February 12, 2014

An estimated 2,300 combatants have been killed in intra-rebel fighting in 2014, the result of violence pitting the Islamic State in Iraq and a-Sham (ISIS) against a broad range of mostly Islamist rebel groups, including al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat a-Nusra, the Islamic Front, Jaish al-Mujahideen and others. The fighting broke out in early January as a result of long-simmering tensions between ISIS and other groups, which came to a head when ISIS kidnapped, tortured and executed a commander of the Islamic Front member-group Ahrar a-Sham.

Over the course of the fighting, ISIS has withdrawn from positions across a wide swath of Syria, including Idlib, Aleppo and Deir e-Zor provinces, but consolidated control over most of eastern a-Raqqa province and scattered towns in Aleppo province, including Menbij, al-Bab and al-Ra’ee.

Though violence has calmed since early January, the rift between the two sides has showed few signs of healing.

In one violent episode last week, an ISIS representative blew himself up during negotiations with the Islamic Front’s Liwa a-Tawhid in the northern Aleppo town of al-Ra’ee. A few days later, ISIS signed a narrow ceasefire with the Islamic Front’s Suqour a-Sham in Hama province, the same day it condemned Jabhat a-Nusra as hypocritical and un-Islamic.

In the second installment of a two-part interview, Aymenn al-Tamimi, a Shilman-Ginnsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum, tells Elizabeth Parker-Magyar how oil deals with the Syrian government fuel rebel groups and why, despite its perceived retreat from northern Syria, ISIS may actually be stronger now than when the infighting began.

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An ISIS headquarters building in northern Syria. Photo courtesy of @JehadNews.

In the past week, the explosion of fighting has really cooled off, maybe with the exception of Menbij. Has that occurred because the groups have consolidated positions, or is it an exhaustion of infighting?

I think it’s both. In a-Raqqa province, it’s certainly a consolidation of position; who is left to oppose ISIS? All the other brigades either decided to pull out – either as Ahrar a–Sham did in Tel Abyad, or in Meidan, another town, where brigades reached a truce  - or they’ve just been driven out completely, as in a-Raqqa city.

There is a good deal of localization of this. Who is participating in fighting varies place to place.

Because Syria is so fragmented – there’s no coherent leadership, no overall policy or vision – events occur on the ground but are not replicated elsewhere.

We interviewed someone who said ISIS had established their own “independent state” in a-Raqqa. Do you think there’s any particular reason ISIS has become so dominant in Raqqa province in particular?

With Aleppo and Idlib in particular, ISIS was very thinly spread out, rather than the dominant presence, they were forced to be one of many groups. You’d have a street, you’d have an ISIS office, a dawa office, and so on. This was problematic early on as ISIS took some significant losses.

Whereas in a-Raqqa and so on, there aren’t so many localities where you can spread out. I also do know that they reinforced their positions in a-Raqqa, brought up reinforcements from Deir e-Zor and the wider eastern areas of Syria to consolidate control in the province.

[The relative calm] is both consolidation of positions and exhaustion.

There have been all these accusations that the Syrian regime has been aiding ISIS. John Kerry almost went so far as to suggest that. How much of ISIS’ energy right now is being expended fighting the Syrian government, as opposed to Syrian rebel groups?

At the moment, a lot of ISIS’ energy is going toward fighting other rebel groups, since this infighting broke out. There were many fronts before the fighting broke out where they were fighting the regime: Qalamoun, Damascus, Latakia, Deir e-Zor city, many areas of Aleppo province, the air base, Sheikh Sayeed. But since the infighting broke out, a lot was redirected toward fighting other rebel groups.

As for this issue of collaboration, there’s some truth to it in the sense that ISIS and other rebel groups – a lot of it is Nusra, others like Ahrar al-Sham, [the Kurdish] YPG – the groups that tend to have control over eastern oil resources, they cut deals with the regime, where they allow the oil to travel to exporters through pipelines, and in the return the regime pays them a fee. So the regime is giving cash to these groups in order to ensure the flow of oil and gas.

On the other hand, I don’t see ISIS and Nusra in particular as being solely involved in this kind of thing. Generally speaking, in conflict, rebel groups of all sorts make agreements that allow certain supplies to go into government-held areas in exchange for extortion fees. In that way, rebel groups get money that allows them to finance themselves.

I just don’t see it as particularly unique to ISIS and Nusra. But in absolute terms, it is true, because there’s regime money going to ISIS and Nusra because of these deals struck over oil. But it would happen regardless, because the YPG also does that. It’s not only ISIS and Nusra who control and sell eastern oil resources – the FSA, Ahrar-Sham and others also do

On the other hand, there’s certainly some truth to the idea that the regime wanted the rebellion to take a more extremist form from the beginning, to justify the narrative for international support.

There’s also some truth that sometimes the regime doesn’t target ISIS bases, I think there’s some truth that the regime sees the ISIS presence as useful for justifying that narrative, and wants that presence to grow, to become increasingly dominant among the rebels, to justify its message to the outside world that the uprising from the beginning has been a conspiracy of terrorists, so to speak.

Do you think ISIS has changed their strategy since the beginning of intra-rebel fighting?

To a certain extent, I think they’ve changed their strategy. Rather than trying to spread out as much as possible, it seems to be, gain one stronghold at a time. And that seems to have worked. I don’t think for now they’ll try to re-establish themselves in Aleppo city. I think the idea for now is to keep this approach of one stronghold at a time, or force the rebels generally in Aleppo to reach some type of concord or cease-fire, to reestablish their setting in Aleppo province. And to a certain extent that has happened with Ahrar al-Sham.

I’m inclined to say on balance ISIS has gained more in real terms rather than it’s lost. At the end of the day it’s not how many localities you are in as far as a building and a dawa office, but how many stronholds you have. 

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