The End of the Army of Conquest? Syrian Rebel Alliance Shows Cracks

The End of the Army of Conquest? Syrian Rebel Alliance Shows Cracks
Syrian army rocket launchers fire near the village of Morek in Hama province, Oct. 7, 2015 (AP photo by Alexander Kots).

Syria’s most successful rebel alliance may have just barely avoided breaking apart. Over the spring and summer of this year, the coalition of Islamist rebel groups known as Jaish al-Fateh, or the Army of Conquest, scored a series of dramatic victories over the regime of Bashar al-Assad in northwest Syria. But in the past several weeks, just as Jaish al-Fateh announced a major new offensive, one of its most hard-line factions, Jund al-Aqsa, very publicly quit the coalition. The acrimony that has followed the withdrawal of Jund al-Aqsa—an ultra-extreme splinter of al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra—has exposed the persistent and probably unresolvable divisions among Syria’s rebels. And the announcement from rebel corners last week that Jund al-Aqsa may rejoin Jaish al-Fateh does not mean these divisions are going away.

Northern rebels formed the Jaish al-Fateh operations rooms, a kind of coordination cell, in March 2015 with the aim of capturing the city of Idlib, the capital of Syria’s northwest Idlib province. The coalition centers on Jabhat al-Nusra and the Salafist rebels in Ahrar al-Sham, but it also includes five smaller factions that range from less ideological brigades to Jund al-Aqsa. Thanks in part to newly coordinated and generous backing from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, Jaish al-Fateh was able to not only take Idlib in days last spring, but also overrun a series of key regime military bases and almost entirely drive the regime from the province. In weeks, Jaish al-Fateh had made enough headway that it posed a real threat to the regime’s strongholds in central and coastal Syria.

Last month, despite an ongoing Russian-backed regime counteroffensive that seems to have largely targeted Jaish al-Fateh—rather than the self-proclaimed Islamic State, as Moscow first claimed it would—the rebel coalition announced it would launch a new offensive to take central Hama province. But less than two weeks later, Jund al-Aqsa declared its withdrawal from the coalition in the most controversial terms possible: It not only quit, it nearly accused some of its former allies of apostasy. Rumors swirled that Jabhat al-Nusra, one of Jaish al-Fateh’s two core groups, had also suspended its role in the coalition.

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