Jaysh al-Islam

FormedSeptember 29, 2013
DisbandedGroup is active.
First AttackJuly 2014: Jaysh al-Islam drove the Islamic State (IS) out of Eastern Ghouta in the province of Damascus (unknown casualties). [1]
Last AttackApril 7, 2016: Jaysh al-Islam allegedly used chemical weapons in an attack on the People’s Protection Units and other Kurdish forces in Aleppo. The group denied the allegations and clarified that it had disciplined a commander for using “modified GRAD rockets” not chlorine chemical weapons (160 killed or wounded). [2]
UpdatedAugust 4, 2016

Narrative Summary

Jaysh al-Islam (The Islam Army, The Islam Brigade) is a Syrian opposition group that targets the Assad Regime, the Islamic State, and select Kurdish forces. The group was formed in 2013 through a merger of about fifty Damascus-based opposition groups, including Liwa al-Islam, which remains one of the best-armed organizations and most powerful brigades within Jaysh al-Islam in the Ghouta agricultural belt. After the merger, Liwa al-Islam’s commander Zahran Alloush became Jaysh al-Islam’s leader, and the group replaced the Free Syrian Army as the dominant opposition force in Damascus. [3] [4] The group also has expanded its operations to the Homs, Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, Daraa, and Quneitra governorates, and has conducted an attack in Arsal, Lebanon in 2015. [5] [6] [7]

In November 2013, shortly after Jaysh al-Islam was established, the group helped found the Islamic Front, an umbrella organization of 40,000-70,000 fighters that sought to replace the Assad Regime with an Islamic government. [8] Jaysh al-Islam’s leader, Zahran Alloush, became the Islamic Front’s military commander. [9] [10] However, the Islamic Front fell apart in mid-2014 due to disagreements between Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, another Islamist opposition group and a key member of the Islamic Front. [11]

Throughout 2014, Jaysh al-Islam successfully pursued its campaign against the Islamic State (IS) and its efforts to build a unified political structure in Damascus. Jaysh al-Islam has always opposed IS and considers the group to be “enemy number one of the Syrian revolution.” [12] In its first known attack, Jaysh al-Islam openly clashed with IS and drove the group out of Eastern Ghouta in Damascus in July 2014. [13] In mid-2014, Jaysh al-Islam also established the Unified Judiciary Council, a joint civilian governance body composed of scholars of Islamic law that controls the legal affairs (criminal law, family status, and civilian issues) of Damascus opposition groups, as well as a military counterpart known as the Unified Military Command. Analysts refer to the Council as one of the most successful governance projects among opposition forces due to its high degree of coordination among a variety of groups and its willingness to allow civilians to pursue legal cases against military commanders. [14] 

In 2015, Jaysh al-Islam began fighting the Islamic State in Lebanon, and faced considerable unrest in Eastern Ghouta after a group of rival opposition brigades known as the Ummah Army tried to break away from the Council in early 2015. [15] Prominent opposition group and former Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Fatah al-Sham), formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Nusra), opposes the Council as well. [16] Since the two groups clashed over the Council’s jurisdiction in 2015, the relationship between Jaysh al-Islam and Fatah al-Sham has remained strained. While Jaysh al-Islam and Al-Nusra cooperated in a successful offensive to retake Jisr al-Shughur from government forces in April 2015, tensions reignited between the two groups in December 2015 after Jaysh al-Islam signed a statement with other opposition forces at a conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia that declared their intent to begin negotiating peace terms with the Assad Regime. [17] [18] Al-Nusra viewed the negotiations and the High Negotiations Committee for the Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, the delegation in charge of negotiating with the Assad Regime, as a security threat. [19] In response, Al-Nusra established the Fustat Army political alliance to challenge Jaysh al-Islam’s political dominance in Eastern Ghouta. [20]

Throughout 2015 and 2016, Jaysh al-Islam was embroiled in a series of controversies. In November 2015, the group placed Syrian soldiers and their families in 100 cages in Eastern Ghouta to deter Assad Regime attacks on civilian areas, such as market and hospitals. In response, the group faced widespread criticism within Eastern Ghouta for using soldiers as human shields. [21] Additionally, Jaysh al-Islam allegedly used chemical weapons in an attack on the People’s Protection Units and other Kurdish forces in Aleppo in April 2016. However, the group denied the allegations and clarified that it had disciplined a commander for using “modified GRAD rockets” not chlorine chemical weapons. [22] The last major controversy began when Faylaq al-Rahman, an opposition group that includes the former Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union and is supported by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, claimed that Jaysh al-Islam attempted to assassinate the former chief judge of the Unified Judiciary Council. [23] [24] In response, Jaysh al-Islam began to target Faylaq al-Rahman until the two groups reached a peace treaty in May 2016. [25] [26] 

Leadership

  1. Mohammed Alloush (Unknown to Present): Mohammed Alloush is Jaysh al-Islam’s political leader. From January 2016 to May 2016, Alloush also served as the chief negotiator for the Saudi-based High Negotiations Committee (HNC) in opposition peace talks with the Assad Regime in Geneva. Alloush resigned on May 30, 2016 claiming that the peace talks were a “waste of time” because the Assad Regime was not willing to pursue “serious negotiations.” [27]
  2. Zahran Alloush (2013 to December 25, 2015): Alloush was imprisoned by the Assad Regime for his Salafi activism from 2009 to 2011 and immediately founded an Islamist opposition group, Liwa al-Islam, in his hometown of Douma after his release. Alloush became the commander of Jaysh al-Islam in 2013 after Liwa al-Islam merged with roughly 50 other Damascus based Islamist opposition groups to form Jaysh al-Islam. He subsequently became the military commander of the Islamic Front umbrella group, of which Jaysh al-Islam was a founding member, in 2014. Alloush was a controversial leader, and was accused of using force to quell dissent in Damascus. He was killed on December 25, 2015 by a Russian airstrike in Damascus.[28]
  3. Abu Hammam Bouwaidani (December 25, 2015 to Present): Bouwaidani, also known as Essam al-Boydhani, succeeded Zahran Alloush Jaysh al-Islam’s leader. He has kept a lower profile than Alloush, but his decision to endorse and participate in the 2016 Geneva negotiations with the Assad Regime lead to disputes with other opposition groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra.[29]

Ideology & Goals

Jaysh al-Islam aims to overthrow the Assad Regime in Syria. On September 23, 2013, its predecessor, Liwa al-Islam, joined the Islamic Coalition, a political group that called for the opposition to the Assad Regime to be run only by groups fighting inside Syria and opposed the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which was based in Turkey and largely comprised exiled Syrians. [30] [31] The coalition wants to replace the Assad Regime with a government based on Shariah law. However in a 2015 interview, Jaysh al-Islam commander Zahran Alloush said that the Assad Regime should not be replaced by a sectarian or partisan government, but by a “technocratic body that represents the diversity of the Syrian people.” He also stated that while the group is composed of Muslims, Jaysh al-Islam does not see itself as an Islamic group and tolerates criticism from residents in the area it controls. [32]  Alloush’s interview contradicted an earlier statement where he expressed a desire to cleanse Damascus of all Shiites and Alawis. [33]

Name Changes

Jaysh al-Islam has not changed its name.

Size Estimates

Designated/Listed

Jaysh al-Islam is not designated as a terrorist organization by any major national government or international body.

Since December 2015, the UN Security Council has been trying to assemble a list of terrorist groups in Syria. Russia, Lebanon, and Egypt support classifying Jaysh al-Islam as a terrorist group, but they have not been able to achieve a unanimous consensus. [39] [40]

Resources

Jaysh al-Sham has received funding from Saudi Arabia since its inception in 2013, and currently receives funding from Qatar and Turkey as well. [41] [42]. [43] It is unclear when Qatar and Turkey began funding Jaysh al-Islam.

Additionally, an unconfirmed report indicates that Saudi Arabia convinced Pakistan to help train Jaysh al-Islam fighters. [44] 

Jaysh al-Islam has a diverse arsenal that includes armored tanks and GRAD missiles. The group also allegedly has access to chemical weapons. [45] [46] In 2013, the group had two fighter jets. [47]

External Influences

Saudi Arabia reportedly helped establish Jaysh al-Islam in an attempt to counter the influence of Al Qaeda and its affiliates in Damascus. [48] Analysts also speculate that Saudi Arabia played a large role in establishing the Islamic Front umbrella group in late 2013. [49]  Additionally in 2013, Saudi Arabia tried unsuccessfully to convince the United States to supply Jaysh al-Islam with anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, and failed to persuade Jordan to allow its territory to be used as a supply route for Jaysh al-Islam into Syria. [50] [51]

Jaysh al-Islam also has close ties with the Turkish government. In June 2015, Jaysh al-Islam’s leader Zahran Alloush went to Turkey to meet with representatives of foreign governments and Syrian insurgent groups. Many suspect that Turkey, along with other international actors, was preparing for Alloush to play a prominent role in organizing Syrian opposition groups in a military structure that would replace the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council. [52] In late 2015, Jaysh al-Islam also released a statement that it was in “complete solidarity with the Turkish government and is sending sincere condolences to the families of the victims” after a terrorist attack killed 100 civilians in Ankara. [53]

Qatar provides finaicial assistance to Jaysh al-Islam and also hosted a peace conference between the Jaysh al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman, an Islamist group active in Damascus and supported by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, in May 2016. [54]

Geographical Locations

Jaysh al-Islam primarily operates in the Damascus governorate and its largest brigade, Liwa al-Islam, is the most powerful opposition group in Damascus’ Ghouta agricultural belt. [55] The group is also active in the Homs governorate, and has carried out operations in Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, Daraa, and Quneitra. [56] [57] [58] In addition to its presence in Syria, Jaysh al-Islam conducted an attack against the Islamic State in Arsal, Lebanon in 2015. [59]

Targets & Tactics

Jaysh al-Islam fights the Syrian army and its affiliated forces as well as the Islamic State (IS) and select Kurdish forces, including the Peoples Protection Units (YPG). [60] [61]

Jaysh al-Islam regularly attacks the Syrian army and its affiliated forces to increase its arsenal. [62] In addition, the group implemented a standing policy of launching retaliatory missiles at central Damascus in response to regular Assad Regime aerial strikes in Eastern Ghouta. [63] In November 2015, the group also placed Syrian soldiers and their families in 100 cages in Eastern Ghouta to deter Assad Regime attacks on civilian areas, such as market and hospitals. [64]

Jaysh al-Islam has also executed IS fighters in response to an IS execution of Jaysh al-Islam fighters. [65] [66]

Political Activities

In 2014, Jaysh al-Islam established the Unified Judiciary Council, a joint civilian governance body composed of scholars of Islamic law that controls the legal affairs of opposition groups in Damascus. These legal affairs include criminal law, family status, and civilian issues. The Council maintains several courts in Eastern Ghouta, an agricultural belt in the Damascus governorate. Although seventeen different factions, including Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Nusra) and Ahrar al-Sham, ceded their legal power to the Council initially, support from various groups has fluctuated over time. Al-Nusra withdrew its support shortly after its founding, and in early 2015, Jaysh al-Islam’s leader Zahran Alloush launched a crackdown against rival opposition brigades known as the Ummah Army who were attempting to break away from the Council. However, analysts refer to the Council as one of the most successful governance projects among opposition forces due to its high degree of coordination among a variety of groups and its willingness to allow civilians to pursue legal cases against military commanders. [67]

Though Jaysh al-Islam was initially hostile to Syrian peace negotiations, it eventually became active in peace talks with the Assad Regime. On September 23, 2013, Liwa al-Islam joined the Islamic Coalition, a political group that called for the implementation of Shariah Law in Syria, the opposition to the Assad Regime to be run only by groups fighting inside Syria, and that opposed the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. [68] [69] When Liwa al-Islam merged with other groups to form Jaysh al-Islam, it retained its membership in the Islamic Coalition. However in December 2015, the group participated in a conference in Riyadh Saudi Arabia and agreed to form the High Negotiations Committee for the Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (HNC). [70] Jaysh al-Islam’s political leader, Mohammed Alloush, was appointed as the HNC’s chief negotiator. However, Alloush resigned his position in May 2016 after the HNC suspended peace talks with the Assad Regime over worsening conditions on the ground in Syria. [71] [72]

Major Attacks

  1. July 2014: Jaysh al-Islam drove the Islamic State (IS) out of Eastern Ghouta in the province of Damascus (unknown casualties).[73]
  2. 2015: Jaysh al-Islam leader Zahran Alloush launched a crackdown against rival opposition brigades known as the Ummah Army who were attempting to break away from the Unified Judiciary Council. Jaysh al-Islam arrested 1,300 members of the Ummah Army and killed many others (unknown casualties).[74]
  3. February 5, 2015: Jaysh al-Islam attacked IS in Arsal, Lebanon while IS was launching an offensive against Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army. Leader Zahran Alloush claimed the attack was in response to IS attacking a Jaysh al-Islam headquarters. This is the first time the group launched an attack outside of Syria (3 killed, 1 wounded).[75]
  4. April 25, 2015: Jaysh al-Islam cooperated with other opposition groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, to take over Jisr al-Shughur, a government stronghold in the province of Idlib (unknown casualties).[76]
  5. July 2015: Jaysh al-Islam attacked IS in the Qaboun, Jobar, Barzeh, and Tishrin districts in Damascus. Jaysh al-Islam captured two IS headquarters and took 20 prisoners (7 killed, unknown wounded).[77]
  6. September 10, 2015: Jaysh al-Islam seized two buildings in the women’s section of the Assad Regime’s Adra prison near Damascus. The prison held 5,000 prisoners (unknown casualties).[78]
  7. September 10, 2015: Jaysh al-Islam seized two buildings in the women’s section of the Assad Regime’s Adra prison near Damascus. The prison held 5,000 prisoners (unknown casualties).[79]
  8. February 11, 2016: Jaysh al-Islam attacked Syrian army soldiers between Adra and Douma in Eastern Ghouta (45+ killed, unknown wounded).[80]
  9. April 7, 2016: Jaysh al-Islam allegedly used chemical weapons in an attack on the People’s Protection Units and other Kurdish forces in Aleppo. The group denied the allegations and clarified that it had disciplined a commander for using “modified GRAD rockets” not chlorine chemical weapons (160 killed or wounded).[81]

Relationships with Other Groups

Despite their past military cooperation in the Idlib province, Jaysh al-Islam has had tense relations with former Al Qaeda (AQ) affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Nusra). Saudi Arabia helped create Jaysh al-Islam in order to counter AQ’s influence in Syria, and relations with Al-Nusra grew particularly strained in 2015 when Al-Nusra voiced opposition to the Jaysh al-Islam-linked Unified Judiciary Council. [82] [83] Tensions reignited after Jaysh al-Islam’s new leader, Abu Hammam Bouwaidani agreed to negotiate with the Assad Regime in December 2015. Al-Nusra viewed this decision as treason and as a security threat, and established the Fustat Army political alliance to challenge Jaysh al-Islam’s political dominance in Eastern Ghouta. [84]

Jaysh al-Islam has opposed the Islamic State (IS) since 2013 and referred to IS as “enemy number one of the Syrian revolution.” [85]  By July 2014, Jaysh al-Islam had driven IS out of the eastern village of Ghouta. [86] In response, IS assassinated key Jaysh al-Islam commander Abu Mohammad Haroun [87] The two groups continued to fight in Syria and in Lebanon throughout 2015, and in July 2015, Jaysh al-Islam captured two IS headquarters in Damascus and executed 18 IS militants. [88] [89] [90] The group claimed it was retaliating against the beheading of three Jaysh al-Islam militants by IS earlier that year. [91]

After Liwa al-Islam merged with other groups to form Jaysh al-Islam, the group remained in the Islamic Coalition and was briefly part of the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front until November 2013, when Jaysh al-Islam joined the Islamic Front umbrella organization. [92]

In November 2013, shortly after Jaysh al-Islam was established, the group helped found the Islamic Front, an umbrella organization of 40,000-70,000 fighters that sought to replace the Assad Regime with an Islamic government. [93] Jaysh al-Islam’s leader, Zahran Alloush, became the Islamic Front’s military commander. [94] [95] After the Islamic Front dissolved in mid-2014 due to disagreements between Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam claimed to have absorbed Suqqour al-Sham, a prominent Islamic Front group that was based primarily in the Idlib province. However, Suqqour al-Sham remained an independent group until it was absorbed by Ahrar al-Sham in spring 2015. [96]

Following Zahran Alloush’s death in December 2015, tensions erupted between Jaysh al-Islam and other Damascus-based militant groups. In April 2016 after Faylaq al-Rahman, a group that includes the former Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union and is supported by Fatah al-Sham, claimed that Jaysh al-Islam attempted to assassinate the former chief judge of the Unified Judiciary Council, Jaysh al-Islam began targeting Faylaq al-Rahman. [97] [98] In May 2016, the groups agreed to a peace treaty at a conference in Qatar. [99]

Community Relationships

In 2015, Jaysh al-Islam leader Zahran Alloush claimed that the group tolerates criticism from residents in the area it controls. [100]  However, Alloush had previously expressed a desire to cleanse Damascus of all Shiites and Alawis, and was accused of using force to quell dissent in Damascus in 2015. [101] [102] Jaysh al-Islam commanders were also accused of operating private prisons for political detainees, including Islamic State sympathizers. [103] Despite these accusations, analysts refer to Jaysh al-Islam’s Unified Judiciary Council as one of the most successful governance projects among opposition forces due in part to its willingness to allow civilians to pursue legal cases against military commanders. [104] 


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