July 21, 2013
By Abdulrahman al-Masri and Michael Pizzi
AMMAN: Following clashes on the outskirts of Raqqa, north-central Syria, Kurdish forces apprehended al-Qaeda linked rebel leader Abu Musaab, and later released him in exchange for hundreds of local prisoners who had previously been taken hostage by jihadists. Sunday’s release was also seen as a concession to quell tensions between the two armed factions.
Abu Musaab is an emir of the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham, a jihadist group under the umbrella of the al-Qaeda network. His detention is the latest incident in the emerging struggle between al-Qaeda and rival rebel factions.
ISIS is active in the liberated territories of Northern Syria, where it has distributed jihadist fighters to overlook areas that were predominately liberated by fighters from the moderate Free Syrian Army. As its name suggests, ISIS seeks to establish an Islamic State in the contiguous Iraq-Syria territory, as the first step in restoring a caliphate to the entire region.
The spike in fighting between Kurdish and ISIS forces follows in the wake of two high-profile assassinations of FSA commanders by ISIS mujahedeen.
An Iraqi emir called Abu Ayman stands accused of murdering rival FSA commander Kemal Hamami last week in a village outside the coastal city of Latakia, an incident that some FSA leaders have referred to as a “declaration of war” between rebel factions.
The pursuit continues for Abu Ayman, who activists say has validated the Syrian government’s ongoing labeling of the rebels as “terrorists.”
“Someone like Abu Ayman gives the regime everything it needs in order to kill Syrians under the pretext of a radical terrorist presence,” says Abu Jaffer al-Mugharbel, a pro-revolution media activist in Homs. “He is a scarecrow against Western intervention.”
The Hamami incident was the second high-profile assassination of an FSA commander in two weeks, after fighter Fadi al-Qash was killed by ISIS fighters in the town of Dana, outside Idlib.
In light of the spike in rebel-on-rebel violence, FSA fighters have joined with the government in calling ISIS a terror group and undermining the armed opposition to Assad.
If the infighting escalates any further, “rebel bullets will be aimed toward other rebels, emptying their ammunition and decreasing their numbers,” says Morad al-Ayham of the FSA’s Military Council in Idlib.
Problems up north
Analysts say that ISIS fighters are appearing all over the north of Syria, declaring their authority over local “emirates” in some places – such as the town of Jarubulus, along the Turkish border.
Sources in ISIS-heavy towns report palpable tensions between the mainstream Free Syrian Army and ISIS. Abu Baker, a 31 year-old citizen journalist in Raqqa, east of Aleppo, has observed skirmishes and heated arguments between elements of the FSA and the Islamic State on the street in his hometown, where ISIS’ headquarters are situated. He describes a “verbal showdown” that took place between groups from the FSA and ISIS in Raqqa’s market.
“The FSA referred to the [Islamic State] fighters as infidels, and told them to get out of Raqqa,” he says, adding that at one point “weapons were raised.”
In Aleppo, protests erupted on July 11th when militiamen who claimed to be part of the Islamic State enforced a blockade on the Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood, harassing citizens at the Karaj al-Hajiz checkpoint and enforcing sharia-mandated modesty requirements for women.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Sham released a statement the following day declaring that ISIS had left the checkpoint the night before the protests, and that the checkpoint soldiers had “no relationship to the Islamic State.”
“Jalabiyas (a traditional Muslim garment) and banners are no evidence of an organizational affiliation,” the statement read.
Thaer Abu Yousef, a citizen journalist in Aleppo who describes his political leanings as Islamist, confirmed that “the neighborhood is under the control of jihadist brothers.” He added that many of them were not Syrian, but that “most were Arabs,” consistent with the make-up of an Islamic State militia.
Another eyewitness to the Bustan al-Qasr incident, a 42 year-old lawyer from Aleppo named Alaa Sayed, recounted on his Facebook page that a guard had reprimanded a man for carrying a package of cigarettes, which are forbidden during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and proceeded to tear the carton up.
For its part, local FSA leadership in the north of Syria, where ISIS is strongest, refuses to acknowledge any sort of rift between the moderate and extremist rebels.
“ISIS are our brothers who came to help us in a time when other Islamic and Western countries kept silent about the regime’s crime,” reads a statement from the Aleppo Military Council on July 15th.
The AMC similarly accused the media of exaggerating conflict between the FSA and ISIS, “in order to ignite the fire of sedition.”
Al-Qaeda, which has had a hand in Syria ever since Jabhat al-Nusra rose to prominence, has only recently emerged as a troublemaker for the rebels. Free Syrian Army fighters say that tension between moderate and Islamist fighters has only arisen since al-Qaeda in Iraq merged with Jabhat al-Nusra to become ISIS.
“What’s strange is that we used to work, coordinate, and share the same operation room when [they were] Jabhat al-Nusra,” says Morad al-Ayham in Idlib, where ISIS has a strong presence. “Now it’s devolved into assassinations and assaults.”
One explanation for the onset of rebel-on-rebel violence is that unlike Jabhat Al-Nusra, the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham draws its recruits heavily from foreign countries. Non-Syrians fighting to establish a new Syrian order rub some FSA fighters the wrong way. These ISIS mujahedeen were far away from Syria while the FSA was bogged down in the trenches, fighting to liberate territories from the regime.
Abu Baker, the citizen journalist in Raqqa, says that ISIS swooped into the already-liberated town and began to “recklessly” enforce elements of Islamic sharia law.
“They are not from Syria,” he says, “and they appointed themselves without asking anyone.”
With additional reporting from Nuha Shabaan