The clashes are an outcome of the steadily deteriorating relations between the ISIL and other rebels since the summer and of an influx of cash and resources to non-jihadi factions during the autumn and winter. But the start of conflict on January 3 seems to have been at least partially planned in advance and may reflect a longer-term strategy by anti-ISIL rebels and their foreign backers.
According to the opponents of the ISIL, the fighting was precipitated by demonstrations against the ISIL’s murder of Abu Rayyan, a member of the Salafi Ahrar al-Sham militia. Ahrar al-Sham is one of the leading factions in the Islamic Front, a large rebel coalition announced on November 22.
Although there are some reports of clashes between the ISIL and Ahrar al-Sham, the factions that have been most publicly involved in the attacks on the ISIL are not members of the Islamic Front. Instead—as detailed in yesterday’s post—most of the fighting has been done by the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front (SRF) and the Mujahideen Army, two newly created alliances that are based mainly in Syria’s northwest, near the border with Turkey.
The Islamic Front itself has taken a more nuanced position than either the SRF or the Mujahideen Army. This may be partly explained by the fact that it is a loosely organized umbrella organization in which different factions pursue different policies and a central spokesperson does not necessarily express a line followed by all.
But it may also represent a conscious choice. Since the Islamic Front contains some of Syria’s most powerful rebel groups, particularly in the now-contested northern areas, its position will matter for the outcome of this conflict.
Several of the Islamic Front’s member factions appear to be at daggers drawn with the ISIL. The death of Abu Rayyan, which is fresh in memory, is only the most recent in a catalogue of conflicts between Islamic Front members and Baghdadi’s forces.
The front’s political chief, Ahrar al-Sham’s Hassan Abboud, told Al Jazeera on January 3 that he can understand the factions now fighting the ISIL, since the group is truly guilty of the crimes and the arrogance of which it is being accused. Like other commanders, Abboud contends that the heart of the problem is that the ISIL insists on acting as a “state” rather than one faction among others and that it will not submit to conflict resolution through impartial sharia tribunals like others do. He blames the ISIL’s leadership for not showing the same political and social flexibility as its ideological twin, al-Qaeda-backed rebel group the Nusra Front.
The front’s spokesperson, Islam Alloush, made a similar criticism on Twitter, pointing to the ISIL’s aspirations for political hegemony: “We do not accept that the jihad is reduced to one single faction, just as we do not accept that any faction names itself a state.” His relative Zahran Alloush, who is the commander of the Islamic Front’s Army of Islam, calls the ISIL a “tyrannical faction” and says that the Army of Islam is forced to defend itself against Baghdadi’s forces. The Army of Islam has been the most outspoken Islamic Front group in its criticism of the ISIL.
Early on, the Islamic Front leadership issued a statement in support of the ISIL’s opponents in Atareb, mainly the Mujahideen Army, but it didn’t declare war on the ISIL as the Mujahideen Army and the SRF had done.
Despite this, there have been several clashes between the ISIL and Islamic Front factions in northern Syria. Parts of the Aleppo-based Tawhid Brigade, a member of the Islamic Front, are embroiled in the fighting. The group blames the ISIL for killing more than a dozen of its fighters, including several family members of one of its most prominent media officials. There are also reports of Ahrar al-Sham subfactions having confronted ISIL members and having seized the group’s headquarters in some areas. Reports from Raqqa—an Islamist-held northern city that has long been shared between Ahrar al-Sham, the ISIL and the Nusra Front—tell of Ahrar al-Sham members “driving around the city to arrest any . . . [ISIL] fighter they find.”
Despite this, Hassan Abboud has insisted that the Islamic Front itself is not part of the offensive against the ISIL and that it has made no decision to fight Baghdadi’s men. In fact, he says the Islamic Front deplores all revolutionary infighting. The front has not publicly reported any clashes with the ISIL, although such reports abound on social media. Abboud also clarifies that the Islamic Front will not tolerate attacks on non-Syrian fighters and offers up Ahrar al-Sham bases as sanctuaries for foreigners who want to extricate themselves from the fighting. He says that conflicts should be solved peacefully in joint sharia tribunals.
These are probably heartfelt sentiments on Abboud’s part. But such an attitude also happens to spare the Islamic Front any public responsibility for the grisly rebel-on-rebel clashes now roiling northern Syria—in which at least some of its member factions are involved—while still leaving the Islamic Front very well placed to capitalize on the ISIL’s misfortune.
As a bonus, if the ISIL is cut down to size, the Islamic Front’s influence will probably increase over those jihadis who fear that they could be next in line if left without local support—the Nusra Front being the most obvious candidate.
Then again, it remains to be seen how much damage can be inflicted on the ISIL if the Islamic Front’s powerful northern factions stay out of the fray. The ISIL has been hurt, and its progress has been checked for now. But it is far from destroyed. Apart from its remaining redoubts in Idlib, Aleppo, and Raqqa, the group has sanctuaries in northeastern Syria and in Iraq, although the Baghdad government is pushing on that front as well.
Unless the main Islamic Front factions decisively join the battle against the ISIL, it will probably be very difficult to root out Baghdadi’s men from northwestern Syria, if that is indeed the goal of this offensive. The SRF and the Mujahideen Army may have gained an early victory through the element of surprise, but it is hard to imagine that they could eliminate the ISIL from the area without active support from Islamic Front groups like Ahrar al-Sham, the Suqour al-Sham Brigades, and the Tawhid Brigade.
In any case, there’s a sharp limit to how much time, blood, and treasure these groups can spend chasing the ISIL around the Idlib Province because apart from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, there also remains that other enemy to worry about—Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
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