Liwa Tawhid spokesman Abu Firas told the Agence France-Presse news agency.
Lister said the new command’s most significant impact might be to streamline fundraising to equip the rebel movement.
“What’s perhaps most important looking forward is how this may unite tens of thousands of Islamist rebel fighters under a single or at least a consolidated financial backing structure,” he said. “Several Gulf states have been identified as having maintained close relations with the groups involved today, most notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Uniting under one single banner should always result in more effective military action on the ground, but with a consolidation of external backing, the formation of this new front should prove a landmark moment for the revolution.”
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero