What's Behind Recent Rebel-Qaeda Tensions in Syria?
The last week was a busy one for internecine warfare among Syrian rebel groups. First, Kamal Hamami, or Abu Bassir al-Ladkani, a member of the 30-man Supreme Military Command (SMC) of the Free Syrian Army, was killed on July 11 while traveling in northern Latakia. According to the Washington-based Syrian Support Group, which documented eyewitness accounts, Hamami encountered an "illegal" checkpoint manned by the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham as he and his convoy were returning home to break the Ramadan fast. They were denied passage by Islamic State militants and, after a tense stand-off, Hamami was shot in the chest by Emir Al-Baghdadi, the group's commander for the coastal region of Syria.
"The Islamic State phoned me saying that they killed Hamami and that they will kill all of the Supreme Military Command," Qassem Saadeddine, the spokesman for the SMC, explained to Reuters. One of Saadeddine's colleagues who preferred to remain anonymous added that Hamami's assassination meant all-out war with al-Qaeda: "We are going to wipe the floor with them."
This past Tuesday, however, Aleppo's Military Council, which is nominally under the control of the FSA, denied that Hamami had been killed by jihadis at all; it was Assad's security forces who were responsible, the Council said.
Complicating matters further, two FSA fighters were reportedly beheaded by Islamic State jihadists in Dana, a rebel-controlled town in Idlib, last week. No one really knows who then attacked the FSA's local headquarters in Dana on July 13 - "unidentified armed groups," Syrian Air Force jets, or the Islamic State have all been blamed. Col. Abdul-Jabbar Akaidi, the FSA's commander in Aleppo, and the Aleppo Media Center have also denied further allegations of skirmishes between FSA units and Islamic State militants at a checkpoint at Bustan al-Qasr.
According to Charles Lister, an analyst with IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center in London, while Hamami's assassination is demonstrable, "all claims of fighting [in Idlib and Aleppo] have come from anti-Islamist sources and have since largely been denied or proven inaccurate by influential and well-placed sources on the ground." He adds that there is doubtless simmering rivalry and mutual suspicion between the FSA and Islamic State jihadists, owing largely to the latter's infiltration of villages and towns in northern Syria. "Fundamentally, this recent flare-up in rhetoric appears to have been a media campaign pushed by the moderate political opposition outside Syria," Lister said.
So desperate are these forces to receive long-promised arms from the United States - arms that may or may not finally arrive in August - that they are now trying to exploit real or imagined tensions on the ground to help expedite Washington's torpid rebel aid program. Unfortunately, this strategy is backfiring as local and regional commanders have disclaimed the emergence of a sideshow between their forces and the takfiris.
Contrary to the conspiracism propagated by Damascus and its Russian and Iranian handmaids, this does not so bespeak a strong ideological affinity between the FSA and al-Qaeda so much as it does a convenient partnership that's becoming increasingly inconvenient. A civil war within a civil war at this stage, particularly after the loss of Qusayr and the ongoing siege of Homs, would prove disastrous to the combined military effort of defeating the regime. Even FSA spokesman Louay Moqdad admits as much in press interviews.
Moreover, clashes between the FSA and jihadists are nothing new. In January, Jabhat al-Nusra gunned down Thaer al-Waqqas, the northern commander of the al-Farouq Brigades, in Sermin, near the Syrian-Turkish border, in reprisal for the killing of al-Nusra leader Firas al-Absi four months prior. In March, another Farouq commander, Mohammed al-Daher, who operates under the nom de guerre Abu Azzam, was rushed to a hospital in southern Turkey after he and two of his men were attacked with hand grenades and machine guns by al-Nusra fighters. Neither episode ultimately proved a curtain-raiser on a major showdown between the rival rebel groups.
If anything, in the months since, al-Nusra has only gained at the expense of the moderates. In May, the Guardian conducted a series of interviews with moderate rebel commanders throughout Syria who told them that the Western-backed opposition had lost "a quarter or more of their strength" to the al-Qaeda affiliate. Some 3,000 rebels, according to Ala'a al-Basha, head of the Sayyida Aisha Brigade, had gone over to al-Nusra because of the FSA's lack of weapons and ammunition. (The jihadists have even preyed upon this vulnerability by dispatching spies to infiltrate FSA units in the hopes of luring new recruits among the disaffected.)
It seems obvious, however, that desperation for cash, guns, and ammunition isn't the sole motivation behind the SMC's risky new information war. Commanders affiliated with Gen. Salim Idris do genuinely sense that the Islamic State is out to get them, and there is demonstrable fighting going on in Idlib right now, according to Elizabeth O'Bagy of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a Washington-based NGO with close ties to the SMC. But fear may be married to opportunism as Idris' men now also detect an exploitable schism within the ranks of al-Qaeda itself.
Little is truly known about the nature of the organizational hostility between al-Nusra, led by Abu Muhammad al-Julani, and the Islamic State, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (different from the coastal emir cited earlier), who commands al-Qaeda in Iraq. Both have pledged loyalty to Aymenn al-Zawahiri, the top international al-Qaeda leader, but their outlook on how to proceed in Syria differs, sometimes greatly. One thing does seem clear: Baghdadi has attracted far more foreign mujahideen - including Egyptians, Tunisians, and Iraqis - than al-Julani has, introducing an element unaccustomed to navigating the complicated Islamist terrain of Syrian society. The Guardian's Martin Chulov told me that it is most likely mujahideen who have been responsible for disrupting the tenuous alliance between the FSA and al-Nusra as well as exacerbating internal al-Qaeda tensions.
Al-Julani and his men are brutal extremists, but they've also shown themselves to also be savvy wartime economists. As reported by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, in areas the group controls in the Jazira such as the city of Shadadi, al-Nusra administers oil fields, gas refineries, bakeries, water and power plants, healthcare clinics, and sharia courts. It also boasts of how disciplined and centralized its system of finance is in comparison with the FSA, which it depicts as a corrupt gang of brigands willing to steal and sell anything that isn't bolted to the floor.
And yet, the future isn't bright for these jihadists, who sense the imminence of a sahwa, or Sunni "awakening," in Syria, that could see local populations turn against their rule, just as Iraqis did in Anbar Province in the mid-2000s. Sahwa is arguably taking place already and only being accelerated by Islamic State's heavy-handed presence. "I expected clashes with everyone: with tribes, with the FSA, with anyone," one al-Nusra commander told Abdul-Ahad. "But with other jihadis? I never thought that day would come." More and more, residents of areas ruled by the al-Nusra/Islamic State consortium are turning against their masters. "Out, out, out, the State must get out," protestors were heard chanting in the northern town of Manbij last week. Sheikh Jassem al-Awad, a tribal leader in Raqqa, was kept in a cellar for 25 days by the Islamic State, which had arrested him and other members of the Raqqa media center and stolen $50,000 worth of their equipment. Raqqa, he told the New York Times, started going to the dogs when al-Nusra joined with the Islamic State.
The SMC's rhetorical declaration of war against al-Qaeda coincides with other claims of fracture or cleavage, such as one advanced by FSA commander Brig. Gen. Mithkal Albtaish, who told The Wall Street Journal in late June that he managed to persuade 60 al-Nusra fighters to defect to his side - a rarity, as the traffic usually goes the other way. Even if Albtaish was lying, he was doing so with purpose.
Hardcore Islamist ideology in Syria competes with more urgent practical considerations as a precipitant or justification for jihadism - something the Assad regime surely understood from the start. So brutalized has Syria's population been in the last two years that the distance needed to be traveled between conservative Islamic piety and outright terrorism has shrunk, as it did over similar time periods in Chechnya and Bosnia. If the West has any chance of influencing the opposition, or helping to decide the outcome of the Syrian war, then that chance surely rests on the idea that joining a jihadist group, even an al-Qaeda affiliate, is not necessarily a lifetime commitment, tantamount to joining the mob. Once you're in, you can, in fact, get out. But first you need an incentive to do so. The SMC's greatest challenge is proving that it can credibly offer one.