The head of a new alliance of Syrian rebel factions, including a former affiliate of Al-Qaeda as well as other more moderate groups, has promised to escalate attacks against the Syrian army and its Iranian-backed Shia jihadist allies with the goal of toppling the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad.
Hashem Al-Sheikh Abu Jabir, leader of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, or the Sham Liberation Organisation (SLO) which was formed last month, also said in his first video speech that the new alliance sought to “liberate” all of Syria’s territory.
“We want to reassure our people that we will begin our project by resuming military operations against the criminal [Assad] regime, and we will renew our attacks on their bases and positions,” he said.
The SLO was created from a merger of Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (JFS) – formerly Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front – and several other groups including the Nour Al-Din Al-Zinki group, Jabhat Ansar Al-Din, the Army of the Sunnah and the Liwa Al-Haq armed faction.
The rebel alliance has enlisted thousands of fighters who have defected in recent weeks from US and Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups, angered by their leaders’ readiness to engage in a peace process with the Assad regime.
Days before the alliance came into being, heavy fighting erupted in northwestern Syria between JFS and more moderate opposition groups, including Ahrar Al-Sham, threatening to further weaken the opposition to Al-Assad in Idlib province, the biggest territorial stronghold still under their control.
Abu Jabir, formerly the chief military leader of Ahrar Al-Sham, said the new alliance would form “one entity” to spearhead the military and political work of the anti-Assad regime forces, saying international peace efforts aimed to “abort the revolution” and reward Al-Assad for his crimes against Syrians.
“We seek to bring together the Syrian arena within one entity under a unified leadership to bring down the criminal regime,” he added.
But many smaller rebel groups fearing the new alliance’s growing influence that could pose a threat to their existence have turned to protect themselves by merging with the powerful Islamist Ahrar Al-Sham group, a rival of the former JFS.
Mounting tensions in several opposition-held areas have spilled over in recent days in skirmishes among opposition groups affiliated to the new alliance and some FSA groups.
FSA groups, alongside groups operating under the umbrella of the new alliance, however, will still wage joint battles against the Assad regime’s army despite deep ideological differences and turf wars. This is because Al-Assad represents an existential threat to all of them.
They launched a new military campaign in the coastal province of Latakia, a bastion of Assad’s Alawite minority against the army.
“The loss of Syria out of the hands of the Sunnis will begin an era of slavery to the Shia for the region, and no Sunni Muslim will be safe,” Abu Jabir said, warning that the regime and Iranian imperial ambitions will upend the entire Middle East.