If we confine our choices to leaders with broad appeal in the Arab and Islamist mainstream — excluding both al-Qaida and Kurdish leaders — we get the following five, listed in order.
1. Hassan Abboud, the general head of the Islamic movement of Ahrar Al-Sham, spearheaded the joint position of what some are calling the Islamic Alliance, but which is looser than an alliance of mainly northern-based militias. They have rejected the SNC and US backed exile groups. Al-Nusra was one of the groups that signed the alliance, along with #3 and #4 below.
2. Zahran Alloush, the general Commander of Jaysh al-Islam or Islam Army, a group of more than 50 brigades. He is the son of a Saudi-based religious scholar named sheikh Abdullah Mohammed Alloush. Syrian authorities released him from prison in mid-2011. He was incarcerated for his Salafist opposition activities in Sidnaya prison along with #1 and #3. He states that the external opposition does not represent him or his group and that there is no chance at negotiations with the regime. His Islam Army flies the black flag and not the Syrian flag.
3. Ahmad `Aisa al-Shaykh, or Abu Aissa, commander of Suqour al-Sham Brigade, Falcons of Syria Brigade, based in Idlib.
4. Abdul Qader Al-Salih, the high Commander of Liwa al-Tawhid, Unity Brigade, in Aleppo. (the formal top leader is Abdelaziz Salame)
Taken together, these leaders represent not even half of the insurgency. The top five are not enough to run the rebellion, but they are either major actors in their core areas or very big nationally, or both. A small group on the national level can be a superpower in its own hometown. There are many more powerful leaders in Syria. We look forward to adding and correcting.
These are people who have significant influence over the insurgency. They are swing voters.
Over the last several months, the insurgency has undergone a “Darwinian” shakedown. Powerful leaders are emerging and smaller militias are lining up with the larger sharks. All the same, we are only at the beginning of this process. The opposition remains extremely fragmented and volatile.
Any discussion of Geneva II talks to end the Syrian conflict will be sterile without these commanders at the table. The top four say they are unwilling to sit at the negotiation table with the regime. In fact, their main issue with the National Coalition is that the NC is considering negotiating with the regime.
It is hard to imagine any of them backtracking on this position in the near future.
Other Powerful Commanders
If one is considering military might alone, one must add the head of ISIS – Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In military terms, he is stronger than Bashar al-Zoubi, our #5. But he doesn’t have appeal outside the Islamist hardline segment. So here we go:
- Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – al-Qaida.
- Abu Mohammad al-Golani of al-Nusra Front or Jabhat al-Nusra – al-Qaida
Salih Muslim Muhammad/Sipan Hemo, Hemo is commander of the Kurdish Peoples Defence Units (YPG) in Syria – See an interview with Hemo. The YPG is the military arm of the PYD (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat) the leader of which is Salih Muslim Muhammad. This is the Syrian branch of the PKK, which is kept under civilian control so Salih Muslim PYD and not Hemo is perhaps the correct listing. It has been battling Nusra and ISIS over the last several months for control of the North-east
- Abu Sayeh Juneidi of Farouq Brigades, one of the largest and well-known units of the FSA (Homs). It placed itself under Suquor al-Sham commander Ahmed Abu Issa in Sept 2012. (Farouq seems weakened of late).
Jamal Maarouf (Abu Khalid) of Shuhada Souria, Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade, Idlib governate, FSA. Jamal claims to have 18 ,000 fighters between Idlib and Aleppo, but like all troop estimates, this should be taken with a grain of salt. He’s a non-Islamist leader. He is both religious and conservative, but not Ikhwan and not salafi, just not ideological.
- Mohammed al-Khatib of Furqan Brigades, active west of Damascus down toward the Golan. also not irrelevant.
- Ziad Haj Obaid commands Ahfad Rasoul with two others. The name meaning Grandsons of the Prophet. He is on the Arms Committee for the Supreme Military Command. Much of Ahfad’s funding came from Qatar, which may explain its recent weakness.
- There are more who we lack info on.