INTRODUCTION: THE IDEOLOGY
The group under consideration in this paper–like al-Qa’ida central under Usama bin Ladin and subsequently Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Tehrik-e-Taliban of Waziristan, and others–is part of what one might term the “global jihad” movement. This movement is not a coherent whole organized by a strict central hierarchy, but rather one defined by a shared ideology. This ideology aims firstly to reestablish a system of governance known as the Caliphate–an Islamic form of government that first came into being after Muhammad’s death under Abu Bakr and saw its last manifestation in the Ottoman Empire–across the entire Muslim world. From there, the intention is to spread the Caliphate across the entire world.
This worldview is one of many answers formulated to answer a question posed in the wider Muslim world: Namely, what has been the cause of decline of the Muslim world–and the Arab world in particular–in contrast to the apparent success of the West since the nineteenth century?
The answer formulated by ideologues of the global jihad movement is that the cause of this decline is rooted in the Muslim world’s deviation from the path of Islam by not applying Islamic law to governance in its totality. This is to be contrasted with the “Islamic Golden Age” in Islam’s first five centuries or so–idealized in different ways by others not of this orientation–when the Muslim world was supposedly uncontaminated by foreign influences. Of course, given that era’s exploitation of the classical Greek heritage through the translation movement under the Abbasids- the global jihad movement’s portrayal of this era is blatantly unhistorical. Nonetheless, the perception is what matters.
In light of the ISIS’ ambitious goals, it is imperative to consider the group’s fortunes in Syria, which in turn will allow policymakers to assess what threat, if any, the group poses to the wider international order in the long-term.
BACKGROUND: QUARRELS AT THE LEADERSHIP LEVEL
Prior to the announcement of ISIS by the leader of Iraq’s al-Qa’ida affiliate, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the main al-Qa’ida-aligned group operating in Syria was Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) under the leadership of Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani. JN, which had initially been established in January 2012 with financial and manpower support from the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), had enjoyed a fair degree of success throughout Syria in conducting operations and establishing a foothold in areas freed from regime control.
The success was partly rooted in the manner in which JN has portrayed its efforts in Syria–namely, as a defensive jihad to protect the Muslim population in the face of oppression. Thus, outreach to locals became and still remains an important part of JN’s strategy. For example, media reports widely noted JN’s running of bakery services for locals in places such as Aleppo, and one jihadi news outlet–the Himam News Agency–regularly puts out videos of JN’s provision of public services in towns such as Binnish in Idlib, where JN fighters run garbage collection and disposal.
In terms of JN’s overall position in Syria, while it was clear that the group had a presence in operations throughout the country from Dar’a in the far southwest to Hasakah in the far northeast, the evidence suggested that the group was best established in the Aleppo and Deir al-Zor governorates. However, it by no means follows from this assessment that JN somehow controlled a substantial amount of territory in either of these provinces. Moreover, JN had faced a degree of resentment and backlash from locals, as occurred in the town of Mayadin in the Deir al-Zor governorate–though such demonstrations of opposition could easily be met with counter-rallies by JN supporters. In March 2013, JN along with the Salafi battalion Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya played a key role in the takeover of the provincial capital of the Raqqa Governorate in the north.
April 2013 then saw the unexpected development of the announcement by ISI leader Baghdadi of a merger between ISI and JN to form ISIS. In the speech released on April 8, 2013, by ISI’s official outlet al-Furqan Media, Baghdadi described Jawlani as “one of our soldiers” and stated that Jawlani had established his organization “from our sons.” Baghdadi went on to explain that while there had been no explicit statement of the links between ISI and JN, the time had now come to declare that JN was simply an “extension” of ISI “and a part of it.” Thus, Baghdadi announced the “cancellation of the name Islamic State of Iraq and the cancellation of the name Jabhat al-Nusra, and the joining of the two under one name: the “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.”
Baghdadi’s words, therefore, confirmed long-standing suspicions among Western intelligence officials that JN had been established as the Syrian arm of the ISI, something that was also corroborated in a prompt response released by JN’s official media wing al-Manara al-Bayda (“The White Minaret”) on 10 April. In his response, Jawlani denied that either he or anyone in JN had been consulted on or had sought the announcement of Baghdadi’s merger, while admitting that the beginnings of JN lay in ISI, as indicated by the following remark: “We accompanied the jihad in Iraq as military escorts from its beginning until our return [to Syria] after the Syrian revolution.”
Jawlani further stated, “We learnt lessons from our experience there [in Iraq] concerning what is the secret of the hearts of the believers in the land of al-Sham under the banner of Jabhat al-Nusra… I did not want to leave Iraq before seeing the banners of Islam flying on high over the land of the two rivers but the speed of events in ash-Sham interfered between us and what we wanted.” Jawlani also spoke of “our brothers in jihad in Iraq” and respectfully addressed ISI’s leader as “Sheikh Baghdadi, may God protect him.” He then concluded by reaffirming JN’s pledge of allegiance to al-Qa’ida’s central leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, affirming that the “banner of Jabhat al-Nusra will remain.”
The controversy over whether ISI and JN should be merged remained unaddressed until June 2013. During that time, both JN and ISI’s media arms stopped releasing official content. In addition, tracking the activities of JN and those going by the name of ISIS required reliance on unofficial media, most notably YouTube videos.Zawahiri then issued a letter in early June 2013 urging for the separation of ISI and JN, while stressing that the two organizations should cooperate. Yet Baghdadi rejected the ruling of separation in a speech entitled “Remaining [Steadfast] in Iraq and al-Sham,” wherein he insisted that Zawahiri’s letter had problems of legitimacy and methodology, hinting at a cast of doubt of authenticity on the letter.
Then another audio recording was released by al-Furqan Media, featuring a speech by Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani al-Shami, a Syrian jihadi believed to be from Idliband identified by al-Furqan Media as the official spokesman for ISIS. Adnani reaffirmed Baghdadi’s rejection of Zawahiri’s ruling in more forceful terms, insisting on “one front, one leadership,” and that “the borders will not separate between the two [i.e., the jihad fronts in Iraq and Syria].” Adnani also vowed that ISIS would target the “Rafidites” (Shi’a) with bombs “from Diyala to Beirut.” On multiple occasions, Adnani references the “defection” (inshiqaq) that has hurt the ranks of the mujahidin in Syria–a not-so-subtle attack on Jawlani’s refusal to accept a merger with ISI to form ISIS.
As of the writing of this article, no further directives have been issued from Zawahiri in an attempt to resolve the dispute. Indeed, Baghdadi’s rejection of his ruling essentially amounts to a humiliation of Zawahiri. In Iraq itself, written statements are no longer put out in the name of ISI, but ISIS. Further, while officially approved jihadi forums such as Shamukh Islam were initially deleting posts put out in ISIS’ name after Zawahiri’s ruling, this is no longer the case. Nonetheless, al-Furqan Media, which now puts out videos on ISIS activities in both Iraq and Syria, still explicitly avoids describing itself as the media arm of ISIS, but instead keeps a silence on the naming controversy in its videos.
Besides al-Furqan Media, some unofficial pro-ISIS outlets have come to the forefront, such as al-Sham media (which put out a string of purported ISIS videos in May 2013, and is based in Raqqa) and Baqiyya Media (named after Baghdadi’s speech that rejected Zawahiri’s ruling). In any event, Baghdadi has successfully challenged Zawahiri in that in practice ISIS is now accepted as a reality on the ground alongside JN.
As a final prefatory note, the Baghdadi-Jawlani fitna aside, it should be emphasized that as al-Qa’ida affiliates, both ISIS and JN are ultimately committed ideologically to a transnational project for a caliphate that should first span the Muslim world and then dominate the entire world. However, it is undoubtedly true that ISIS in Syria is much more open about these goals than JN. The question now arises of how ISIS’ relationship with other groups plays out on the ground.
ISIS AND OTHER REBELS: RELATIONS AND OPERATIONS
JN AND ISIS
In light of the quarrels at the leadership level between Baghdad and Jawlani, the immediate issue that comes to mind is ISIS’ relationship with JN on the ground. A common paradigm of analysis in this case is to posit a polarized dichotomy whereby ISIS is an entity composed of foreign fighters as opposed to a native Syrian JN. This view is primarily based on some media reports that estimate that 80 percent of muhajirin (foreign fighters) in Syria have joined the ranks of ISIS.
In this author’s view, the estimate is likely to bear a good degree of resemblance to the reality on the ground, but it would be erroneous to conclude from it that ISIS is primarily a group of foreign fighters. To be sure, from the current author’s own documentation of claimed martyrs for ISIS up to the beginning of July 2013, as well as examination of subsequent records on this issue, it can be shown that at the minimum, foreign fighters are disproportionately represented in its ranks and constitute the most experienced and effective fighting force within ISIS, while perhaps playing a key role in leadership in various localities. Yet in Raqqa province, one anti-ISIS activist identified as Ahmed al-Asmeh told the news site Syria Deeply that only “30 percent of their [ISIS’] members are muhajiroun [foreigners].” Likewise, a reporter who visited the northern ISIS stronghold of Jarabulus in the Aleppo governorate along the border with Turkey found that most of ISIS’ members in the town are native Syrians.
In short, therefore, the strict dichotomy of ISIS as a group of foreign fighters versus a native Syrian JN is not accurate. As far as relations on the ground go, the relationship defies a simple polarity reflecting the tensions at the leadership level. The current author has already documented the ISIS-JN relationship in a number of governorates: notably Aleppo, Raqqa, Deir al-Zor, and Dar’a. Details of the relationship by governorate need not be repeated at length, but to summarize: In Aleppo and the city of Deir al-Zor, the entities of JN and ISIS are clearly separate. In Dar’a, only a JN presence is to be found. In the Raqqa governorate and areas of the east outside Deir al-Zor, the boundaries between JN and ISIS are more blurred, such that in many parts the two names and their symbols can be considered interchangeable.
That said, since having documented the JN-ISIS relationship in the Raqqa province, it should be noted that in mid-July 2013, reports emerged among activist circles that the ISIS commander in the city of Raqqa itself–known as Abu Sa’ad al-Hadrami–had decided to renounce his position in ISIS and reaffirm the banner and name of JN as a separate identity and the only legitimate one, withdrawing from the city in the process with a number of mujahidin under his stead. Hadrami, who had previously been identified as JN’s amir in Raqqa prior to the announcement of ISIS, was said to have defected from ISIS on account of his dissatisfaction with ISIS’ conduct in the city, specifically in relation to detaining rebels from rival battalions (e.g. Farouq), which had sparked some demonstrations in the city against ISIS and Ahrar al-Sham.
Hadrami was also said to be unhappy with the fact that continuing the name of ISIS amounted to disrespectful disobedience of Zawahiri’s orders. At the start of July 2013, signs of a split in the Shari’a committee in Raqqa between JN and ISIS supporters were reported by purported local sources to the pro-Asad Arabic news site al-Hadath News. The contingent reaffirming a separate JN identity under Hadrami apparently took refuge in the city of town of Tabqa (also known as al-Thawra). Confirmation of the JN-ISIS split within Raqqa province was recently confirmed by a statement from JN announcing a return to the city of Raqqa, yet it remains unclear whether this split applies across the whole governorate.
In terms of ongoing major operations, it remains to consider the two governorates of Damascus and Hasakah as regards the JN-ISIS relationship, the latter of which will be discussed on the subject of conflict with Kurdish forces. In the Damascus area, it is quite clear that JN and ISIS are separate entities. This is most apparent as the two groups launched their own “revenge” operations in response to the alleged chemical weapons attacks by the regime in the East Ghouta area. JN’s initiative–as announced by Jawlani in a statement through al-Manara al-Bayda–is called “An Eye for an Eye” and has entailed operations not only in the Damascus area but elsewhere in the country, such as the Aleppo governorate.
The ISIS-led revenge initiative goes by the name of “Volcano of Revenge.” It has entailed firing a number of mortar rounds and Katyusha rockets at regime-held areas of Damascus, including parts identified as inhabited by Alawites, and even struck the vicinities of the Russian embassy and the Four Seasons hotel, where UN weapons inspectors were staying. The operation was coordinated with a variety of battalions operating in the Damascus area, including Ahrar al-Sham, the Jesus Son of Mary Battalions, the Furqan Brigades, and the Brigades and Battalions of the Beloved Mustafa.Of these groups, Ahrar ash-Sham can be identified as part of the Salafi Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), while the Furqan Brigades are known for an Islamist but nationalist outlook under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). However, the other two can be identified as independent formations but ideologically sympathetic to ISIS.
Thus, the Jesus Son of Mary Battalions’ logo features ISIS imagery, most notably in its use of the central white logo with the inscription “Allah, Prophet Muhammad” (see the Appendix, Figure 1). On Facebook pages set up for various battalions and news networks, ideological affinity is often indicated by banners featured at the top of the page. For example, a pro-Asad page will normally feature the current flag of Syria. In the case of factions sympathetic to ISIS’ project of a transnational Islamic state, alignment will be shown by featuring the ISIS banner, known as the “Banner of Tawhid” in jihadi circles, with the first half of the Islamic shahada underneath: “There is no deity but God.” This is the case for the Jesus Son of Mary Battalions (see Appendix, Figure 2). As for the Brigades and Battalions of the Beloved Mustafa, sympathy for the ISIS project is indicated by a statement released in June 2013 urging “our brothers and our sons to join immediately and enter the arenas of jihad.” The statement featured an image of Syria under the ISIS banner (Appendix, Figure 3).
Despite the ISIS-alignment, the two groups have also coordinated with JN and more mainstream groupings like Liwa al-Islam as part of a new series of revenge operations entitled “Ayyam al-Qadisiyya” in the Damascus area. However, elsewhere in the Damascus region, multiple reports have emerged from jihadi sources of joint JN-ISIS operations. The most notable case is that of the Sayyida Zaynab area, where both groups are said to be fighting the Iranian proxy Shi’i militia group known as Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas [LAFA]. For example, on August 17, 2013, a local outlet for ISIS in the southern Damascus region reported a joint JN-ISIS-Liwa al-Islam operation in the Sayyida Zaynab area, claiming a death toll of more than 250 Shi’i militiamen. However, there is nothing to corroborate anything resembling these figures from LAFA sources.
On the other hand, the same ISIS outlet has featured photos of LAFA militiamen that ISIS has purportedly killed in the Sayyida Zaynab area in this period, and it would seem that pro-LAFA sources do corroborate the individual cases to an extent, such as one LAFA fighter called Abu Hadi Hassan (Appendix, Figure 4). Yet given that the operations against LAFA in mid-August 2013 were reported as joint ISIS-JN-Liwa al-Islam, it is possible that Abu Hadi could have been killed by a fighter from either of the latter two battalions, or perhaps in a joint operation by all three groups.
On August 30, 2013, the local ISIS outlet also released a video showing the carrying out of a joint JN-ISIS car bomb operation against LAFA in Sayyida Zaynab. Besides displaying the car used to trigger the explosion, scenes were also shown from the Sayyida Zaynab area of gunfire. In short, one might accept the idea of JN-ISIS collaboration (perhaps with other battalions) in the Sayyida Zaynab area, with the caveat that local sources affiliated with ISIS are prone to exaggerate the scale of operations against LAFA and the death tolls therein.
Another notable area of JN-ISIS cooperation comes in the Qalamoun area of rural Damascus. Here, this cooperation has come in the form of working with another battalion called “The Green Battalion.” This group is an independent militia led by Saudi muhajirin and ideologically aligned with ISIS (Appendix, Figure 5). It is thus a similar formation to the western rural Homs battalion Jama’at Jund al-Sham, which was founded by Lebanese muhajirin sharing ISIS’ ideology but independent from ISIS (Appendix, Figure 6, cf. Figure 7).
These two groups can thus be distinguished from the prominent group of foreign fighters known as Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa Ansaruhu [JMWA], which has been a front group for ISIS under the direction of ISIS’ amir for Aleppo, northern Idlib, Raqqa, and Latakia–Abu Umar al-Shishani. In any case, the joint JN-ISIS operation in Qalamoun with the Green Battalion was first reported by the latter group in a Facebook posting on August 7, 2013: “Jabhat al-Nusra and the Green Battalion undertook with the help of the Islamic State… in the assault on the storehouses of Danha in rural Damascus.”
To sum up, the relationship between JN and ISIS in Damascus can be described as comprising separate entities that are clearly capable of cooperating with each other and working with other battalions. More generally, there is nothing to suggest as of yet signs of overt conflict emerging between JN and ISIS, where the two are clearly separate entities–regardless of how unhappy many JN members may feel about Baghdadi’s April announcement of a merger.
ISIS and FSA
As regards ISIS’ relations with battalions under the banner of the FSA, this article is primarily concerned with how they have played out in the Raqqa and Aleppo governorates, where vast amounts of territory are under rebel control. Previously, the current author has documented the expansion of ISIS into rural areas of Aleppo and Idlib, particularly in the border areas. This has entailed clashes with battalions under the banner of the FSA, such as the “Family of Jadir” in Jarabulus, from whom ISIS seized power in mid-June 2013, and FSA groupings in al-Dana.
Elsewhere, ISIS clashed in August 2013 with the Raqqa branch of a group of brigades under the banner of FSA known as Ahfad al-Rasul (“Descendants of the Prophet,” AAR). The ISIS presence has also sparked civilian protests against the group in a number of localities, including al-Dana, Manbij, and Azaz.
It would appear that the clashes began after AAR tried to ride the wave of discontent in the form of sit-ins and rallies against both Ahrar al-Sham and ISIS on account of the long-standing issue of detention of rival rebels. AAR’s sympathies were shown by the fact that its Facebook page for Raqqa shared a video of these demonstrations in early August 2013. Clashes were reported by the Lebanese news site to have begun on August 8, 2013, with some ten people killed on both sides.
A video was then circulated in pro-ISIS circles purporting to show the confession of an officer in AAR’s ranks admitting to having received support from France, in particular to fight the ISIS. From this alleged confession (which was quite clearly made under duress), pro-ISIS circles began to refer to AAR as “Ahfad Faransa” (“descendants of France”), and eventually denounced them as “apostates.” They also accused AAR of trying to form a Sahwa (“Awakening”) movement, supposedly equivalent to the anti-al-Qa’ida trend that took off in Iraq among Sunni militiamen from 2007 onwards.
ISIS supporters used similar terminology to denounce their FSA opponents in the Idlib town of al-Dana, but it should be noted that neither AAR in Raqqa nor the FSA fighters in al-Dana referred to themselves as a Sahwa movement. Indeed, considering the word’s connotations of working with Americans and the Iraqi government, the latter of which in Syria is widely viewed as an Iranian agent by virtue of its support for the Asad regime, it is hardly surprising that rebels deemed “mainstream” should want to avoid using this term to describe themselves.
By August 14, 2013, ISIS had killed a prominent AAR commander in the Raqqa area by the name of Fahad Husayn al-Kajwan, and had expelled AAR from its headquarters in the city of Raqqa. AAR, however, continued to fight with ISIS elsewhere in the province, attacking an ISIS checkpoint in the town of Tabqa.
By August 17, however, AAR announced that it would cease all operations against ISIS, “to preserve frontline unity.”An AAR commander who spoke with Swedish analyst Aron Lund also confirmed that the AAR-ISIS clashes were limited to the Raqqa area and that the two groups had cooperated elsewhere: most notably in the failed Latakia offensive into the Alawi heartland. One should further note in particular here the role of Ahrar al-Sham: as this author’s friend Shami Witness noticed, the group essentially stood aside and let ISIS do the “dirty work” of eliminating a common foe.
In some other parts of the Aleppo and Raqqa governorates, ISIS has maintained friendly relations with battalions under the FSA banner, most notably the then FSA Military Council in Aleppo, headed by one Colonel Oqaidi, who refused to denounce the ISIS and admitted that ISIS was the group that led the rebel takeover of the Mannagh airbase. It is of course true that the FSA-banner groups, such as the Northern Storm Brigade, had besieged the Mannagh airbase for quite some time. Nonetheless, the contributions of ISIS and its then front group JMWA proved decisive in the eventual fall of the airbase. Early on after the fall of the airbase, pro-ISIS outlets released photos attempting to demonstrate that the ISIS had led the takeover of Mannagh (Appendix, Figures 8 and 9).
Noteworthy also from the fall of the Mannagh airbase is a video released by the battalion Liwa al-Fatah, described by one writer as a “moderate Islamist” group. A quick glance at the video quickly demonstrates that in analysis, the term “moderate Islamist” in this context is quite meaningless. First, Abu Jandal al-Masri, the leader of the JMWA contingent–identified immediately by the speaker who filmed the video as synonymous with ISIS–is seen to be embracing a member of Liwa al-Fatah. Abu Jandal then proclaims, “I swear by God we will not leave a single Alawite alive in Syria… state of Islam, state of the Caliphate.” This is all proclaimed to the assent of “God is great” from the other fighters, including the Liwa al-Fatah member who filmed the video.
Another prominent FSA battalion in the Aleppo area with which ISIS generally maintains cordial relations is Liwa al-Tawhid, whose ideological orientation is in line with that of the Ikhwan. In July 2013, rumors began circulating–in origin from pro-Supreme Military Command circles (affiliated with General Salim Idriss)–that the rebel icon from Jarabulus, Abu Furat, had been killed by “Islamists” (i.e., JN/ISIS). However, Liwa al-Tawhid soon issued a statement denying that this was so, describing such rumors as an attempt by Western powers to stir up fitna (discord) in rebel ranks through the Arabic news channel al-Arabiya. More recently, an image was put out showing a member of Liwa al-Tawhid in Aleppo engaging in a friendly arm-wrestling match with an ISIS fighter (Appendix, Figure 10). Yet not all supporters of Liwa al-Tawhid view ISIS favorably. Some held a demonstration in the northern Aleppo town of Marea calling for the expulsion of ISIS from the town, under the slogan, “The people want Liwa al-Tawhid.”
In short, the foregoing data should demonstrate that there can be no sweeping answers to the question of ISIS-FSA relations, but rather point to a good deal of variation according to locality. Not all the potential conflicts that can arise are necessarily rooted in ideology, and by no means do all battalions under the banner of the FSA oppose ISIS simply because of their transnational vision. The issue of FSA-ISIS relations is also relevant to the question of conflicts with Kurdish forces, to which will be covered in the following section.
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