Seven major Islamist rebel groups battling President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria have announced a merger to form an “Islamic Front” and pledged to build an Islamic state in a post-Assad Syria.
Friday’s merger is dubbed as the largest between different groupings and blocs. The new front represents “a full fusion” of groups and not merely a coordination body, rebels told Al Jazeera.
“The Islamic Front is an independent military and social force that is aimed at bringing down Assad’s regime in Syria and at replacing it with a just Islamic state,” the groups said in a statement, published on Friday.
The factions joining the merger are Aleppo’s biggest fighting force Liwa al-Tawhid, the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham, the Idlib-based Soqour al-Sham, the Homs-based al-Haq Brigades, Ansar al-Sham, and the Damascus-based Army of Islam. The Kurdish Islamic Front also joined the front.
One of the major obstacles we faced was the lust for power by some leaders. But eventually everyone made concessions in order to make this project happen.
These names “will disappear and the groups will now melt into the new merger”, a member of Liwa al-Tawhid told Al Jazeera, adding his group would be dissolved.
“There will be no such thing as Liwa al-Tawhid.”
Amad Essa al-Sheikh, the head of the Consultative Council of the new Islamic Front, told Al Jazeera the goal of integrating the factions was to bring about “a paradigm shift in the armed rebellion by closing ranks and mobilising them to become the real alternative to the dying regime”.
‘No to foreign agendas’
Al-Sheikh said the Front would cooperate with all “loyal fighters” in Syria and that it would work with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) .
The FSA, set up with the backing of Western and regional powers in an attempt to unite the different armed groups and isolate what were seen as extremist elements, is the military arm of the Syrian National Coalition, the country’s main political opposition bloc.
The SNC has been heavily criticised by activists and rebels inside Syria, who saw it as implementing a western agenda and accused it of being out of touch with the people on the ground.
Ahmad Musa, a member the Islamic Front’s political bureau, told Al Jazeera he hoped the SNC would welcome the announcement of the new front and would cooperate with “what the Syrian people want”.
“They want a revolution and not politics and foreign agendas,” he told Al Jazeera.
The creation of the joint force follows major regime advances on key battlegrounds around Damascus and Aleppo in northern Syria over the past few weeks.
The armed opposition has been crippled by infighting and disunity, undermining the rebels in their efforts to remove Assad.
‘Lust for power’
The announcement of the merger came days after the death of Liwa al-Tawhid’s military leader, Abdel Qader Saleh, who is believed be one of the merger’s masterminds.
Saleh died from his wounds last week after an air strike hit the building in Aleppo where he and other leaders were meeting.
Adil Fistok, a member of Liwa al-Tawhid, said it took seven month to work on the merger before it was announced.
“One of the major obstacles we faced was the lust for power by some leaders. But eventually everyone made concessions in order to make this project happen,” he told Al Jazeera from Aleppo.
He said the main challenge facing the newly-formed group is a lack of enough cash and weapons.
The announcement is seen by activists as a blow to the Assad regime but also to the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which has accused some opposition groups of apostasy and clashed with them in opposition-held areas.
Follow Basma Atassi on Twitter: @Basma_