At the conclusion of 2016 and entering 2017, two of the most powerful militant Islamist armed organizations remaining in Syria, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya (Movement of the Free Ones of the Levant-HASI) and Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam-JAI), are under intense pressure. JAI, which is principally based in and has its center of gravity in the Ghouta region of the countryside east of the city of Damascus, is the target of a renewed al-Assad government military offensive that is seeking to crush the last strongholds of the armed opposition in Damascus governorate (YouTube, January 8; Reuters, January 5; see Terrorism Monitor, August 21, 2015). HASI, which is an umbrella organization of predominately militant Salafist constituent armed groups with a center of gravity in northwest Syria, is not only facing the ongoing al-Assad government offensive in northern Syria directed at Aleppo and Idlib governorates. It is also weathering an internal organizational and leadership dispute over its future relationship and unity with the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), a dispute that could eventually tear HASI apart (Al-Modon, January 2; ARA News [Idlib], December 31, 2016).
Ali al-Omar, 38, (a.k.a. Abu Ammar or Babi Ammar Taftanaz) is the general commander of the HASI organization. He has held the position since the end of November 2016 after being elected by the majority of the 22 members of the HASI shura council (YouTube, December 1, 2016; Andadolu Agency [Ankara], November 29, 2016; El-Dorar Al-Shamiyya [Idlib], November 29, 2016). At the time of al-Omar’s election, sixteen constituent groups within the HASI structure, most favoring closer ties and potentially formal unification with JFS, and which opposed his election, reportedly formed Jaysh al-Ahrar (Army of the Free Ones), an organization that is distinct from but still maintains loose ties to HASI (Al-Hadath News [Idlib], January 2; Enab Baladi [Idlib], December 11, 2016; Arabi 21 [Idlib], December 10, 2016). Ali al-Omar, like most of the HASI shura council, currently opposes the formal unification of the Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham organizations (Enab Baladi [Idlib], December 22, 2016; All4Syria [Idlib], December 21, 2016).
Al-Omar and his family come from the area around the large market town of Taftanaz, located 11 miles northeast of the city of Idlib in Syria’s northwestern governorate of Idlib (Baladi News [Idlib], November 29, 2016). Taftanaz has historically been a site for the recruitment and mobilization of militant Islamist organizations that seek to overthrow the al-Assad government by force, both under Hafez al-Assad and Bashar al-Assad. Further, al-Omar has a longstanding familial connection to the militant Islamist movement against the Assad regime. Reportedly, his family was associated with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood that actively contested the government of Hafez al-Assad in the 1970s and early 1980s (YouTube, December 3, 2016; Baladi News [Idlib], November 29, 2016; All4Syria [Idlib], November 29, 2016).
After al-Omar’s parents fled Syria for Iraq in the late 1970s, escaping crackdowns on militant Islamist members and their families conducted by the government of Hafez al-Assad, Ali al-Omar was raised in Iraq and received part of his education there (YouTube, December 3, 2016). He also studied at university in Yemen, where he majored in electrical engineering, and also studied the Quran and sharia, providing him with religious credentials that have given him authority within the militant Islamist movement in northwestern Syria (YouTube, December 3, 2016). His opponents allege that he frequently interacted with and is comfortable with al-Qaeda in Yemen. Furthermore, they say that he is comfortable with al-Qaeda in Syria implementing a sharia state that resembles the socio-political structure that the Salafist-jihadist organization has built in Yemen (Al-Modon, November 30, 2016).
Al-Omar is believed to have joined the militant Islamist opposition movement in Idlib shortly after the Syrian uprising began in 2011. However, he was not formally associated with any particular group until his association with the militant Islamist organization Suqur al-Sham (Hawks of the Levant) in early 2013 (YouTube, December 3, 2016; Al-Araby Al-Jadid, December 1, 2016). He is believed to have joined Suqur al-Sham as a result of a family connection that he had to the son of Suqur al-Sham’s leader, Ahmad Issa (Baladi News [Idlib], November 29, 2016; see MLM Briefs, November 27, 2013). More a strategist and political organizer than a front-line commander, al-Omar quickly rose through the ranks of Suqur al-Sham and became the group’s deputy commander and spokesman to the broader Syrian opposition movement (YouTube, December 3, 2016; Al-Modon, November 30, 2016; Baladi News [Idlib], November 29, 2016). As deputy commander of Suqur al-Sham, al-Omar oversaw its incorporation into the former, powerful al-Jabhat al-Islamiyya coalition in November 2013, which was led by HASI, and Suqur al-Sham’s formal incorporation into HASI in 2015 (Orient News [Dubai], November 29, 2016; Baladi News [Idlib], November 29, 2016; see MLM Briefs, November 27, 2013). Although Ahmad Issa would leave HASI in September 2016, al-Omar flourished within HASI’s governing body, becoming a member of its shura council and the deputy commander of the organization in November 2015 (Al-Alam [Tehran], September 5, 2016; Al-Modon, November 30, 2016).
Prior to his appointment as general commander, al-Omar was the deputy commander of the HASI organization. While still deputy commander, he delivered two public lectures, one on HASI’s vision for the future of Syria and the other on HASI’s position on rejecting a ceasefire with the al-Assad government and its Iranian proxy militia allies, which attracted significant public attention and debate (YouTube, September 11, 2016; YouTube, May 25, 2016). His May 2016 lecture on HASI’s vision for the future state in Syria attracted particular attention and debate. Some commentators viewed it as a pragmatic approach to the implementation of HASI’s vision of a sharia state in Syria, and other commentators noted that it was a speech that cited the Taliban in Afghanistan as a model and which reflected al-Qaeda’s strategy to shape the social norms in Syria (Carnegie Middle East Center, December 14, 2016; The National [Abu Dhabi], December 11, 2016; War on the Rocks, June 6, 2016; Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, June 3, 2016). As a result of his public statements in favor of the gradual implantation of a sharia state in Syria, and the opposition to his position as a general commander from leaders within the HASI organization that are seeking to unify with JFS, al-Omar is also considered to be an important and leading member of the HASI organization’s pragmatic wing, which engages frequently with the international community and is an accepted participant in international efforts to broker an end to the country’s civil war (Carnegie Middle East Center, December 14, 2016; YouTube, December 1, 2016; YouTube, May 25, 2016 ).
Shaykh Issam Khalid al-Buwaydhani
Shaykh Issam Khalid al-Buwaydhani (a.k.a. Abu Humam), 41, is the general commander of the JAI (Army of Islam) organization. He has held the position since December 2015, following the death of JAI’s former leader Zahran Muhammad Alloush as a result of what is believed to have been a Russian airstrike (Al-Diyar [Beirut ], December 27, 2015; YouTube, December 26, 2015; see also MLM Briefs, October 31, 2013). At the time of his election as general commander of the JAI organization by its shura council, al-Buwaydhani was serving as a deputy general commander in the organization and was primarily responsible for its military activities (YouTube, December 28, 2016; YouTube, December 25, 2015). In fact, al-Buwaydhani, a founding leader of JAI, has over the entirety of the five years of the conflict played a particularly important role as a front-line leader, overseeing JAI’s constituent militias fighting against the al-Assad government in the eastern countryside of Damascus (YouTube, December 28, 2016; Al-Diyar [Beirut ], December 27, 2015; Orient News [Dubai], December 26, 2015; Al-Araby Al-Jadid, December 26, 2015). He is also considered to be a well-respected figure within the JAI organization, which is an umbrella organization composed of frequently fractious, competing constituent militias; and like Alloush before him, al-Buwaydhani is considered a unifying figure able to maintain the cohesion of JAI (YouTube, November 18, 2016; YouTube, August 4, 2016; Al-Watan Voice [Damascus], December 26, 2015).
Al-Buwaydhani was born to a prominent merchant family in the city of Douma — an eastern suburb six miles from the city of Damascus that is also the hometown of Zahran Alloush — where he grew up working in his family’s large business in the Douma suq (Dam Press [Damascus], December 26, 2016; Orient News [Dubai], December 26, 2015). He earned a university degree in business administration in the area of Damascus, and he reportedly had the opportunity to travel widely outside of Syria for his family’s business (YouTube, December 28, 2016; Orient News [Dubai], December 26, 2015; Smart News Agency [Damascus], December 26, 2015). Al-Buwaydhani also studied Quran and sharia with a number of prominent Damascus-area religious leaders, including Shaykh Abdallah Alloush, the father of Zahran Alloush, which served as al-Buwaydhani’s introduction into the militant Islamist movement (YouTube, December 28, 2016; Orient News [Dubai], December 26, 2015).
As a result of his Islamist activism, al-Buwaydhani was monitored by the Syrian intelligence services, denied the ability to travel outside of Syria and was arrested and incarcerated in the infamous Sednaya Prison, where many of the Syrian militant Islamist activists were held, in 2009 (YouTube, December 28, 2016; Al-Diyar [Beirut ], December 27, 2015; YouTube, December 26, 2015). While he was an inmate in Sednaya Prison, al-Buwaydhani met Zahran Alloush, who was also an inmate there, becoming Alloush’s friend and confident (YouTube, December 28, 2016; Smart News Agency [Damascus], December 26, 2015). Following the al-Assad government’s release of militant Islamist political prisoners from the Sednaya Prison in June 2011, Alloush and al-Buwaydhani worked together in secret to form the armed opposition group Saraya al-Islam (Islam Brigade), which was the foundational group for what would become the larger JAI organization (YouTube, December 28, 2016; Al-Araby Al-Jadid, December 26, 2015; Orient News [Dubai], December 26, 2015; YouTube, December 26, 2015).
In the year since he succeeded his slain friend Zahran Alloush, who was far more charismatic and publicly striking a figure than al-Buwaydhani, Issam Khalid al-Buwaydhai has maintained the general unity of the JAI organization. He has managed to maintain the relative unity of JAI despite severe challenges to JAI’s position of preeminence in the Ghouta from rival organizations within the armed opposition, the Islamic State seeking to gain territory at JAI’s expense in the eastern countryside of Damascus, and the military campaign of the al-Assad government. As a founding member of the JAI organization, and as a front-line commander, al-Buwaydhani likely has the strong credibility within JAI that is needed to continue to weather these challenges.
By contrast, Ali al-Omar is in a more precarious position within his organization, HASI, than al-Buwaydhani is within JAI. Al-Omar is in this position due to the severe internal disputes over his leadership, and the intense and acrimonious debate over formal unity with JFS, which has marked the start of his term as overall commander of HASI. More of a politician than al-Buwaydhani, who in contrast made his name as a military commander, al-Omar has successfully navigated the far from unified internal leadership dynamics of the HASI organization. Al-Omar’s reportedly close relationship with Turkey, the most important state sponsor of HASI, and his support from HASI’s powerful “pragmatic” leadership cadre, which maintains active ties to international supporters of the armed opposition, provides him with a foundation of power.
Ali al-Omar and Issam Khalid al-Buwaydhani are two of the most powerful, non-JFS, non-Islamic State, militant Islamist leaders remaining in the Syrian civil war. HASI and JAI engage actively in the international diplomatic process to end the Syrian civil war, and both organizations are viewed, for the time being, by many state supporters of the Syrian opposition as a better alternative to JFS and the Islamic State to represent the Sunni fundamentalist current within the Syrian revolutionary movement (Radio Al-Kul, July 9, 2016; U.S. Department of State, June 28, 2016; Saudi Arabia Ministry of Foreign Affairs, December 31, 2015). Both al-Omar and al-Buwaydhani were elected by their respective large and complicated organizations to maintain organizational unity and cohesion of command, which will be the most demanding challenge that they will face over the next year. Ali al-Omar, in particular, may face the outright division of his organization, a split that would be caused by some constituent groups deciding to join JFS. This would be one of the most important, and gravest, crises within the Syrian armed opposition movement to date.