Hijacking of a Revolution: The Rise of Radical Transnational Groups in Syria’s Civil War


By Sam Shugart & Dina Yazdani, International Affairs ’15
Originally written and published in the 2013-4 edition of the Meridian Journal

The Arab Spring revolutions that successfully toppled oppressive rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya inspired the Syrian people to rise against their own government. It was not long until it became clear that the Syrian uprising would follow a different trajectory than their North African counterparts. The outcome of the revolution would vastly impact not only Syria’s neighbors, but the whole power dynamic of the Middle-East. Syria quickly became a proxy war amidst regional players, especially those vying to tip the balance of power between Sunnis and Shi’ites. Arab foreign fighters joined the fight against the Assad regime, who are some of the most effective fighting forces in the opposition and have helped fuel an immense Islamist insurgency against the government. The US government estimates around 25% of rebels are jihadists, although some estimate that number could be as high as 50%.[i] Though in the beginning of the uprising the Islamist fighters fought parallel to, and at times beside the western-backed Free Syrian Army, some more radical groups have targeted the rebels in hope to gain more territory to develop their own Islamic state within Syria. Some opposition Islamist factions are even fighting each other for power and territory. The disunity, and infighting within the Syrian opposition has only hindered the revolution against the Assad regime.

In the paper we will start by examining the reasons the Syrian opposition failed to unite throughout 2011 and 2012. We will then focus on the shift in power from moderate opposition groups to more radical groups by exploring the driving factors of their growth and financing. In the final section of the paper we will analyze how these transnational Islamist groups have been able to hold onto Syrian territory as well as the increased infighting between moderate and radical opposition factions. Our goal in this paper is to examine the factors that led to dramatic infighting between the many different fractions in late 2013 and early 2014.

We begin our story in mid 2011, as violent retaliation against anti-regime protesters escalated, when seven Syrian Army Officers announced their defection from the Assad regime and the formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).[ii]  It is important to note that the FSA is not a single unified organization, but a collection of  loosely affiliated secular and moderate armed opposition groups, comparable to the French Resistance in World War II.[iii]   Many analysts have discussed the inability of moderate forces inside Syria to unify as opposition forces were able to in Libya and Egypt.  In order to first understand why Jihadist groups have eclipsed the FSA, we must first understand why the moderates failed.

Creating the Context: The Systematic Failure of the Moderate Opposition 

In early 2012, a number of trends led to the early emergence and strengthening of the Jihadist forces.  Later that same year, the SNC formed the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces with other groups in an attempt to unify all opposition forces and present a non-sectarian face to the Syrian uprising.  As the civil war intensified, opposition political leaders that called for armed support and international intervention received little support from the Western and Gulf states.  Opposition leaders that continued to argue for “peaceful uprising” alienated their supporters inside Syria as Assad’s regime cracked down on protestors with brutal force. Opposition leaders who sought western support were compelled to engage and advocate for less violent approaches to ousting Assad, as opposed to alienated opposition leaders who were not constrained and called for a violent offensive against the regime. The Syrian National Coalition hoped that if they could portray the uprising as a democratic revolution against a brutal dictator that the international community would not be hesitant toward funding the opposition. The opposition however, underestimated the strength of jihadist groups inside Syria that forced the international community to limit and withhold aiding the rebels altogether in fear that it would fall into the wrong hands. The SNC was widely viewed as an ineffective and irrelevant body of politicians[iv] plagued by deep internal ideological divisions.[v]

Command Structures in a Civil War 

In addition to the political disconnect, there has always been a substantial military disconnect between different parts of the FSA.   Command structures were ad-hoc at best until December 2012, when many FSA units agreed to a Supreme Military Council under intense pressure from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who had pledged more advanced weaponry. [vi]  Due to the uncoordinated nature of the uprising, the moderate armed opposition forces lacked an effective unifying ideology and ability to communicate even with the Supreme Military Council.The belief was that once the narrative of a democratic uprising fighting a brutal dictator was established international support would flow into the opposition to help oust Assad.

Although the uprising was never truly coordinated, as Assad’s army consolidated its bases and infrastructure and began to arm regional militias, the civil war lost a sense of battle lines.  Individual rebel units, often composed of just a few hundred men, fought street to street, with control of neighborhoods changing among different rebel factions on a daily basis.  With the regime and its allies amply supporting its forces, and western military support limited many opposition forces turned to whoever would help.

Enter the Radicals 

By the summer of 2012  the tide had turned against the moderate opposition forces. A Hom’s Revolutionary Council leader describes the situation perfectly in a May 2012 interview with Crisis Group:

“The Syrian mood gradually is being changed from moderate to radical. While the Americans are thinking and planning, the radical Islamists are fighting every day in order to get the support of the people. By the time the U.S. is ready to make a decision, all of Syria will be Islamists.”[vii]

Conservative donors in the Gulf states stepped in to provide military support to the rebels.  While the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been hesitant to create the next generation of transnational Jihadists[viii], individual donors particularly in Kuwait had no qualms with massive fund raising drives.  Before we examine the transnational flow of wealth however, we must first examine the divisions that created the extremist religious groups.

Throughout mid-late 2012, the common narrative from opposition groups was one of limited acceptance of foreign fighters and Islamist forces in the common fight against the regime [ix][x]. Over time the Salafist and other radical groups began to attract more support through posting flashy videos of brazen attacks in the regime.   The ability of Islamist units to connect directly to foreign donors, rather than go through a series of middlemen, ensured they had access to far more funding and arms than moderates.

This direct access to funds had a far more important effect then just strengthening radical forces in relation to the moderate FSA groups because of the unique nature of the Syrian conflict.  The disparate and fluid nature of opposition groups resulted in fighters moving to whichever group was best equipped or was most well known for its battlefield exploits.  As the power and prestige of the Jihadist group increased, many other opposition groups with no previous ideological affiliation began to adopt the symbols and rhetoric used by these Jihadist groups.[xi]

Kuwait Reborn As a Conduit for Hundreds of Millions 

Online support for radical Islamist organizations is not a new phenomenon, however the scope and success of foreign funding in Syria presents several interesting twists.  By the end of 2012, it became clear that foreign government support was lacking and often had travel through several middlemen to reach the frontlines.  Groups with exceptional media profiles who could garner the most YouTube hits with the most intense fights and show they were having the most success where to solicit additional funds from clerics in the Gulf with their “massive fundraising abilities.”[xii]  Due to Kuwait’s exceptional liberal association laws and funding requirements, private actors could gather funds from donors across a variety of gulf states and then channel these donations to various holding bodies operating in the grey armies on Syria’s borders with Turkey and Lebanon.  In turn, the Kuwaiti politicians and donors established a fluid monetary flow for the radical Islamist groups that opened the flood gate for other actors to influence the conflict through financial donations to their rebel faction of choice.

This proliferation of private donors created conflict between the different opposition factions and brigades.  As there was never any truly centralized means of control or a distribution network for funding, individual brigades had to compete with their allies to prove that they could make better use of funding.  Overtime, this led to the formation of groups into larger umbrella coalitions and led to feuding between donors and between opposition brigades as different brigades increasingly saw funding as a zero-sum game.[xiii]

A Brookings report on Kuwaiti fundraising draws from a variety of interviews to note the shift in funding sources and tone.  By the end of 2012, donor fatigue and disillusionment with the opposition led to a large drop in both humanitarian and military aid.   Donor rhetoric shifted from emphasizing the plight of civilians and rebels to a sectarian narrative that increasingly “vilifies not just fighters but Shi’ite civilians.”[xiv]

Cracks Begin to Grow 

The official break between radical Islamist forces and the Syrian National Coalition traces back to fall of last year, when thirteen major rebel groups issued a joint statement rejecting authority of the west-backed Syrian National Coalition. The groups included Jabhat al-Nusrah, as well as ISIL, deemed as some of the most powerful rebel factions in the opposition. The split was a major blow to the FSA because the Islamist forces, especially ISIL were considered some of the most effective fighters in the battle against Assad as a result of their former experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. The splinter greatly hindered rebel gains over Assad territory, which now fell to the hands of Islamists.[xv] The first major confrontation between the two groups was in April 2013, when ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced in a voice message that the Nusra Front was merely a group existing within the Islamic State of Iraq, and that the two groups would merge to form the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).[xvi]  The Nusra Front did not respond quickly to this message.

After the break from the SNC and as disputes with radicals such as ISIL continued to grow, seven of Syria’s most powerful Islamist rebel groups merged to create an umbrella alliance that became known as the Islamic Front.  In a YouTube video statement, the new Islamic Front claimed they were “an independent political, military, and social formation that seeks to completely topple the Assad regime in Syria and build an orthodox Islamic state”.[xvii] By forming a single umbrella alliance, funding from international donors was more efficient  now that Islamist rebels operated in a single office, where they could more effectively receive and distribute military aid.[xviii]  Though all factions in the opposition shared a  common enemy in the Assad regime, they failed to agree on a vision for a post-Assad Syria. As a consequence rebel infighting grew rampant toward the end of 2013.  By the start of 2014, the ISIL alienated many of the different rebel factions, including the Islamic Front.  In January the Islamic Front begin to work with the FSA to combat the growing influence of ISIL, leading to several skirmishes between various opposition groups and the ISIL.[xix]  In response, the ISIL called for fighting against the FSA who were “legitimate targets” because of their apparent “betrayal” of the Syrian people for working with western powers.[xx]

By this time, the Islamic Front, among other Islamist forces understood that the ISIL was only undermining their efforts to fight the Assad regime in an attempt to consolidate power for themselves. On January 3rd, clashes erupted between Al-Qaeda linked forces and ISIL fighters over the northeastern city of Raqqa, which had become a bastion for ISIL. Conflict arose in Raqqa with two other major Islamist factions when the ISIL allegedly tortured and murdered a Syrian doctor affiliated with the group Ahrar al Sham, and executed an emir affiliated with the Nusrah Front. ISIL’s actions prompted retaliation from the Islamist groups, who sought to regain control over Raqqa. From January 3rd to the 15th, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that nearly 1,100 Islamist fighters were killed in the infighting[xxi].

Opposition infighting: When should you car bomb your friends?

At the end of January the situation had gotten to the point where al-Zawahiri, the emir of al-Qaeda released a new audio message to address the infighting between jihadist groups.  While he did not mention any group by name, the message was clearly aimed at the ISIL.  By this point, the leaders of ISIL had repeatedly claimed to represent the only “true Islamic state inside Syria” and had sought to enforce its wells on others, declaring them as apostates when they did not accept the group’s unilateral decisions.  Other al-Qaeda groups such as Al Nusrah Front and Ahrar al Sham rejected ISIL’s claims of superiority.[xxii] This led to repeated clashes between the ISIL and other rebels as ISIL repeatedly executed and tortured supporters of other rebel groups.

Instead of backing off, the ISIL shifted tactics.  On February 2nd the ISIL targeted the command structures of their rivals by killing the leader of a moderate unit and members of Islamic Front in a car bomb attack.[xxiii] In response, the day after the attacks senior Al-Qaeda members announced that they no longer hold any connection to the ISIL, and were not responsible for any of their actions, effectively disowning them.[xxiv] The Islamist groups, virtually unified against the ISIL, hoped to remain focused on toppling the Assad regime, instead of fighting within the opposition. The Islamist groups’ alienation of the ISIL served to delegitimize the organization, and encourage its members to defect. While some reports from Syria do note the defection of several ISIL members after moderates secured their exit in Raqqa where we noted the extreme infighting earlier, the future of the ISIL remains uncertain.[xxv]

Over the next months, we believe that these trends will continue since it will be difficult to stop the rise of foreign funding and fractionalism. This fractionalism only serves to weaken the opposition as rebel commanders must not only fight against Assad’s forces, but also the radical extremists.  Furthermore, this infighting serves to weaken the opposition’s bargaining position, both during international peace talks and to call for more aid from Western donors. There is good news however. The clear separation secular moderates in the FSA and hardline groups such as ISIL have led to the US resuming nonlethal aid.[xxvi]The US and other Western donors must increase this aid to counter both the influence of private donors in the Gulf nations for the extremist Islamist factions and the support from Iran and Russia for Assad’s regime.  The escalating fight against the ISIL provides a unique opportunity for various opposition factions such as the FSA and moderate Islamist groups to unite forces. While the Syrian Civil War may last for years to come, the rebel factions will hopefully learn from these setbacks to create a stronger and more unified front that in time could present a new government for Syria.

[i] Maier, L. (2013, September 30). Syrian rebels include extremists, but how many?. PolitiFact. Retrieved February 17, 2014, from http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2013/sep/30/syrian-rebels-include-extremists-how-many/

[ii] Landis, J. (2011, July 29). Free Syrian Army Founded by Seven Officers to Fight the Syrian Army – Syria Comment. Syria Comment . Retrieved February 1, 2014, from http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/free-syrian-army-established-to-fight-the-syrian-army/

[iii] Lund, A. (2013, March 17). The Free Syrian Army Doesn’t Exist. Eurasia Review. Retrieved February 16, 2014, from http://www.eurasiareview.com/17032013-the-free-syrian-army-doesnt-exist-analysis/

[iv] Black, I. (2012, July 26). Splits widen within Syrian opposition. The Guardian. Retrieved February 2, 2014, from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/jul/25/syria-rebels-divided-jostling-power

[v]Sherlock, R. (2012, April 22). Syrian opposition undermined by splits and infighting, emails show. The Telegraph. Retrieved February 9, 2014, from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/9219643/Syrian-opposition-undermined-by-splits-and-infighting-emails-show.html

[vi]MacFarquhar, N., & Saad, H. (2012, December 7). Rebel Groups in Syria Make Framework for Military.New York Times, p. A8.

[vii]International Crisis Group. (2012 ). Tentative jihad: Syria’s fundamentalist opposition. Middle East Report131.

[viii]Sullivan, K. (2012, October 8). Saudis line up against Syria’s Assad. Washington Post. Retrieved February 9, 2014, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/saudis-line-up-against-syrias-assad/2012/10/07/7b06de8e-0e51-11e2-bd1a-b868e65d57eb_story.html

[ix] Solomon, E. (2012, August 8). Insight: Syria rebels see future fight with foreign radicals. Reuters. Retrieved February 8, 2014, from http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/08/08/us-syria-crisis-insight-idUSBRE8770BK20120808

[x] Yateem, J. (2012, August 20). Rifts weaken unity of rebel groups in Syria. Your Middle East. Retrieved February 12, 2014, from http://www.yourmiddleeast.com/news/rifts-weaken-unity-of-rebel-groups-in-syria_8930

[xi] International Crisis Group. (2012 ). Tentative jihad: Syria’s fundamentalist opposition. Middle East Report131.


[xii]Abouzeid, R. (2012, September 18). Syria’s Secular and Islamist Rebels: Who Are the Saudis and the Qataris Arming? Read more: Syrian Anti-Assad Rebel Groups Funded by Saudi Arabia, Qatar.Time World . Retrieved February 16, 2014, from http://world.time.com/2012/09/18/syrias-secular-and-islamist-rebels-who-are-the-saudis-and-the-qataris-arming/

[xiii]The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World. (2013). Playing with fire: Why private gulf financing for syria’s extremist rebels risks igniting sectarian conflict at home. ANALYSIS PAPER16.

[xiv] ibed

[xv]Getty. (2012, September 25). Syria rebel factions, including al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, reject authority of U.S.-backed opposition SNC. CBS News. Retrieved February 15, 2014, from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/syria-rebel-factions-including-al-qaeda-linked-nusra-front-reject-authority-of-us-backed-opposition-snc/

[xvi]Caillet, R. (2013, December 27). The Islamic State: Leaving al-Qaeda Behind. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Retrieved February 17, 2014, from http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=54017

[xvii] Al-Halab Al-Shahba. (2013, November 22). 6 of the largest militant factions in Syria Announces united under the name of the Islamic Front. YouTube. Retrieved February 15, 2014, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QVZmtity7A

[xviii] Hubbard, B., & Shoumali, K. (2013, November 22). Powerful Rebel Groups in Syria Announce Creation of Umbrella Alliance . New York Times, p. A13.

[xix]Roggio, B., & Lundquist, L. (2014, January 17). Analysis: Shifting dynamics of rebel infighting in Syria.Long Wars Journal . Retrieved February 17, 2014, from http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/01/analysis_shifting_dy.php

[xx]Baghdad. (2014, January 19). ISIS ‘reaching out’ to Syrian rebels, urges end to infighting. Al Arabiya News Middle East . Retrieved February 16, 2014, from http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2014/01/19/ISIL-reaching-out-to-Syrian-rebels-urges-end-to-infighting-.html

[xxi] Roggio, B., & Lundquist, L. (2014, January 17). Analysis: Shifting dynamics of rebel infighting in Syria.Long Wars Journal . Retrieved February 17, 2014, from http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/01/analysis_shifting_dy.php

[xxii]Joscelyn, T. (2014, January 23). Al Qaeda head addresses infighting in Syria. Long Wars Journal . Retrieved February 17, 2014, from http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/01/al_qaeda_head_addres.php

[xxiii]Al-Qaeda fighters kill Syrian rebel leaders. (2014, February 2). Al Jazeera . Retrieved February 17, 2014, from http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/02/al-qaeda-fighters-kill-syrian-rebel-leader-2014229511898140.html

[xxiv]Joscelyn, T. (2014, February 3). Al Qaeda’s general command disowns the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham. Long War Journal . Retrieved February 17, 2014, from http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/02/al_qaedas_general_co.php

[xxv]Al-Ahmad, T, & Badr, M. (2014, February 9). 13 members defect from ISIL in Al-Raqqa | Syria Newsdesk. Syria Newsdesk . Retrieved February 18, 2014, from http://syrianewsdesk.com/en/2014/02/09/news-13-members-defect-isil-al-raqqa

[xxvi]Gearan, A. (2014, January 29). Obama administration has resumed nonlethal aid to Syrian rebels.Washington Post. Retrieved February 18, 2014, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/obama-administration-has-resumed-non-lethal-aid-to-syrian-rebels/2014/01/29/a697cc12-8933-11e3-916e-e01534b1e132_story.html