Jund al-Aqsa (“Soldiers of al-Aqsa,” referring to the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem) is a jihadi group that was first set up in 2013 and primarily operates in Idlib and Hama provinces in northwestern Syria. Though it has publicly made clear its ideological alignment with al-Qa’ida, its hardline conduct in dealing with other Syrian rebel factions means that it is often accused of being secretly in league with the Islamic State. It is certainly true that the rank and file has had Islamic State sympathizers, at least some of whom have formally joined the Islamic State. Once a valued member of the Jaysh al-Fatah coalition set up in 2015 that drove out the regime from most of Idlib province, Jund al-Aqsa finds itself widely disliked among the Syrian insurgency, most notably clashing with Ahrar al-Sham, with a round of clashes occurring in October 2016 and now this month again.
The last time the clashes happened, Jund al-Aqsa appeared to have sought protection through pledging allegiance to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the rebranded Jabhat al-Nusra that has ostensibly dropped ties with al-Qa’ida. Yet it seems that the renewal of clashes and pressure on Jabhat Fatah al-Sham to disown Jund al-Aqsa have led to a new statement from Jabhat Fatah al-Sham disavowing the group and issuing a clarification on that apparent allegiance pledge, affirming that it was actually rejected at the time by many people in Jund al-Aqsa, but for reasons of fear of a renewal of clashes and hope that the group could be controlled by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, it was decided until now not to make an announcement about the matter.
This statement comes amid much upheaval in the Syrian insurgency, with the unsurprising failure of grand merger talks despite the loss of Aleppo city in its entirety to the regime. U.S. airstrikes and drone attacks targeting Jabhat Fatah al-Sham have also increased, leading to concerns of rising tensions as many more ‘mainstream’ Syrian rebel factions are suspected of being afraid to pay condolences to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in the fear that they will be targeted too (and of course, isolating Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in this way is undoubtedly a U.S. calculation here).
The clashes have been an important aspect in the upheaval, undoubtedly playing a part alongside the failure of merger talks in the decision of Abu Jaber to dissolve his Jaysh al-Ahrar subset of Ahrar al-Sham, the principal aim of which had been to pressure Ahrar al-Sham for a merger of some kind with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.
Below is the statement translated by me.
“Clarification on the reasons for the joining and separation of the ‘Jund al-Aqsa’ group
Praise be to God, and prayers and peace be upon the Messenger of God, his family, companions and whoso is loyal to him. As for what follows:
In October 2016, during preparation for the second battle to break the siege of Aleppo, and amid a clear advance for the forces of the mujahideen in the north Hama countryside, a clash arose between the Ahrar al-Sham movement and Jund al-Aqsa, with the matter extending to the stance of many of the factions in the rank of Ahrar against Jund, and the clashes led at the same time to the fall of many people from the liberated areas at the hands of the regime again, in addition to hundreds of prisoners being taken by both of the two conflicting sides, as well as many killed between the two sides.
We intervened at that time to convince the two sides to agree to a ceasefire through recourse to a Shari’i court, and the matter led to the agreement on the following points:
1. Immediate ceasefire.
2. Releasing prisoners from the two sides.
3. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham would receive the points of the clash.
4. Forming a Shari’i court.
That happened amid an announcement by a delegation from Jund al-Aqsa- at whose head was their amir- declaring its allegiance on behalf of the whole group to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham according to the prior facts. As we set out to apply the terms of the agreement with Ahrar on the one hand and the terms of the allegiance with Jund on the other, we noticed the two sides were delaying in applying the court proceedings, and we received a number of affirmations from Jund on the lack of their acceptance of that allegiance pledge, indicating rather that the amir had pledged allegiance on his own behalf and whoso wished from their members, not the faction in its entirety. Thus it seemed clear that the Jund al-Aqsa group would not deal with the Jabha on the basis of hearing and obeying: the main pillar for the allegiance pledge.
We were keen more than once to clarify these circumstances, but our fear of the renewal of clashes by a side and our hope that the Jund would comply with their allegiance pledge meant that the choice not to clarify the matter got the better of us. And amid the clashes that have renewed between the two sides and the lack of the Jund’s submission to any of the clauses of the allegiance pledge- we (even as the two sides have agreed to resolve the matter through a judicial committee) declare that Jund al-Aqsa is not affiliated with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham- organizationally that is- even as the bond of Islam remains, and we all hope that the recent agreement between Ahrar and Jund succeeds.
And praise be to God the Lord of the Worlds.
25 Rabi’ al-Akhir 1438 AH
23 January 2017 CE.”