Long-simmering tensions between Jund al-Aqsa, Ahrar al-Sham and several smaller rebel groups erupted into outright fighting across Syria’s Hama and Idlib provinces at the beginning of October, culminating in the death of a revered Ahrar al-Sham commander known as al-Dabous. An ensuing truce, mediated by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham with the assistance of Saudi Salafist cleric Abdallah al-Muhaysani, ultimately resulted in Jund al-Aqsa’s integration into Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.
While the move has superficially calmed tensions, the growth of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham through the assimilation of smaller jihadist groups could ultimately bring further instability to northern Syria.
The rise and subsequent assimilation of Jund al-Aqsa illustrates how internal divisions can weaken a small, powerful and nominally independent jihadist group. It also shows how independent jihadist groups like Jund al-Aqsa can undermine rebel cohesion and empower larger radical groups, but more crucially it heralds an important change in the jihadist landscape of northern Syria.
A ‘Third-Way’ Jihadist Group
Jund al-Aqsa had been notionally neutral in the Islamic State (IS)/al-Qaeda split, (Aymenn al-Tamimi, October 24, 2015). Many of Jund al-Aqsa’s senior leaders had deep ties to al-Qaeda – even acknowledging al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zarqawi’s role as leader of global jihad in words that fell just short of pledging their bayah (allegiance) – but it was at heart a non-monolithic organization. It could not be classified as an al-Qaeda front, nor as an extension of IS. Instead it was a “third-way” jihadist group, operating within an ambiguous political space (Bellingcat, May 2).
In early October, the group began implementing an austere interpretation of sharia in areas under its control and reasserted its independence by refusing to recognize any agreements between armed parties in the Syrian conflict (Al-Quds al-Arabi, October 3). This approach defied al-Qaeda’s recent strategy of gradually implementing sharia and prompted veteran jihadist ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi to weigh in, after Jund al-Aqsa’s assimilation into Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, arguing against practicing such a version of sharia and suggesting that those who tried to emulate Jund al-Aqsa would meet a similar fate (Twitter, October 13).
Jund al-Aqsa’s independent position afforded it numerous benefits, including relative operational autonomy and financial backing from individuals in certain Gulf States. Yet undermining its stature in the rebel landscape was the widespread belief that its members harbored secret sympathies for IS, earning it the nickname “Raqqa’s parking garage” among northern Syrians (Arabi21, July 28, 2015). One Syrian activist even disparagingly called it a “politically correct safe haven for Islamic State supporters.” 
It remains possible that Jund al-Aqsa members may have been involved in external terror plotting. German terror suspect Jaber al-Bakr reportedly traveled to Raqqa earlier this year on behalf of a small group of IS supporters. He traveled via the rural Idlib town of Saraqib, where, at the time, Jund al-Aqsa had a notable presence, lending credence to the belief that Jund al-Aqsa members maintained links with IS in Raqqa (Der Spiegel, October 17). Given the reputation among Syrians of Jund al-Aqsa members for keeping contacts in the so-called Caliphate, it is possible these IS supporters and Jund al-Aqsa are one and the same. Indeed, a series of sleeper cell attacks targeting Ahrar al-Sham members in Idlib were widely attributed by other rebels to Jund al-Aqsa members; and at various times Jund al-Aqsa members described themselves as part of a “caliphate,” and even employed IS hymns as background music in propaganda videos.
A failed assassination bid on a Jund al-Aqsa commander in Ariha in July – an attempted car bombing in which only the man’s children were injured – prompted speculation that Jund al-Aqsa was struggling with internal divisions. 
The smuggling outpost of Abu Dali and its environs present an interesting case study in how “third-way” jihadists can alter battlefield dynamics. Situated in the countryside of northern Hama, the town acts as a transit point of smuggled goods between regime-held territory in Hama and rebel-held Idlib, with the pro-regime Sunni clan of Ahmad Darwish overseeing a lucrative black market network.
The intricacies of the northern Hama smuggling network made many rebel groups reluctant to attack, but Jund al-Aqsa, with its hardline (even by Syrian standards) Salafist views and a disproportionate number of foreign fighters, paid little consideration to northern Syria’s amorphous conflict economy. During the recent northern Hama offensive, Jund al-Aqsa shock troops blasted through long-static defensive lines manned by Sunni pro-regime forces that opposed the rebels not out of loyalty to President Bashar al-Assad, but as a function of the elaborate nexus between the area’s political economy and its security architecture (Arabi21, October 18).
Despite its fighting prowess, however, the wedding of Jund al-Aqsa to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham has caused divisions among supporters of the larger group, particularly among those who view Jund al-Aqsa as sympathetic to IS and wish to move away from the AQ/IS brands. A controversial fatwa against Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation has also fueled divisions among regional Islamic jurists and rebel groups, meaning that Jabhat Fateh al-Sham’s move came against a backdrop of fierce debate over how hardline Islamists view their role in the struggle against the Syrian regime (Atlantic Council, October 14).
It has also perhaps exacerbated internal rifts in Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which have been ongoing since the group’s disengagement from the al-Qaeda network and nominal rebranding in July (see Terrorism Monitor, October 28).
The absorption of Jund al-Aqsa has rapidly become a point of contention among Syrian rebels. This response is similar to how members of another “third-way” jihadist group, Liwa al-Tawba, migrated to Raqqa and pledged allegiance to IS following a joint attack with IS fighters along the Aleppo-Homs highway near Khanasser in February (Micro Syria, March 7; Al-Quds al-Arabi, February 26).
Eastern Syria activists reported that some Jund al-Aqsa members defected to IS following the absorption into Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Twitter, October 12). Notably, some Jund al-Aqsa fighters in Hama initially refused the offer to join Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, reportedly restating their loyalty to Abu Dhar al-Jazrawi (a.k.a. al-Najdi al-Harethi), the group’s emir (Twitter, October 9).
That al-Qaeda-leaning al-Muhaysani helped arbitrate an end to the dispute is noteworthy because earlier in the year Jund al-Aqsa had prohibited his visit to territory it held in northern Hama, showing that under pressure the group was willing to engage with him even if some members disapproved of his positions. It was likely al-Muhaysini’s leveraging of Abu Anas Saraqib, a hardline senior member of Ahrar al-Sham, that helped to secure the peace deal and eventually win the acquiescence of Abu Yahia al-Hamawi and Ahrar al-Sham more widely (Twitter, October 10).
Al-Muhaysini himself straddles the Syrian rebel divide. Many rebels see him as close to al-Qaeda, but his ability to negotiate between Jund al-Aqsa, Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, as well as his oblique endorsement of Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation – which Jabhat Fateh al-Sham publicly condemned – shows him to be a deft political player, despite criticism from some jihadists that he has a self-inflated sense of importance.
Still, the absorption has caused some public consternation among Ahrar al-Sham’s members, and a statement by rebel group Suquor al-Sham showed others were also suspicious of the deal (Twitter, October 19). It is likely that mistrust will remain between some Hama and Idlib rebel groups and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham for some time to come.
In September 2015, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham snapped up the jihadist coalition of Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar and, since taking Jund al-Aqsa into its fold, has also integrated Jama’at al-Mourabiteen, itself a newly minted jihadist group, and the small Idlib-based Jund al-Sharia (Twitter, October 18; Twitter, November 2). This trend demonstrates that Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is eager to consolidate its base by bringing in lesser players, which could have important ramifications for Syrian rebel dynamics if other rebel groups see this behavior as being too aggressive since the absorbing group is prone to inheriting the lesser group’s liabilities.
Consequently, Jund al-Aqsa is a case study for small jihadist groups in the northern Syria theater, demonstrating that survival sometimes means coming under the umbrella of larger players. While Jabhet Fateh al-Sham put a damper on the controversy that Jund al-Aqsa – weakened by internal divisions – was causing, it also illustrates that these more powerful outfits can use groups like Jund al-Aqsa to their advantage, legitimizing themselves through dispute arbitration or boosting their own manpower.
Policy makers should be aware that outlets like Jund al-Aqsa inject an erratic variable into the opposition milieu. They are vulnerable to schisms, in-fighting and absorption on account of their radicalism or internal divides. Larger extremist groups may try to game this to their own advantage. As such, strategic calculations must be made under the assumption that groups like Jund al-Aqsa are key risks to local stability and the viability of legitimate opposition to the Syrian regime.
 Author interview with Syrian activist, August 2016
 Author interview with Syrian activist, July 2016