The Syrian Liberation Front (JTS), a newly formed insurgent coalition in northern Syria, was conceived in and exists for war.
Formed by an agreement between the Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham and the more ideologically flexible Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, JTS was bolstered by defections from other, smaller Islamist factions.
Together, Ahrar and Zenki claim to be capable of fielding more than 25,000 fighters. When combined with other factions, this presents a substantial front. JTS could dramatically change the situation in north-western Syria, displacing al-Qaeda-led Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and potentially presenting a challenge to the regime of Bashar Assad, which has set its sights on insurgent-controlled portions of Idlib and Aleppo provinces.
The exact composition of JTS is in doubt. Elizabeth Tsurkov, a research fellow at the Israeli Forum for Regional Thinking, said by telephone that Ahrar and Zenki ‘did not dissolve themselves and form one group’. Instead, they formed an alliance featuring leading figures from each.
JTS has declared itself a guardian of the Syrian revolution but the statement is not entirely accurate.
Zenki was expelled from a rebel joint operations room for human rights violations; its fighters have committed shocking acts that have brought international condemnation. Zenki allied with Jabhat al-Nusra to form HTS, which Zenki eventually left.
Ahrar al-Sham, similarly, has troubling associations. It is variously considered a hard-line jihadist faction, though not a global terror movement. Tsurkov said she believed Ahrar ‘went through a genuine process of moderation’, including ‘appeal[ing] to public support as a source of legitimacy … associat[ing] itself with the flag of the revolution’.
The new coalition is ranged squarely against HTS. Analyst Ryan O’Farrell said via social media that the announcement of JTS’s formation was ‘preceded by the killing of a prominent HTS official at a Zenki checkpoint, which Zenki claims was a mistake but which HTS media outlets quickly seized upon’.
Those groups that make up JTS all have reasons to fight. Ahrar lost territory and the control of various sources of revenue to HTS. Its fighting HTS alone was not a serious option. Ahrar ‘knows it cannot take on HTS on its own’, Tsurkov said. ‘Zenki knows the same’. O’Farrell noted that both groups ‘have been sidelined, weakened and on several occasions militarily defeated by HTS’.
The new coalition is intended to make the inevitable confrontation between the groups more feasible. After the new coalition was declared, clashes broke out immediately.
JTS seems more willing than its predecessor alliances to fight HTS.
Zenki advanced in Aleppo governorate, seizing towns such as Darat Izza and ‘ending HTS’s presence … on the western side of Aleppo city and (for a few days) managing to seize the border crossing at Atmeh’, O’Farrell said.
Ahrar ‘cleared HTS from much of the southern half of Jabal Zawiya, adjacent areas of north Hama and forced HTS to evacuate its stronghold at Khan Sheikhoun’, while its Suqour al-Sham sub-faction ‘cleared much of northern Jabal Zawiya between Ariha and Maarat al-Nu’man’, said O’Farrell.
This conflict has brought in heavy weaponry, Tsurkov noted, with JTS and other rebel groups using TOW missile launchers to destroy HTS vehicles. TOW missiles are difficult to procure and replace. Their use against an insurgent faction, rather than the regime, indicates the seriousness with which JTS is pursuing its conflict with HTS.
Fighting remains fierce and confused, though JTS advances appear to have slowed. Tsurkov noted that there are ‘groups switching allegiances to avoid being destroyed’, demonstrating the confusion of the situation and the violence of the confrontation.
Things remain unclear. HTS spent years ‘indoctrinating their fighters’, Tsurkov said. HTS can mobilise and fight faster and with zeal.
Zenki’s fighters are known to be willing combatants. It was initially reported, Tsurkov said, that Ahrar fighters were refraining from ‘doing the heavy lifting’ in confronting HTS, but now, she noted, Ahrar’s ‘leaders [seem] able to convince their fighters to fight this time instead of retreating’.
JTS has the tacit support of Turkey, which has attempted to diminish the strength of HTS, including mounting a campaign of assassinations against the group’s leaders. Turkey was also involved in a recent attempt to ‘get [Ahrar] back on its feet — to reorganise [its] units, prepare them for elite combat’, Tsurkov noted.
Turkish troops are now across northern Syria. Turkey underwrites and allies with Free Syrian Army factions. The continued strength of HTS is anathema to Turkey’s attempts to protect its territory and secure its border.
All this means JTS will have consistent support. It justifies HTS’s perception that this new coalition represents a serious threat. O’Farrell noted that ‘HTS’s most prominent opponents have reversed many of HTS’s gains at their expense, consolidated their positions and forced HTS onto the defensive’.
Hassan Soufan, the leader of Ahrar and a central figure in JTS, announced he was open to a ceasefire, saying JTS had ‘broken the siege on West Aleppo’ and its ‘rights have been returned’. Whether this leads to a lessening of hostilities remains to be seen.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.