Army of Conquest
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|Army of Conquest|
|Dates of operation||24 March 2015 – 27 January 2017|
|Size||50,000+[better source needed]|
|Battles and wars||Syrian Civil War|
The alliance was formed in March 2015 under the supervision and coordination of Saudi cleric Abdullah al-Muhaysini. It consists of Islamist rebel factions mainly active in the Idlib Governorate, with some factions active in the Hama and Latakia Governorates. In the course of the following months, it seized most of Idlib Governorate.
In an October 2015 publication, the Washington D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War considered Jaish al-Fatah as one of the "powerbrokers" in the Idlib, Hama, Daraa and Quneitra Governorates, though not in the Damascus Governorate, and described it as primarily "anti-regime" and "anti-Hezbollah" but not necessarily "anti-ISIS".
At its founding, Jaish al-Fatah contained six members, two of whom (al-Nusra and Jund al-Aqsa) were directly connected to al-Qaeda. With Ahrar al-Sham being the largest group, al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham together were reported to represent 90 percent of the troops. Another prominent Islamist faction in the operations room was Sham Legion (Faylaq Al-Sham). The remaining three founding members were Jaish al-Sunna; Liwa al-Haqq, and Ajnad al-Sham. Jaish al-Fatah collaborated with more moderate Free Syrian Army factions such as Knights of Justice Brigade.
The coalition's initial success has been attributed to its strong coherence, with the name of individual factions being forbidden when the group conducts joint operations.
Since the inter-rebel conflicts across Idlib, which led to Ahrar al-Sham clashing with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and the defections and mergers which started on 21 January 2017, the Army of Conquest has become defunct.
Jaish al-Fatah declared its formation on 24 March 2015. On the same day, a pro-opposition source claimed that about fifty Syrian government soldiers defected to the new group. As columnist David Ignatius reported, Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia were the primary sponsors of the new coalition that was led by al-Nusra. Since the very beginning, the three states allegedly provided conspicuous material support to the group, mostly consisting of weapons and military equipment. In 2016, shortly after al-Nusra changed its name in Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, Financial Times reporter Erica Solomon quoted rebels and activists claiming that Qatar and Saudi Arabia were consistently ferrying in cash and supplies to support a military offensive in Aleppo directed by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.
In general, over the past years Qatar’s support for the al-Nusra front has remained constant in spite of the group’s rebranding operation and several strategic alliances and mergers. In fact, Qatar’s sponsorship for the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria was in line with Doha’s strategy to expand its regional influence by investing on the increasing role of key actors – including extremist and terrorist entities – in a number of international arenas.
The Army of Conquest captured Idlib City on 28 March 2015. In the following months, they spearheaded an offensive that drove out government forces from almost all of Idlib Governorate. Following this success, additional branches of the Army of Conquest were established in other parts of Syria.
The Army of Conquest coalition was partially modelled upon the success of the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army, and in turn newer coalitions, like the Battle of Victory, were modelled on the Army of Conquest.
Saudi cleric Abdullah al-Muhaysini played a key role in the early history of the Army of Conquest. In fact, Muhayisini coordinated and supervised the establishment of the group, for which he also served as a religious judge and leader. He was targeted by U.S. Treasury Sanctions on 10 November 2016, for his role as mediator and recruiter on behalf of the al-Nusra Front. Notably, Muhaysini also collected material and financial support for al-Nusra from the Gulf, especially, Qatar, and was known for his public endorsement of Qatar-based "Madid Ahl al-Sham", a most effective fundraising campaign which al-Nusra itself acknowledged as "one of the preferred conduits for donations".
Expansion to other parts of Syria
In early May 2015, the Army of Conquest formed a new branch in Western Qalamoun, called Army of Conquest – al-Qalamoun. On 1 October 2015, after defeats by pro-Assad forces, Army of Conquest in Qalamoun was replaced by an independent faction called Saraya Ahl al-Sham, which aims to unite all rebel factions in Western Qalamoun. However, the al-Nusra Front was not included in Saraya Ahl al-Sham, although the two groups continued to cooperate.
The following month, the al-Nusra Front issued a statement calling on the opposition in the Eastern Ghouta area of Damascus to form a similar coalition, but this call was rejected by the Unified Military Command of Eastern Ghouta, a grouping which includes the most prominent factions in the area.
In October 2015 Army of Conquest members al-Nusra Front and Ahrar ash-Sham (also a member of the Unified Military Command of Eastern Ghouta), along with other groups formed Jund al-Malahm, an operations room in the Eastern Ghouta area of Damascus, in direct competition with the Unified Military Command of Eastern Ghouta operations room.
On 20 June, the Army of Conquest in the southern region was established and immediately took part in the campaign in Quneitra. The coalition includes Ahrar al-Sham, al-Nusra Front, the Fatah al-Sham Coalition, Ihyaa al-Jihad Brigade, Mujahideen of Nawa Gathering, Lions of Unity Brigade, Ansar al-Haq Brigade, and the Islamic Brigade of al- Omarein.
On 23 October 2015, Jund al-Aqsa announced a split from Jaysh al-Fatah, reportedly due to disagreements with Ahrar al-Sham over the application of Islamic law in areas under their control. Following this development, there were unconfirmed reports that al-Nusra Front, in an act of solidarity with Jund al-Aqsa, left the coalition, or that Jund al-Aqsa would be rejoining Jaysh al-Fateh. In January 2016, the Sham Legion announced it was leaving the group, ostensibly to redeploy its forces to Aleppo, but also due to tensions with Jund al-Aqsa.
In May 2016, the Army of Conquest announced it was restructuring, ending ties with Jund al-Aqsa while readmitting the Sham Legion. It was also joined by the Turkistan Islamic Party, a jihadist group composed of Uyghurs from Xinjiang.[better source needed]
On 9 October, Jund al-Aqsa rejoined Al-Nusra Front, thus rejoining the Army of Conquest, though on 23 January 2017 they were kicked out of Al-Nusra and by extension the Army of Conquest.
On 23 January 2017, the al-Nusra Front attacked Jabhat Ahl al-Sham bases in Atarib and other towns in western Aleppo. All of their bases were captured and by 24 January, the group was defeated and joined Ahrar al-Sham.
On 12 May 2016, pro-government sources reported that rebels led by al-Nusra Front and Ahrar ash-Sham massacred 42 civilians and seven NDF militiamen while kidnapping up to 70 people after taking control of the Alawite village of Zara'a in Southern Hama.[better source needed]
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As the biggest group in Army of Fatah, Ahrar al-Sham appears to hold the key to preventing infighting.
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The coalition, whose formation was announced in March, comprises a range of mostly jihadist and Islamist groups, the most prominent being Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front and the powerful Islamist Ahrar al-Sham [...] Other important members include Faylaq al-Sham, a coalition of Muslim Brotherhood-linked battalions, and Jund al-Aqsa, a small jihadist group.
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With the Southern Front success as a model, rebel backers then sought to deploy similar methods in the north.
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