Intra-rebel accusations compound tensions in south Syria arena

AMMAN: Two Daraa-based FSA affiliates accused a rival hardline Islamist faction over the weekend of a spate of recent “kidnappings, assassinations and intimidation,” provoking an angry response from the latter and laying bare mutual tensions that a rebel spokesman says threaten efforts to drive back ongoing regime offensives.

Jaish al-Yarmouk and tribal fighting force Jaish Ahrar al-Ashair, both FSA affiliates, released separate announcements on Sunday accusing Salafi faction Harakat a-Muthanna al-Islamiya of several abductions, including one three weeks ago of the president of the Daraa Provincial Council.

“Surveillance and fact-finding” by both FSA groups following several kidnappings led to their discovery of “a number of secret prisons belonging to [Harakat] leadership holding kidnapped Daraa residents,” an announcement by Jaish al-Yarmouk read on Sunday.

The same statement accused Harakat of being behind “kidnappings, assassinations and intimidation (tashbih).”

Doctor Yaqoub al-Ammar, the head of the Daraa Provincial Council, was reportedly found in the house of a Harakat commander and freed in an operation last Thursday.

Three weeks ago, several masked gunmen forced al-Ammar into a car days after his reelection as head of the Provincial Council, the pro-opposition Shahid Media Foundation reported at the time. No group claimed responsibility for his abduction.

Appearing in a video after his release, the council president thanked Jaish al-Yarmouk for rescuing him and called on “honorable members of Harakat al-Muthanna to present their leaders to the Court of Justice (Dar al-Adl)” in Daraa province which adjudicates civil and military disputes between civilians and rebel brigades.

A Jaish Ahrar al-Ashair commander, Ahmad al-Abdullah, was also among the unknown number of those reportedly freed from Harakat al-Muthanna, his faction announced Sunday.

Harakat al-Muthanna denies responsibility for the kidnappings and other crimes, characterizing the recent accusations as “a vicious media campaign aimed at tarnishing our reputation” in an announcement posted to Facebook on Sunday.

A separate announcement posted online the same day claimed the faction “does not have any interest in kidnapping those individuals” and promised a “harsh response” for “those factions that are trying to ruin our reputation.”

Daraa Provincial Council president Doctor Yaqoub al-Ammar (right), appeared in a video Sunday three weeks after his abduction. Photo courtesy of Jaish al-Yarmouk.

Statements by rival groups about the kidnappings did not posit possible motivations on the part of Harakat, but insist that the evidence tells the story.

“This is not just an accusation,” Abu Kinan, the commander of Jaish al-Yarmouk told Syria Direct on Monday. “We pulled the opposition governor of Daraa province out of Harakat cells. It is a fully-fledged crime.”

The commander denied inciting any kind of conflict with Harakat’s fighters. “The announcements were released to clarify what is going on,” Abu Kinan says. “The matter will run its legal course in the Court of Justice in Daraa province.”

It is not immediately clear how the court could independently resolve the matter, however. When Daraa’s Dar al-Adl was formed as an independent judicial authority just over a year ago, both Jabhat a-Nusra and ideologically similar Harakat a-Muthanna al-Islamiya initially merged their sharia courts with it.

However, both withdrew this past April following a dispute with the FSA-led Southern Front. Both Jaish al-Yarmouk and Jaish Ahrar al-Ashair are members of the Southern Front rebel alliance.  

Daraa province has long suffered from a lack of security as a result of diverse ruling rebel brigades, leading to a spate of assassinations, kidnappings and general lawlessness despite efforts by civilian authorities, such as banning tinted windows on cars and requiring vehicle registrations, to rein these practices in.

This past December, a leading Dar al-Adl jurist and his four companions were shot and killed by unidentified assailants in broad daylight on a stretch of road between Jabhat a-Nusra and Harakat a-Muthanna al-Islamiya security checkpoints, Syria Direct reported.

The battle for Sheikh Miskeen

Recent intra-rebel tensions come as an array of rebel factions in Daraa province struggle to hold back an offensive by regime forces and their allies that began late last year for control of Sheikh Miskeen, a key rebel-held town on the Daraa-Damascus highway.

Taking Sheikh Miskeen, 70km south of Damascus, would allow regime forces to secure the supply route and use the town as a launching point for regional operations.

Given this backdrop, Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya on Sunday called on the accusing factions to instead focus on “repelling the regime campaign in Sheikh Miskeen and Daraa city.”

One Daraa activist who spoke with Syria Direct on Monday voiced fears about the potential impact of rebel infighting on the battles.

“There are accusations against Harakat al-Muthanna of extremism and [pro-Islamic State] tendencies,” the activist said, requesting anonymity, “but they have a strong fighting presence.”

“The fear is that [recent accusations] will affect the ongoing Sheikh Miskeen battles,” he said.

The two FSA brigades that accused Harakat of responsibility for recent kidnappings disagree about the extent to which confronting the faction may impact combat operations.

“A number of military factions are participating in the battles, not just Harakat al-Muthanna,” Muhammad Adnan, a Jaish Ahrar al-Ashair spokesman told Syria Direct on Monday. “The problem will not impact the Sheikh Miskeen battle.”

Other rebel groups fighting in Sheikh Miskeen currently include FSA factions with the Southern Front alliance, Ahrar a-Sham, Jaish al-Islam and Jabhat a-Nusra.

But recent tensions have already impacted the course of the fighting, according to a Monday statement from the Jaish al-Yarmouk media office to Syria Direct: “After our announcement about the release of al-Ammar from al-Muthanna, [the faction] halted a Jaish al-Yarmouk convoy that had been going to Sheikh Miskeen.”

Reinforcements were unable to reach Sheikh Miskeen, Jaish al-Yarmouk said in a statement on Sunday, calling on “all the factions in Daraa” to “mobilize to prevent bloodshed and open and secure supply routes for our forces.”

Several Daraa activists who spoke with Syria Direct on Monday found claims of Harakat al-Muthanna responsibility credible. 

“The testimonies of those abducted and the place of the kidnappings” incriminate Harakat, Daraa activist Abu Abdullah al-Hariri said.

Harakat “behaviors are like those of IS,” Muhammad Adnan, Jaish Ahrar al-Ashair spokesman told Syria Direct on Monday. “It is responsible for kidnapping operations and extortion in southern Syria.” “It appears that there are IS sleeper cells” in the group, Abu Abdulla al-Hariri, a Daraa-based activist told Syria Direct.

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.