Profile: influential opposition figures in Syria

Profile: influential opposition figures in Syria
6 min read
As Syria talks resume in Geneva this month, al-Araby al-Jadeed profiles prominent Syrian opposition figures who are likely to exert influence on the shape of events to come.
Press conference for the Islamic Front in the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta region outside Damascus (AFP)

UN Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura has begun a third attempt to push for political progress in Syria. Over 40 Syrian rebel groups, civil society activists, religious figures, and states had been invited to attend meetings in Geneva this month.  

The talks are being billed by UN as low-key consultations rather than real negotiations. De Mistura admitted that "chances are slim".  

This time, De Mistura will meet Syrian figures separatelyand by the end of June, he  hopes to know if there is any convergence in issues of substance.  But
regardless of the outcomes in June, the war in Syria will eventually has to end in a political transition of some sort. 

But this depends to a large extent on the militray commanders who survive the war and emerge in  control of  significant territories of Syria, as well as political figures who have establish and are able to maintain relations with regional and international powers. 

Al-Araby al-Jadeed takes a look at some of the most prominent Syrian military and political figures who will play a key role in shaping Syria's future.

Khaled Khoja

President of National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces

Khaled Khoja was elected president in early 2015, replacing Saudi-backed Hadi al-Bahra. The 49-year-old Damascus-born doctor and businessman is not directly linked to any international sponsor. Consequently, his appointment was seen as a sign of hope for a new phase of potential dialogue with the regime. 

Khoja was detained for two years by regime intelligence when he was just 15. He was imprisoned because his father allegedly provided financial support to the Muslim Brotherhood, which was fighting against the regime of Hafez al-Assad in the late 1970s. After his release, Khoja fled to Turkey where he has lived since.

Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir 
Chief of Staff of the Supreme Military Council (SMC) of the Free Syrian Army.

Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir al-Noeimi replaced Salim Idris in 2014 as the Chief of Staff of the Supreme Military Council (SMC) of the Free Syrian Army. Al-Noeimi comes from a tribe in Quneitra. Prior to the revolution, al-Noeimi served as a Brigadier General in the Syrian army. He defected from the Syrian Army on 13 July 2012, alongside several other officers from the Noeimi tribe. 

He is known to be a fierce supporter of Iranian opposition groups. Hizballah-affiliated Al-Akhbar newspaper reported last year that al-Noeimi met with Iranian opposition groups and has expressed his support for the overthrow of the Iranian regime. 

Despite his influence on the ground, the US has left al-Noeimi out of military planning. 

Michel Kilo

Writer, diplomat, human rights activist, and prominent Syrian opposition figure

Michel Kilo is a leading figure in Syria's revolutionary civil society. He works with several bodies for the defence of freedom of expression and human rights in Syria. He is a former member of the Syrian Communist Party.

Kilo was imprisoned several times by the Syrian regime, under claims of weakening national sentiments and conspiring against the state.

Kilo is a guest contributor for al-Araby al-Jadeed

Salih Muslim Muhammad
Kurdish leader and co-chairman of the Democratic Union Party (PYD)

Salih Muslim is a leading figure in the de facto autonomous Kurdish controlled region of Rojava in Northern Syria. He is seen as the most powerful member of the Kurdish opposition, being the deputy coordinator of the Syrian opposition body, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change. 

In an interview with the BBC news in 2012, Salih said that he was imprisoned several times since 2003 by the Baathist regime. His son, Shervan, was killed in 2013 fighting with the People's Protection Units in Tal Abyad, Syria.  

 Zahran Alloush
Leader of the Islamic Front, Commander of Jaysh al-Islam

Zahran Alloush commands an estimated 80,000 fighters at the outskirts of Damascus. He is seen as one of the most powerful rebel leaders in Syria. He is the son of Sheikh Abdullah Alloush, a Salafist Damascene figure who lives in Saudi Arabia. 

Alloush was imprisoned in the notorious Sednaya prison, where militants linked to al-Qaeda launched a bloody rebellion against the guards in 2008, leading to hostages crisis. He came out of Sednaya prison two years later under Bashar al-Assad's general amnesty three months into the beginning of the revolution. 

As soon as he was released, Alloushed used his networks to establish a military force to fight Assad. The force was dubbed the Battalion of Islam and then expanded to become the Brigade of Islam. 

In 2013, he formed Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam), which included over 40 factions of the Free Syrian Army. There is evidence that Alloush is implicated in the disappearance of Syrian activist Razan Zeitouneh and her companions. He is also known for being critical of advocates of democracy in the Syrian Revolution and civil society.

Last month, Alloush was seen in Istanbul, along with other rebel leaders linked with Turkey. He claimed that his visit to Turkey was part of his efforts to lift the regime siege on Douma, a city north-east of Damascus that his group controls.

Hashem al-Sheikh (Abu Jaber)
Leader of Ahrar al-Sham

In early September 2014, dozens of Ahrar al-Sham (Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant) commanders, including its leader Hassan Aboud, were killed in a blast that occurred during meeting in Idlib province. A day after the attack, Hashem al-Sheikh, known as Abu Jaber, was announced as its new leader. 

Abu Jaber leads a Islamic conservative coalition of several salafist militant groups in Syria. Ahrar al-Sham is thought to have tens of thousands of fighters on board, mostly operating in the north with the rebel coalition of Jaysh el-Fateh.  

Abu Jaber's group has ties with Alloush's Jaysh al-Islam, as well as other rebel groups across Syria. They are considered as the second most powerful military force fighting in the north, after al-Nusra Front. 

In its first audio address, Ahrar ash-Sham stated its goal was to replace Assad's regime with an Islamic state under Sharia law. It also described the Syrian revolution as a "jihad against a Safawi plot to spread Shiism" led by Iran.

Abu Muhammad al-Julani
Leader of al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria

AL-Julani is the leader (Emir) of al-Nusra Front. He was listed by the US State Department as a “specially designated global terrorist” in May 2013.

As his nickname indicates, he is originally from the Golan Heights, Syria. He gained his militant experience in Iraq, when he went and joined al-Qaeda to fight the US. He swifly rose through the ranks, and became closely associated with al-Qaeda's leaders.

He was arrested a couple of years later by the US military and imprisoned in Camp Bucca, southern Iraq. The camp held thousands of militants suspected of fighting for al-Qaeda, whom al-Julani built ties with.

Upon his release in 2008, he resumed his jihadi career alongside al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq at that time, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. With the Syrian revolution, al-Julani was sent to Syria to establish al-Nusra Front.

Soon after his arrival, al-Julani was able to form a power militant group that became one of the most powerful forces on the battlefield.

When al-Baghdadi formed IS and detached himself from al-Qaeda, al-Julani reiterated his allegiance to al-Qaeda's leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, against the wishes of al-Baghdadi who wanted to merge al-Nusra and IS.

Since then, al-Julani's al-Nusra Front has been fighting hand-in-hand with Syrian opposition forces against Assad on one hand and IS on the other. 

Al-Nusra Front is now at the forefront of most battles against Assad across Syria. Although the UN officially treats al-Nusra as a terrorist group, diplomats admit that any peace plan would have to involve al-Nusra, given the power it has on the ground.