Wars within Wars in northern Syria

Jerusalem Post, 19/7:

A senior figure in the Free Syrian Army this week said that al Qaeda in Syria were preparing to declare an ‘Islamic state’ in rebel-held northern Syria. This announcement came in the course of a frenetic period of activity for the jihadi rebels of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant Syria (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra organizations.

Jihadi activity is leading to the emergence of new and complicated lines of conflict in northern Syria, both within rebel controlled areas and beyond them.

In the last weeks, jihadi rebels in Syria have assassinated a number of commanders of the Free Syrian Army. These included a member of the western-backed Supreme Military Council, Kamal Hammami, and FSA battalion commander Fadi el-Qash, together with one of his brothers. The FSA holds ISIS commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi responsible for the killings and is demanding his arrest.

The jihadis also clashed this week with Kurdish fighters in the area of Ras al-ain/Sere Kaniyeh on the border with Syria. These clashes began after Jabhat al-Nusra fighters attacked a convoy guarded by female fighters of the Kurdish YPG militia. The YPG’s response has led to the near expulsion of the jihadis from the Kurdish majority town.

Tensions between the jihadis and other armed elements in northern Syria are now at an unprecedented peak. There are also indications of wider discontent with jihadi activities among the civilian population in the rebel controlled north. The jihadis have a reputation for non-corruption and a murderous commitment to the fight against government forces. Despite these aspects, it appears that the rigidity and oppressiveness of their version of Islamic rule is provoking a backlash.

In Raqqa, the largest town under rebel control, demonstrations and protests have taken place against the attempts by Jabhat al-Nusra and the more locally oriented Salafis of Ahrar al-Sham to impose their version of Islamic rule. Youthful inhabitants of Raqqa, including many who were activists against the Assad regime and who welcomed the expulsion of the regime from Raqqa are now engaged in the protests against the new jihadi rulers of the town.

Amid the deteriorating relations between the FSA and the jihadis, there are those who claim that at least some elements of the jihadis are in contact with the regime, and that their Syrian fighters include those who in the past fought with pro-Assad militias.

Accusations of this type should not simply be dismissed as the usual Middle Eastern ‘conspiracy theories.’ Certainly, it is the case that in the pre-2011 period, the Assad regime was expert in manipulating and directing the energies of Sunni jihadis for its own ends.

Damascus airport, famously, became a hub for jihadis seeking to reach Iraq to take part in the fighting against US forces. The Assad regime also created a puppet Islamist group in Lebanon, the Fatah al-Islam group, to further its aim of destabilizing that country after Syrian troops were expelled in 2005. So it is quite possible that the regime is in contact with and possibly directing some elements among the jihadis engaged in Syria. The jihadis serve the regime’s narrative that it is engaged in fighting against mainly foreign terrorists, and thus help to discredit Assad’s opponents.

But at the same time, it would be equally mistaken to assume that this is the whole story. ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra are not puppet organizations. They remain, demonstrably, among the most fierce of the regime’s opponents.

The veracity of the statements by the un-named FSA commander concerning the imminent declaration of statehood by then jihadis also remains unconfirmed.

Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a UK based researcher who monitors jihadi statements and activity in Syria for the Jihadology website, said that he had found ‘nothing on ISIS pages to corroborate the idea of a planned declaration for a northern state in Syria after Ramadan,” as asserted by the FSA official.

Tamimi, however, did not rule out the possibility that ISIS could be planning such a move, given its ‘expansion’ in northern Syria and its rule in certain areas.

It is possible that the release of these claims forms part of a prelude to retaliatory action by FSA elements in Syria against the jihadis. Certainly, sources close to the rebels confirm that they view such a clash to be an eventual inevitability.

It should also be noted that ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra are themselves involved in a lengthy feud of their own over who is the authentic representative of al-Qaeda in Syria.

So in northern Syria, in addition to the war between the Assad regime and the rebellion, there are at least three additional, discernible conflicts taking place.

The al-Qaeda supporting jihadis are fighting the Kurdish defense organization.

The jihadis are also engaging in the killing of other rebel leaders. And anti-jihadi oppositionists are organizing against them in areas which they control.

And lastly, the jihadis are also in dispute with one another, though not (yet) violently.

It is also possible, given the Assad regime’s track record and its interests, that some among the jihadi ranks are linked to the regime.

So in addition to metastasizing beyond its borders, the Syrian civil war is also giving birth to a variety of new conflicts within Syria itself. It is wars within wars – and no end in sight. The main victims of all this, of course, are the people of Syria.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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