What does the establishment of a new judicial entity tell us about Nusra’s evolving disposition and its relationship with other rebel courts?

Left: the Dar al-Qada flag. Right: a Dar al-Qada facility on “the coast,” likely in Bidama or elsewhere in the Latakia countryside.

Left: the Dar al-Qada flag. Right: a Dar al-Qada facility on “the coast,” likely in Bidama or elsewhere in the Latakia countryside.

On Saturday, Sam Heller (@abujamajem) wrote a highly recommended post about a Jeish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar jurist’s rebuttal to criticisms from pro-Islamic State (IS) figures that salafi-jihadis in other areas have not sufficiently established Islamic governance. In it, Heller details how the jurist, Mu’tasim Billah al-Madani, points to a new judicial entity, the Jabhat al-Nusra-linked Dar al-Qada – roughly translated as simply “the judiciary” – as an example of how jihadists in non-IS-controlled territory are in fact living up to their credentials and applying a form of unadulterated Islamic law, particularly through implementation of the hudud, harsh punishments such as stoning.

But what is Dar al-Qada? Below we see the judicial body’s foundational statement, released last month, which offers some insight into Nusra’s developing interest in governance and how it views its relationship with other rebel courts and judicial commissions.

Dar al-Qada first appeared to outside observers in August 2014 when a video was posted showing Nusra members lashing a man accused of cursing religion. The video identified Dar al-Qada as the source of the ruling and came out a month after Nusra announced its withdrawal from the Aleppo Shari’a Commission, a joint body that it had previously backed with Islamic Front factions, to form its own judiciary.

Since then, Dar al-Qada has opened a number of branches in northern Syria in areas where Nusra is strong. While it appears that the body is mostly linked to Nusra, al-Madani’s defense of the organization shows that other salafi-jihadi groups have shifted their support to the new, more ideologically “pure” project and away from other courts linked to the Islamic Front and other more nationalist-oriented factions. The statement also reveals Nusra’s specific grievances against judicial bodies it had previously supported.

Two points are worth highlighting. First, the group decries the institution of factional quotas in previous shari’a commissions, where armed groups that backed the commissions would stock them with a certain number of their own members. This system, according to Nusra, created a situation where the powerful factions did not subject themselves to the Islamic legal rulings that they claimed to be implementing.

Second, the statement obliquely warns that Dar al-Qada will not accept the support of western-backed factions, calling them “enemies of God.” It is not clear if the statement also refers to Islamist groups that have received support the G
ulf, as it only condemns “sellout” factions. In either case, it is clear that Nusra views the support of some factions for the Aleppo Shari’a Commission and other judicial bodies as polluting the purity of the law applied in them.

The statement tells us a few things. Mainly, it demonstrates how Nusra’s competition with IS is being expressed in the creation of new governance mechanisms and in the rupturing of relations with others. As the group has scaled back tactical cooperation with other rebel groups and ramped up criticism of its heretofore allies in the Islamic Front, so too it is carving out physical spaces and instituting mechanisms of control that exclude less “sincere” groups. The move, which is meant to head off the threat that its members will continue to defect to IS for its demonstrated “success” in establishing Islamic governance, is a tacit admission that battlefield success is no longer enough for Nusra to demonstrate its credentials or its relevance to both current members and potential recruits.

So, in contrast to IS efforts to build governance institutions, which were mostly established from a position of strength and have served as an important symbolic resource for the group, Dar al-Qada appears to come from a position of weakness and vulnerability

But the establishment of Dar al-Qada goes beyond the dynamics of competition between jihadis and IS. First, Nusra’s growing paranoia that other non-jihadi – and perhaps even other Islamist groups – will eventually turn on it seems to be an important factor.

Second, the establishment of Dar al-Qada reveals that doctrinal considerations may be important drivers of Nusra’s behavior in their own right. The group, or at least the part of it that has won the argument in favor of less cooperation with other groups, appears to be having serious reservations about its past inclusivity. These misgivings revolve around the extent to which Nusra has cooperated with “apostate” factions and allowed less committed groups to influence governance in rebel-held Syria.

Translation follows.

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Islamic Police station in Manbij. Source: Eqtsad.net/news-6759.html.

I recently had the opportunity to speak to a friend in Manbij, a small city in Aleppo of about 100,000 (pre-war) under exclusive Islamic State (IS) control since January 2014 (when the organization was still ISIS). He told me about how IS cadres were administering the city and about what Manbijis think about the new political order. These conversations took place in homes and among family and friends, far from prying IS members seeking to police every aspect of life. These conversations gives us some insight into how IS is doing with their administration of territories under their control and why civilians accept or reject them. Given the similarities between Manbij and other areas under IS rule in Syria, it is likely that many of these dynamics are at play elsewhere.

These accounts give us an idea of how difficult it will be to counter the IS, but also how feebly the organisation commands the obedience of its new subjects. Importantly, these conversations reveal some of the mechanisms that make partnering with the al-Asad regime to counter IS a terrible idea.

What do people think IS doing?

This section won’t focus on what IS is doing to govern but rather what Manbijis seem to think IS is doing. In Manbij, people see that the IS is “getting comfortable,” and that the trappings of statehood appear stronger every day. The IS public administration includes several types of police, courts and administrative bodies. The group provides services and undertakes development projects. IS collects taxes in the form of zakat and redistributes some of the money to the poor. Among the recipients of the aid are internally displaced persons, who now account for at least half of the city’ population. Recently, IS has begun shipping fuel from fields it recently captured in Dayr al-Zawr province and selling it at fixed discounted rates in Aleppo.

A key part of IS’ ability to govern is that the system is comprehensive. IS focuses on policing, on its harsh version of justice, and on public administrative functions. Courts are fast and efficient. The administration can move quickly to repair water lines or fix electricity towers, all in full coordination with the Islamic Police and IS fighters. Everything is coordinated and the different parts of the administration are linked, share information, and generally seem good at working together. But not everything is within the IS administration. Other historically non-state governance mechanisms embedded in social networks like dispute resolution and contract enforcement still exist, but IS is always looking to coopt them. Certain administrative and service functions also continue to operate as before, but under IS supervision.

The comprehensiveness of the IS system stands in contrast to governance in other rebel-held areas of the province, where the administration is uncoordinated and the burden is shared by an array of councils, sharia courts, armed groups and policing bodies, many of which do not get along and all of which are underresourced.

Also in contrast to other rebel-held cities, crime in Manbij is very low. Three elements of the criminal justice system are worth highlighting here, two of which have gotten less attention in the media. It’s obvious that the group is sadistically harsh in its punishment of crime. But the harshness is only part of the deterrent. The other elements are that it is consistent – and therefore predictable – and that it is effective. It is consistent because Manbijis feel confident that if you just follow IS’ rules, then you will be ok. It is effective because few crimes go unpunished (reportedly). Of course, the arbitrariness of some crimes like sorcery or cursing religion and the difficulty of knowing the real rate of crime force us to take both of these claims with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, the perceptions are there and shape Manbijis’ feelings about the IS administration.

Lastly, many Manbijis have noticed the group focusing more recently on schools and education, and has started providing salaries to teachers. Schools focus on religious education and science, the purposes of which are to indoctrinate youngsters and to inculcate them with the skills they will need someday to deploy explosives and fight.

What are Manbijis’ assessments of IS rule?

Manbijis agree that IS has provided badly needed security and stability to the city. When IS consolidated eastern Aleppo province after the January 2014 fighting with other brigades, it brought an end to the lawlessness and insecurity that was common when IS shared the administration with other rebel groups. For this, Manbijis are grateful; not necessarily to the IS, but just generally for the situation.

Many Manbijis are not, therefore, enthusiastic about the prospect of other rebel groups retaking the area from IS. They understand that the fighting could tear the city apart and force people to flee, with many becoming refugees for the second or third time. In addition, they see the other rebel groups as either less interested in or less capable of establishing an effective public administration that provides security and public services. Residents also fear that other rebel groups would not be able to hold the city and that IS would take revenge on the residents once it returned, eliminating whole families for their perceived collusion against the organisation. Finally, residents are grateful that IS rule has meant fewer of the regime airstrikes that have plagued other rebel-held towns and villages and devastated Aleppo city. However, few people are positive about the group’s ideology.

But Manbijis are not united in these opinions. Debates rage among family members and friends in the privacy of their homes about whether IS is a positive or negative force. No one complains about the stability the group has brought, but the prospect of living under a totalitarian theocracy does not excite many, especially women. Although Manbijis are conservative, the culture of IS is seen as alien; Manbijis, like anyone else, enjoy their festive weddings, their music, their shisha, their cigarettes, and everything else that makes them who they are and they are upset that IS is intent on destroying these aspects of their identity.

Another concern for some is the longevity of the group and what happens when the regime is defeated. Many do not believe that IS’ harsh model of governance is sustainable and that an uprising against it is inevitable. Some therefore see the stability that group provides as delaying the inevitable. The logic is that for the time being, IS thrives on the existence of the regime, but not in the conspiratorial sense. Rather, the existence of the regime continues to alienate many sunnis and generates support for IS, especially now that the group is more actively attacking the government. But if the regime falls, many expect the violent contestation of IS’ political and social vision, a development many Manbijis fear will visit destruction on their city.

For the time being, Manbijis are paying something of a price for their tentative comfort with IS rule. Elsewhere in the province, other Aleppans have begun to resent Syrians living comfortably under IS rule. “Shabbihat Da’ish,” they call them, “shabbiha” being a term used to refer to regime thugs and “Da’ish” a derogatory term for IS.

How do locals fit into the governance equation?

But how do locals fit into IS’ governance scheme? Apparently, they don’t participate actively in the IS public administration. IS seems reluctant to integrate potentially less committed members too closely. While some IS administrators are Syrians, many are foreigners. For their part, Manbijis are keen on keeping the group at arms length; they appreciate some aspects of IS governance, but do not want to get too close. They expect, however, that the IS focus on education and indoctrination of children is part of a long-term strategy to more closely link the group with the populations it governs.


So what does this tell us? First, it is clear that the reasons Manbijis tentatively appreciate and support IS are tied to the Syrian conflict context. Manbijis do not just appreciate the security IS provides, they appreciate this security compared to their experiences before IS took over and with what they hear about what is happening in other parts of the country. They do not support IS because they believe in its cause. They would not choose IS rule if given the choice of other alternatives. IS is, for the time being, taking care of Manbijis’ most basic needs, a welcome respite from the grinding civil war that has destroyed much of the country.

Second, it appears that IS will have trouble integrating with the communities they are seeking to rule. IS predecessor organizations have generally been terrible at governing and have always alienated their subjects. The latter especially seems to hold true in Manbij as well, despite some of the changes the group has made to govern better and provide citizens with more resources and services. Current support for IS appears tenuous and too tied to fluid conflict conditions to be sustainable. There is a deep political, ideological and cultural divide between the IS administration and regular people. Manbijis do not believe the city will put up with IS’ draconian rules forever. Through interactions at home and in social settings, they will mitigate some of the indoctrination their children receive at school. In short, eastern Syrians will not allow IS to stamp out their culture.

Finally, these accounts also tell us that the idea of partnering with the al-Asad regime to counter IS is horribly misguided. The perception that IS is bad and full of murderers is common, but so is the feeling that IS fighters are “giving their souls” to fight the regime, which is hated more. Throwing support behind that regime would only strengthen the latter perception at the expense of the former. It would inflame the sectarianism that IS thrives on, driving more Syrians to support IS and helping the group integrate with the populations it is seeking to win over. It would also significantly assist IS local recruitment efforts, further grounding the organisation within the social fabric of the areas it seeks to govern. The more IS is able to convert anti-al-Asad sentiment into real support for its ideology, the more intractable it will become.

Many of the most prominent fighting groups in Syria released a statement on the formation of what they call the Syrian Revolutionary Command Council (Majlis Qiyadat al-Thawra al-Suriyya). The most prominent groups include the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, Jeish al-Mujahideen, Harakat Nur al-Din al-Zinki, Jaysh al-Islam, and Suqur al-Sham, the latter two of which are Islamic Front (IF) component brigades. Liwa al-Haqq, another IF component, also signed on. Jabhat al-Nusra is not included among the signatories, and neither is Ahrar al-Sham, another major IF faction that is perceived as more ideologically extreme than other IF factions.

The statement includes a large number of groups that have been receiving lethal and non-lethal assistance from the Friends of Syria including American-made TOW missiles and training. It also includes groups that, to my knowledge, the U.S. has not engaged but that allies like Saudi Arabia have. The statement comes after several weeks of tension between Jabhat al-Nusra and both IF and non-IF factions and after many of the signatory groups announced that they were suspending all cooperation with Nusra.

The groups themselves say that the statement and the unification under the Council was the result of an initiative launched by religious scholars and religious students, giving it a coating of popular and religious legitimacy. But the realignments that have culminated in this announcement have been a result of shifting material incentives; the U.S. has made clear that groups that receive its weapons must not work with Nusra while funding for the IF appears to have dried up. This, coupled with Nusra’s increasingly hostile and aggressive posture vis a vis groups willing to take support from the West, may signal an uptick in material support to enter Syria soon. Importantly, these developments have brought cracks within the stagnating IF coalition to the fore. However, it is not clear to me exactly how the West will react to the inclusion of Jaysh al-Islam, the IF faction whose leader has made highly sectarian and inflammatory threats against Syria’s Alawite minority.

Translation below.


The “Wa I’tasimu Initiative” to unite the ranks of the Syrian Revolution

The formation of the Revolutionary Command Council

In the name of God, Most Beneficent, Most Merciful:

Praise be to God and Prayers be on the prophet of God, his family, his companions, and those loyal to him, etc.

In compliance with God’s command to “hold fast (wa i’tasimu) by the rope of God together and be not disunited,” a number of scholars and students of religion (Tullab al-‘Ilm) in Syria started the “Wa I’tasimu Initiative” with the goal of uniting the factions active in Syria. Thanks be to God, a large number of the leaders of the factions and fronts spread out over several Syrian provinces met and agreed to the following:

First: To form a council to lead the revolution in Syria called the Syrian Revolutionary Command Council (Majlis Qiyadat al-Thawra al-Suriyya) to be the united body for the Syrian revolution.

Second: the Council will choose its leader and form the bureaus under him, the military and judicial bureau chief among them, within 45 days.

Third: This Council is formed with the following fronts in mind – the northern front, the eastern front, the central front, the southern front, and the western front. All factions concerned with each front shall agree on their representatives to the council. The door will remain open for other factions that wish to join the Council.

Fourth: To form a follow-up committee from among those who began this initiative.

The participating factions:

Harakat Hazm, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, Jaysh al-Mujahideen, Harakat Nur al-Din al-Zinki, Alwiyat Suqur al-Sham, Jeish al-Islam, Hayat Duru’ al-Thawra, the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union, the 13th Division, Jabhat Haqq al-Muqatala, al-Jabha al-Suriyya lil-Tahrir, the 101st Division, Tajjamu’ Kataib wa Alwiyat Shuhada Suriya, Liwa Fursan al-Haqq, Tajammu’ Suqur al-Ghab, and Liwa al-Haqq.


Sunday 7 Shawwal 1435 h/3 August 2014.

Entrance to the Aleppo Sharia Commission in Aleppo City, headquartered in what was the Eye Hospital

Entrance to the Aleppo Sharia Commission in Aleppo City, headquartered in what was the Eye Hospital

This post covers a document issued by the Aleppo Sharia Commission. Jabhat al-Nusra, Liwa al-Tawhid, Suqur al-Sham, and Ahrar al-Sham established the Aleppo Sharia Commission in November 2012 as a judicial and governance body. 

Update 2014/5/25: The ASC Facebook page has been taken down, removing the link to the document discussed here. I have posted a photo of it below.

In November 2013, the Aleppo Sharia Commission (ASC) issued a document in which it provided some details about how it wants its branches in the countryside to be structured. The document also details the tasks that some of the branch commission’s bureaus and offices are expected to accomplish.

The document shows that the ASC strives to be much more than a judicial authority where it operates; the document, as well as other self-produced ASC media, clearly states that the institution seeks to become a comprehensive governance structure that subsumes judicial, executive, and services functions, including education, health care, economic regulation, and policing (importantly, the ASC has no legislative body, as the factions that established it are publicly opposed to “man-made” laws).

Nonetheless, the document’s emphasis on the Judicial Bureau and its related functions make it clear that the heart of the ASC is its role as a judicial authority. Most of the ink here is devoted to the components of the ASC’s branches that form the “justice triangle,” that is the police, the judiciary, and corrections.

A notable component of the ASC’s branches’ work is the Conciliation Office within the Judicial Bureau. Based on my limited knowledge of how these sharia courts and commissions are functioning in some rebel-held areas of Syria, they deal with a number of cases that are beyond the ability of the religious scholars/local notables who work in them to adjudicate properly. This is compounded by a lack of trained lawyers and judges willing to work in sharia courts and commissions (in fact, no defected judges would even work in the Unified Judicial Council, the ASC’s main rival for a time, which was generally considered more independent of armed groups and relatively more committed to a codified law). In addition, these courts and commissions also deal with many minor issues. As such, there has been a shift toward conciliation: consultative and compromise-based solutions to disputes embedded in the ability of local social networks, families, tribes, and other extra-legal mechanisms to resolve an issue. The sharia courts and commissions have thus been playing a mediator role, serving as the avenue through which these “traditional” dispute resolution mechanisms can work, and thereby co-opting them in the process.

The document, however, does not give us a clear understanding of the actual policies and procedures that the ASC and its branches follow. Although this document hints at some – such as the statement that detainees cannot be held more than 24 hours without a charge and without permission from the head of the Judicial Bureau or the President of the Commission – it does not provide much. We still do not know, for example, how the ASC’s courts actually work: what schools of Islamic jurisprudence do their judges base their rulings on? Who are the judges and what are their qualifications? What kind of representation is allowed to defendants? How does the ASC handle and admit evidence? And the list goes on.

Finally, the lack of ASC branches’ independence from armed actors is clear in the document’s description of how the branch heads are appointed and in the centralized nature of the Judicial Bureau. The ASC Presidency rotates between the factions that established it: Jabhat al-Nusra, Liwa al-Tawhid, Suqur al-Sham, and Ahrar al-Sham, the latter three of which later formed the Islamic Front along with a number of other factions. The President of the ASC and the organization’s Consultative Council appoint the subordinate branch head and his deputy. Further, the document states that the Judicial Bureau works under the supervision of the Judicial Bureau in the main Commission headquartered in Aleppo City. These two features ensure that the Islamist, salafi, and jihadi fighting groups (the real nature of Liwa al-Tawhid and Suqur al-Sham is not as obvious as that of clearly hard-line actors such as Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham) listed above wield considerable influence on all parts of the ASC.

I’ll add that in practice, some of the ASC’s branches reportedly operate relatively independently of the main ASC body, with the strongest branches operating in the southern countryside. In the western countryside, where the ASC claims jurisdiction but where more moderate armed actors are strong, another sharia court network, the Sharia Court in the Western Countryside of Aleppo, seems to have more sway.

Translation and document below:


The ASC Branch Commission Document

The ASC Branch Commission Document

Structure of Branch Commissions in the Aleppo Countryside

A branch commission is comprised of the Office of the President of the Commission and his Deputy, who are both nominated by the president of the main Commission and the Consultative Council (majlis al-shura). The following bureaus stem from the Office of the President of the Commission:

  1. Administrative Bureau: includes the Finance Office, the Maintenance Office, the Human Resources Office, and the IT Office.
  2. Civil Bureau: includes the Endowments Office (maktab al-awqaf), the Services Office, the Education Office, the Medical Office, the Office of the Economy, the Aid Office, and the Civil Affairs Office.
  3. Judicial Bureau: includes the Office of Judges, the Conciliation Office, the Office of Investigations, the Registry, and the Office of Prisoners’ Property.
  4. Bureau of the Police: responsible for security installations (nuqat amniyya) and the detention facility.

The Administrative Bureau

The Administrative Bureau consists of the Administrative Bureau Head and several employees, according to the need. The Administrative Bureau has the following tasks:

  • Follow up on staff attendance and their commitment to work. Request the employment of new staff from the main Commission when vacancies are available.
  • Overcome obstacles that hinder the workflow and provide what is necessary in that regard.
  • Document staff data and transfer staff to other departments when needed.
  • Approve staff leave and issue penalties and instructions.
  • Receive complaints from citizens against staff and address staff negligence.
  • Establish new offices in the Commission to develop its capabilities (tatwir al-‘amal), in coordination with and by the approval of the main Commission.
  • Communicate with the main Commission and follow its instructions.
  • Coordinate with the main Commission and distribute monthly awards and staff wages. Coordinate the conformity of court and case fees with the main Commission.
  • Prepare accounting books (revenue and expenses).

The Judicial Bureau

The Judicial Bureau consists of the Judicial Bureau Head and a number of judges. The office is to be under the supervision of the Judicial Bureau in the main Commission. The Judicial Bureau has the following tasks:

  • Appoint and dismiss judges and manage their affairs.
  • Consider lawsuits until they are out of cassation.
  • Review cases that have been decided and send any of them to cassation if needed.
  • Organize weekly shift schedules.
  • Submit the work of judges to the head of the Judicial Bureau at the main Commission for an up-to-date review.
  • Check on the work of the subordinate offices (Conciliation Office, Office of Investigations, Registry, Office of Prisoners’ Property).

The Conciliation Office

The mission of the Conciliation Office is to find solutions to disputes that satisfy all parties without referring such disputes to the judiciary. The tasks of the office are to be coordinated with the Conciliation Office at the main Commission and it shall follow the instructions thereof which are directly related to its work.

The Office of Investigations

The Office of Investigations consists of investigators and the Chief Investigator. The office is to be supervised by the Office of Investigations at the main Commission. The Office of Investigations has the following tasks:

  • The Chief Investigator assigns cases to investigators randomly. An investigator may recuse himself if one of the parties involved in a case is a friend or relative.
  • No person may be detained for more than 24 hours without a charge. The investigation period may not be extended for more than 15 days without permission from the Head of the Judicial Office or the President of the Commission.

The Registry

The Registry consists of the the Head of the Registry and its staff. It has the following tasks:

  • Receive detainees and persons referred by the police and security installations in order for their names to be registered. Refer detainees to the detention facility of the Commission.
  • The Notification Officer executes case memorandums and notifies defendants or witnesses.
  • Receive cases and record them in the main records. Refer cases to the Chief Investigator.
  • Receive detainees and their belongings. Transfer detainees’ belongings to the Office of Prisoners’ Property.

Bureau of the Police

The Bureau of the Police consists of the Chief of Police and his Deputy. Security installations and the detention facility fall under its authority. It is responsible for the following tasks:

  • Guard the building of the Commission round the clock.
  • Organize the entry of visitors during official working hours.
  • Execute warrants, subpoenas, summons and carry out raids.
  • Establish checkpoints and security installations outside the premises of the Commission to guarantee security.
  • Supervise the detention facility and care for the detainees.
  • Coordinate with other Branch Commissions and the main Commission when there are large scale campaigns or raids.


The jurisdiction of the Sharia Commission branch is to be limited within the geographical area of the branch. Any expansion outside these limits needs permission from the main Commission.

No branch commission is allowed to issue general public announcements, notifications, or decisions without referring to the Presidency of the main Commission.


The Jeish al-Mujahideen (JM) rebel coalition located mainly in the Aleppo Governorate released its charter yesterday, the same day it confirmed that one of its most important component groups, Kataib Nour al-Din al-Zinki (KNDZ), had withdrawn. It comes a few days after JM’s leader, Lieutenant Colonel Muhammad Abdul Qadir (aka Abu Bakr), mentioned that the group was coordinating with the SMC and the Interim Government.

The charter is short, but telling; for the first time it lays out Jeish al-Mujahideen’s position on a number of key issues of governance in post-Assad Syria. At first glance, it seems to be a play for greater material support and assistance from the West, but the language is somewhat vague. It calls for independent judicial, services, and economic institutions, but is silent about legislation; neither Islam nor democracy is mentioned at all among the group’s definition, vision, or goals. As such, it seems to be a balancing act, seeming to evoke the trappings of a democratic system, but not necessarily contradicting the vision of the harder-line Islamists in the Governorate. JM has a good relationship with the Islamic Front and Jabhat al-Nusra, participating with both in a joint operations room in Aleppo, and the group is likely keen on not disturbing those relationships.

How much the charter and its release is related to the withdrawal of KNDZ is unclear; I had heard that KNDZ was perceived as not fairly distributing money and weapons it was getting to other JM component factions, so JM could be scrambling for more sources of funding now that KNDZ is gone. At the same time, KNDZ leader Sheikh Tawfiq Shahab al-Din said in a March interview with Tayseer Allouni that his group had flirted with the idea of joining the Islamic Front, potentially revealing tension between KNDZ and the seemingly moderate positions articulated in the JM charter. Based on what I have heard about Sheikh Tawfiq, however, that may not be the case.

Some highlights from the charter:

1: Calls for independent service and economic institutions and expresses support for civil activities. States that these institutions and activities should be separated from the military groups.

2: Calls for an independent, unified judiciary in the liberated territories. JM seems to distance itself from the Aleppo Sharia Commission (ASC), which is subordinate to Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front, but that some JM member brigades have worked with in the past. How the charter will change JM’s relationship with the ASC in practice is yet to be seen.

3: Proclaims that it will preserve the rights of “all components of the Syrian social fabric.”

Translation below:


Jeish al-Mujahideen

General Leadership

No. 2014/108 / /

Date: 2014/5/4

In the Name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful:

We are Jeish al-Mujahidin, made up of the following factions:

1: Liwa al-Ansar

2: Liwa al-Salam

3: Liwa Jund al-Haramein

4: Harakat Nour al-Islamiyya

5: Liwa Amjad al-Islam

6: Liwa Halab al-Madina al-Islamiyya

7: Liwa Halab al-Shahba

8: Kataib al-Safwa al-Islamiyya

We call on all the factions active on the ground to unite the ranks to bring down the Regime. This is our charter:

The Charter of Jeish al-Mujahideen

1 – Definition: An independent military group that is supportive of civil activities (al-fa”aliyat al-madaniyya) and was formed to bring down the Regime, to lift oppression from the Syrian people, and to establish a state of justice and institutions.

2 – Vision: To work toward putting the forces active on the ground in a framework to be the nucleus of the army of the future. This army will protect the borders of the state, provide security, and lift oppression.

3 – Goals:

* To organize and prepare Jeish al-Mujahideen so that it becomes a comprehensive military institution.

* To strengthen the relationship between all factions active on the ground to arrive at a unified military institution.

* To support civil activities (al-fa”aliyat al-madaniyya) that serve the public interest and to separate the military from economic and service institutions.

* To provide security in the liberated territories, to unify the judicial authorities in an entity independent of armed groups, and to help address the people’s grievances.

* To liberate Syrian soil from the al-Assad Regime and those who are implementing its agenda.

* To pursue and try the symbols of the criminal al-Assad Regime who are implicated in unjustly shedding Syrian blood and to prevent them from fleeing from just accountability. This just accountability (will not be an expression of) personal revenge.

* To preserve the unity of Syrian soil and to stand against any plan to partition Syria.

* To preserve the rights of all components of the Syrian social fabric.

* To return stolen wealth to the people.

Signatures of participating factions:

Liwa Jund al-Haramein: Al-Raid Abu Hussein

Liwa Halab al-Madina al-Islami: Omar Salkhu

Harakat al-Nour al-Islamiyya: Abu al-Hathifa

Kataib al-Safwa al-Islamiyya: Khattab

Liwa Amjad al-Islam: Captain Ali Shakerdi

Liwa al-Ansar: Lieutenant Colonel Abu Bakr

Liwa Halab al-Shahba: Mulham ‘Akidi

Liwa al-Salam: Abu Qutayba

Praise be to God, Lord of Worlds


The Reserve Officers Association and the Foreign Policy Research Institute had an interesting event last week on foreign fighters in Syria. The discussion panel featured Will McCants, Clint Watts, and Barak Mendelsohn, all of whom had very interesting things to say about the dangers that foreign fighters currently participating in Syria’s ongoing civil war could pose to the West. While the panel focused on the dangers associated with extremist Sunni foreigners fighting with the opposition, all of the panelists agreed that the issue of foreigners fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime, most of whom are Shi’a Muslims, deserves more attention. This blog post addresses one aspect of the foreign fighter issue on the other side of the conflict.


(Khorasani Vanguard Brigades. Source: Facebook)

How much of a threat do foreign fighters in Syria fighting with the Syrian regime pose to the West? Compared to Sunni Muslim foreigners who go to Syria to fight the regime, many of whom wind up with extremist al-Qaeda affiliated groups, foreign fighters on the regime side pose much less of a threat to Western interests. In fact, their participation in the Syrian civil war could slightly weaken their ability to carry out terrorist acts in the West and against Western interests. This is not to say that the mostly Shi’a foreigners fighting on al-Asad’s side are not dangerous, but that they are unlikely to add much to the threat that their handlers in Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran already pose to the West.

There are four main features of the mostly Shi’a foreign fighters who fight with the regime that make them less of a concern than their Sunni counterparts: their handlers who control them, their intentions, their countries of origin, and the effects of the conflict on their future recruitment efforts.

1: Control – Shi’a foreign fighters in Syria and the groups with which they serve are more centralized and more deterrable. Most of the foreigners fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime are Shi’a Muslims from Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran who are funneled through Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) channels or through Hezbollah. Many of the Iraqi volunteers were part of Iran-backed militias formed to fight coalition forces in Iraq and, in the case of Hezbollah, the fighters were already members of the group’s military wing. All these groups are both financially and operationally linked to Iran and serve as some of the country’s main tools to project influence abroad and deter Western military action against it.

Thus, these foreigners fighting for the al-Asad regime are part of a more coherent command and control structure tied to Iran. Moreover, Iranian revolutionary concepts form the core of the justification for these foreigners’ participation in the war. This framework is hierarchical and based on the authority of the Supreme Leader in Tehran, to whom the groups fighting on al-Asad’s behalf owe their allegiance. This means that danger of Shi’a foreign fighters is linked to the West’s ability to deter their handlers in Iran and Hezbollah, a much more likely prospect that with non-state extremist groups such as al-Qaeda, its affiliates, and other jihadi groups whose fighters may continue to target the West once they return home.

2: Intentions – Unlike a large portion of Sunni foreign fighters in Syria, Shi’a foreigner fighters harbor less aggressive and less global intentions. This is, to be sure, somewhat ironic given Iran’s longstanding commitment to export its revolutionary ideals. But there is no doubt that al-Qaeda and those who support its ideology are more ambitious in their goal of establishing a world-wide caliphate and less rational in the means they use bring it about. The extremely low likelihood of achieving their goals, even in the Middle East, will not deter al-Qaeda zealots from attempting to launch frequent attacks against Western interests and those of its allies.

Iran and Hezbollah, however, are far shrewder in the way they conceive of the instrumentality of terrorism, and so are their supporters. Both rely on a strategy of asymmetric balancing to deter what they perceive as real security threats emanating primarily from Israel and the United States and have carried out terrorist attacks carefully designed to achieve particular goals.

As such, the culture among Shi’a foreign fighters in Syria does not include an all-out open war against the West that justifies attacks at every opportunity, nor do does it justify acting alone or in small cells separate from the direction of the central leadership.

3: Origins – Shi’a foreign fighters in Syria will return to countries that, to the West, are less vital compared to the countries to which Sunni foreign fighters will return. Additionally, the fact that these fighters will have gained combat experience is less destabilizing given the political and security environment in their home countries. Hezbollah fighters, for example, will return to Lebanon where the group already controlled the most powerful armed group in the country with very little chance any other group, including the Lebanese Armed Forces, could catch up. To be sure, the experience gained by Hezbollah fighters in Syria could improve their performance in a future conflict with Israel, but this improvement is most likely marginal and not a game changer. Additionally, Iraqi, Iranian, and Lebanese Shi’a fighters are unlikely to turn against their governments and, in the case of the latter two countries, target oil extraction and export facilities.

In comparison, Sunni jihadists in Syria hail from both the West’s closest allies in the region and from Western countries themselves. Moreover, radicalized foreign rebels in Syria are likely to be hostile to their home countries’ governments and could use their newly gained skills and experience to target vital oil facilities, government institutions, and civilians in the Gulf, Europe, and the U.S.

4: Recruitment – This point is a fair bit more speculative. Shi’a fighters and their handlers may find it more difficult to recruit agents abroad because the Syrian civil war has tarnished their image among potential supporters. Although, there is evidence that fighters with foreign combat experience are more effective recruiters once they return from the warzone, Shi’a fighters may in fact find this situation reversed.

Iran and Hezbollah in particular have carefully cultivated the perception that they represent the vanguard of resistance to Israeli and Western aggression. This perception has been vital in boosting the group’s popularity globally, even among audiences that do not share their Shi’a religious beliefs. This popularity allowed the group to effectively recruit among local non-Shi’a abroad, facilitating the assembly of effective networks that supported global terrorist operations.

Hezbollah and Iran’s participation in the Syrian civil war has severely damaged this image. Hezbollah’s weapons, which it always maintained were for fighting Israel, have been turned against fellow Muslims and Iran’s commitment to pan-Islamist resistance has been similarly exposed as a sham. All this means that non-Shi’a that both Iran and Hezbollah used to rely on for their foreign fundraising, logistics, and terrorist operations could be less likely to take risks for what they now perceive to be a hypocritical cause. This is, of course, highly speculative and the real effect of the Syrian civil war on Iranian and Hezbollah recruitment will take years to discern.

UPDATE 5/15/2013: I have fixed an error I made in the original translation where I missed a line. It is point #6 up to “our wounded people.”

I thought I would switch to Syria today since I saw that this interesting statement came out on Saturday. This is the translation of Ahrar al-Sham’s statement in which they criticize both Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda in Iraq for two statements: the first, AQI’s announcement of the merger of Jabhat al-Nusra and AQI into the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The second, Jabhat al-Nusra’s statement in which its leader, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, pledged allegiance  to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri (in the same statement, however, he basically denied a full merger and asserted that JAN would retain its name and implicitly its autonomy).

Aron Lund has already put up a good post about this statement at Syria Comment, so I won’t add much. Two quick things jumped out at me though: First, the statement interestingly preempts criticism of Ahrar al-Sham when it argues that their criticism of JAN and AQI internationalizing the conflict is not based on a recognition of the legitimacy of “arbitrary” barriers between Muslims. Part of establishing bona fides as a Jihadi entails, of course, a complete and stated rejection of the Sykes-Picot lines, so it shows that Ahrar al-Sham is at least worried about losing some cred. The second interesting bit is where the statement indicates that Ahrar al-Sham will proceed based on what the state of the Islamic nation is, noting that Muslims in syria have “concealed” their religion for half a century. This indicates a growing ideological divide between Ahrar al-Sham, which forms the core of the Syrian Islamic Front, and Jabhat al-Nusra in which Ahrar al-Sham and the SIF are clearly staking out a gradualist position that seeks to Islamize Syrian society slowly instead of imposing strict Islamic law right away.

The original Arabic version can be viewed here at Aaron Zelin’s Jihadology site.

All mistakes are my own, and if you notice that I have made any errors, please point them out and they’ll get fixed.

The Syrian Islamic Front

The Islamic Ahrar al-Sham Movement

Political Bureau

In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful.

Praise be to God and prayers and peace upon the messenger of God.

We were surprised, just as many were surprised, by what Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, released concerning the announcement the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. We were similarly surprised by Abu Mohammad al-Jolani’s response, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, in which he pledged allegiance (bay’ah) to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda.

Given that we are watching with interest the implications of the event – and what it means in terms of its large impact on the internal and regional arenas – we wish to record some important points that make our position clear on what has come out. We take the approach of offering advice (al-nush) and admonition (al-tazkir):

1: We in the Islamic Ahrar al-Sham Movement are keen on concentrating efforts and unifying them in the battle to topple the aggressive Assad enemy, as nothing except for faith (iman) is more required and nothing comes before it.

2: God has set forth the legitimate norms (sunan) and universal laws to establish rightly guided states. Whoever breaches the laws is deprived of their consequences (note: this line was unclear to me). Religious leadership (al-imamah) over Muslims must have ability and authority to secure its interests. This does not exist among any of the factions and brigades on the ground.

3: The “emirate” is a method – enunciated in God’s law – to unify the message and the ranks, but it is not an end in itself. What al-Baghdadi announced did not unify the scattered groups and it did not reconcile conflicting factions, and this is what is called “corruption of the situation” among religious scholars. This is when what resulted from a ruling is the opposite of what is originally intended.

4: No one in this country – no religious scholars or sincere Islamists and FSA brigades working on the ground – was consulted in the announcement of the state. This opens up the field for anyone to announce initiatives on their own according to how they see fit

5: As such, the two announcements will drag parties into the conflict that do not serve – as we see it – the people’s revolution and Jihad. The principle is to not expand the scope of the conflict and to concentrate on fighting the Assad regime, undermining its pillars of support, and stopping its aggression.

6: We see in both of the announcements priority given to the interests of the group over the interests of the nation (ummah). This is what the regime was waiting for to justify its aggression and injustice (committed on) our wounded people. When we saw Jabhat al-Nusra’s dedication and valor in battle, their charity, and their good treatment of the people, it was thought that they would continue being altruistic and serving the interests of the nation.

Based on what has preceded, we ask both parties to get a sense of the magnitude of the event, the danger of regionalizing the conflict in this way, and bringing in other parties. This is not based on arbitrary distinctions between members of the Islamic nation, but an objective reading of the situation. It is a presentation of what we see as being in the best interests of Muslims and their Jihad against the tyrant of Syria.

Lastly, we in the Islamic Ahrar al-Sham Movement announce that the establishment of a rightly guided Islamic state that rules its subjects with justice is a goal that we strive to achieve through legitimate means. As such, we take care to heed the requirements of the situation and the state of the Islamic nation, which has concealed its religion for a half century. We ask God to guide us rightly in both thought and action and to grant our nation what is best. He is the protector and enabler, praise be to God, lord of the worlds.

Saturday 05/04/2013