BEIRUT — The largest coalition of Islamist rebels in Syria issued a manifesto over the weekend that calls for the increasingly fractious rebels to unite around the notion of liberating the country from the government of President Bashar Assad and installing a free state that will protect the rights of religious minorities, not an Islamist state.
The position spelled out in the statement, titled the “Revolutionary Manifesto of the Islamic Front,” marked a reversal of a policy articulated last year that called for creating an Islamist state after the defeat of Assad. Analysts and observers agreed that the statement seemed directed at the international community, particularly the United States, which has been reluctant to support widespread military aid for the rebels over concerns about radicalism.
The statement, which was released as an audio posting on jihadi websites, was said to have the support of the Islamic Front’s leadership, including Hassan Abboud, the leader of a conservative militant group, Ahrar al Sham, whose founders included members of al Qaida and which previously had espoused developing an Islamic emirate as a predecessor to the return of a caliphate to rule all Muslim lands. Ahrar al Sham is thought to be the largest group in the Islamic Front.
The statement was immediately attacked by the most radical groups in the anti-Assad movement, al Qaida’s Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an al Qaida-inspired group that’s broken with al Qaida over tactics in Syria. Analysts said the denunciation of the statement by Nusra and ISIS lent it credibility as a sincere policy position.
The manifesto “seems sincere considering the rabid response against it by (Nusra) and its supporters/sympathetic ideologues,” said Aaron Zelin, who studies radical Islamist groups as a fellow at the Institute for Near East Policy in Washington.
Whether it will influence the Obama administration’s reluctance to authorize aid for the Islamic Front remains to be seen. Zelin acknowledged that Ahrar al Sham’s acquiescence to the new position was “weird,” considering the group’s al Qaida connections.
Nusra, perhaps the rebel group closest to Ahrar al Sham, didn’t release an official statement. But its supporters took to the Internet to denounce the move as a betrayal of core jihadist principles. ISIS members openly mocked the notion that any group other than it can be trusted to pursue jihadist ambitions.
“In case you haven’t noticed,” wrote one pro-ISIS activist on Twitter, using the handle ShamiWitness, “both IF-FSA and Assad are on same side: The degenerate nation-state. Both fighting for this carcass of the past.” IF-FSA was a reference to the Islamic Front and the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army rebel coalition.
The new statement said that while the Islamic Front pursued a revolution based on its religion, it was “staying away from fundamentalism and radicalism.”
The document acknowledged the different religious and political compositions of the rebel movement, which includes secular activists as well as battle-hardened foreign jihadis. It said it would cooperate with any movements or foreign supporters but that military decisions must remain solely in the hands of Syrian fighters _ a seeming rejection of the foreign components of not only ISIS but also the Nusra Front, which continues to have a substantial foreign presence.
“The Syrian revolution . . . is based on morals and values with the objective of achieving freedom, justice and security to the entire Syrian society with its diverse multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian social fabric,” the statement says. “The Syrian people aim to establish a state of law, freedom and justice without any pressure or dictations.”
Whether the manifesto will strengthen or weaken the Islamic Front remains to be seen. Zelin noted that since massive infighting between ISIS and the other Syrian rebel groups began in January, the Islamic Front appears to have lost members to Nusra and ISIS. He suggested the statement might be in response to pressure from Saudi Arabia and the United States for a show of moderation before aid flows increase.
“I think a lot of this may be as a result of coercion from state donors, especially now that IF/Ahrar are indeed not as powerful, relatively speaking, as earlier in the year,” Zelin said.
Another analyst, Aymenn al Tamimi, who studies Iraqi and Syrian jihadist groups for the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, agreed that Ahrar al Sham may be moving toward a more moderate stance to attract donors.
But Tamimi also noted that Ahrar al Sham’s roots are in al Qaida.
“I am waiting for the moment when Hassan Abboud removes his Twitter avatar of Abu Khalid al Suri,” he said, referring to an associate of Osama bin Laden who was assassinated earlier this year in Syria.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.