Competition Among Syrian Extremists

CEP Research Analyst


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The outbreak of armed conflict in Syria has driven the country into chaos, with a spectrum of opposition groups claiming to be fighting for the people and against the Assad regime. As the Syrian Civil War enters its fifth year, Islamic extremist groups the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Nusra Front, and Ahrar al-Sham have emerged as the most prominent and powerful. 

In discussing the Syrian opposition groups, it is helpful to place their beliefs and goals on a scale to enable comparisons.  At one time, opposition groups ranged from those attempting to implement a free democratic society and government on the left, to those wanting to impose sharia over a newly instated caliphate on the right. Unfortunately, today there are far more Islamist groups than liberal democratic groups left operating in Syria.

ISIS, the Nusra Front, and Ahar al-Sham are Salafist, Sunni groups and make up some of the most far right Islamist groups in Syria. While the differences between their ideologies are fairly negligible, ISIS is the farthest right, hoping to create an Islamic State throughout the entire region under strict seventh century Arabia-esque conditions. The Nusra Front lies towards the “center” of the three, aspiring toward the creation of an Islamic State, but supposedly in stages and with the consent of the local population. Finally, while Ahar al-Sham hopes to create an Islamic State as well, it claims to want to confine itself to the borders within Syria and merely replace Assad with its own government

The histories of these three groups are tightly intertwined.  Each has ties to al-Qaeda, leading to their jockeying for position in Syria.  ISIS traces its roots to al-Qaeda in Iraq in the early 2000s, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi began training militants to attack coalition forces.  The group suffered defeats and declined in strength until 2011, when coalition forces began to withdraw from Iraq. Under its new leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the group moved into Syria, changed its name to ISIS, conquered a wide swath of Syria and Iraq and declared itself a Caliphate.

In 2013, ISIS claimed that it and the Nusra Front would merge despite denials from both the Nusra Front and al-Qaeda.  At this point, a schism developed between ISIS and al-Qaeda and the Nusra Front, causing huge tensions.  A number of Nusra fighters defected to ISIS and the groups clashed.  ISIS blamed the group for “betrayal and treason,” and by March 2014, more than 3,000 fighters had been killed in battles between ISIS and the Nusra Front. 

In 2013, ISIS’s relations with Ahar al-Sham, a militant group whose leadership also has ties to al-Qaeda, also disintegrated.  However, Ahar al-Sham continued to cooperate with the Nusra Front. Since then, despite its inclusion in the Free Syrian Army, Ahar al-Sham has grown to become one of the largest Islamist militant groups in Syria, attempting to unite what remains of the Islamic opposition. 

Despite their shaky histories and their clashes throughout Syria, each group employs similar tactics; they carry out offensives, attempt to conquer territory, govern the areas they control, and provide services to the population.  This alignment in overall strategy is what creates such competition between the three most powerful groups in Syria.  They each have the goal of creating a new state based on Islamic law, but disagree on its character, timing and governance.

Continual jockeying for advantage and competition for fighters and resources contributes to a continuation of the cycle of violence in Syria.  While these groups are in direct competition with one other, their stated primary objective is to force out the Assad regime.   Without a viable, secular alternative, however, the end of the Assad regime could easily lead to an even more violent future for Syrians, as these three groups then turn their weapons more forcefully on one another in a battle for supremacy.