Has Sahwa Hit the Fan in Syria?

By Michael Weiss

Has sahwa finally hit the fan in Syria?  Since just after Christmas, the nastiest and most backward group in the country, the schismatic al-Qaeda affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), has had its black-clad ass handed to it by three disparate but equally fed-up rebel super-formations, none of them more than three months old. The largest and most formidable of these anti-ISIS newcomers is the mainly Salafi  Islamic Front, which fields as many as 60,000 fighters and was created, as far as I can tell, to accomplish three things: 1. isolate and marginalize ISIS, though not necessarily through military force; 2. establish the first truly cohesive rebel army with a top-down hierarchy and command-and-control capability; 3. lure the more “moderate” or pragmatic al-Qaeda group in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, into the oppositional mainstream. If the last few days have been any guide, then number 1 is proceeding apace, number 2 is relatively successful, at least by Syrian standards, although its objective success is still hard to gauge, and number 3 remains a work-in-progress. Nevertheless, any week in which Syrians rise up to denounce Zarqawism and call for its expulsion from the country is not a week to sniff at, especially as positive developments in this conflict are seldom in evidence.

While it’s true that an anti-ISIS backlash was long in coming, a few key dates and events suggest what made it arrive now.

An early catalyst occurred on December 29 when ISIS fighters raided opposition-linked news buildings in the Idlib city of Kafranbel. These included, most notoriously, the media center run by Raed Fares, the 41-year-old responsible for pro-revolutionary posters that have caught the world’s attention by broadcasting in English messages that combine wit, poignancy, and indignation about America and the so-called international community’s failure to help the Syrian people. Kafranbel is a byword for the revolution’s first principles and the continuity of democratic sentiment, so an attack on it constitutes an attack on the very reason Syrians rose up in the first place. ISIS took six media workers, then wisely released them two hours later. But its true sinister intent was to destroy the communications hardware and facilities themselves. According to the Daily Star, the jihadis “ransacked the premises of the two locations and confiscated or destroyed computers, cameras, radio and Internet equipment, and pro-uprising banners.” The reason? A radio broadcast made hours earlier in which Syrian women discussed the details of their lives, including their divorces, and because the Kafranbel media center had lately taken to depicting ISIS as what they are: savages more intent on cannibalizing rebels than on fighting the regime.

Currently on a speaking tour of the United States, Fares spoke to me via Skype from Detroit last Saturday. He said that all the posters he’s thought up, most of which marry withering satire with Western pop cultural references, are simply the product of a lot of movie watching and the desire to talk to the United States in its own language. These have gone viral, all right: I’ve got a print of Fares’ spoof on Titanic’s edge-of-the-bow scene — with Bashar cast as Kate Winslet and Vladimir Putin cast as Leonardo DiCaprio — framed and hanging on my wall at home.

“The reason Kafranbel became important is because it’s been persistently and consistently supporting the revolution in all of its aspects — whether it’s the non-violent revolution, or the armed revolution or the humanitarian and civil society work,” Fares told me. He absolutely sees the assault on the village and its symbolic importance for the opposition as stirring anti-ISIS sentiment. And, in a sense, going after ISIS is just like going after Assad. “The regime, when we would say something in opposition to them, they’d shell us. ISIS, when we made a drawing against them — the first in June of this year — they wanted to attack us so they came and raided the media center. At the end of the day, they're both the same.  They’re both tyrants.”

ISIS had been laying the groundwork for its comeuppance for months, but just after Christmas, confrontation seemed imminent. Days before the assault on Kafranbel, activists and oppositionists in Maarat al-Numan, Idlib, protested in favor of rebel unity and for the release of an FSA officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ahmad Saoud of the 13th battalion, who’d been “arrested” by ISIS on December 13 along with two lower-ranking soldiers at a jihadi-run checkpoint in western Idlib. The entourage had been traveling to the Taftanaz airbase where they were due to negotiate with ISIS about weapons, including anti-aircraft munitions, which the latter had confiscated from Fursan al-Haqq. Perhaps not coincidentally, this FSA brigade is tasked with defending Kafranbel from punishing regime airstrikes. Saoud, a defector from the Syrian army, is also a member of the Idlib military council, which a week earlier had demanded that the jihadi network free all civilians it had abducted, referring any criminal or civil disputes to Sharia courts. The protests in this instance appeared to have worked because within hours of their launch, Saoud became the first FSA officer to be released by ISIS. In a subsequent interview with Syria Deeply, Lieutenant Colonel Fares Baioush, Saoud’s deputy, claimed that all of the FSA’s commanders and officers were now being systematically targeted by the jihadis “as agents for the United States and the West in general.” Baioush listed other FSA officers whom ISIS had kidnapped and executed in past few months.

Then came New Year’s Day, when ISIS committed another stupid and self-defeating offense: the grim torture, murder, and corpse mutilation of Hussein al-Suleiman, a.k.a. Abu Rayyan, a respected physician and commander in Ahrar al-Sham. Ahrar al-Sham is one of the largest and most formidable Salafi brigades in Syria and is now part of the Islamic Front, which is headed politically by Ahrar’s own leader, Hassan Aboud. Like Saoud, Suleiman was first detained by ISIS while heading to meet a delegation of the jihadis, this time to resolve a dispute that began in Maskaneh, a village in the Aleppo countryside. He was allegedly kept for 20 days and horribly tortured before being shot to death. Images of his disfigured cadaver — featuring a missing ear — were circulated over social media, outraging even those Ahrar al-Sham supporters who had hitherto been tolerant of ISIS. In a statement released by the brigade, Ahrar al-Sham accused the al-Qaeda offshoot of exceeding even the mukhabarat in barbarity and warned that “if ISIS continues with its methodical avoiding of refraining from... resorting to an independent judicial body, and its stalling and ignoring in settling its injustices against others, the revolution and the jihad will head for the quagmire of internal fighting, in which the Syrian revolution will be the first loser.”

So, naturally, on January 2, ISIS decided to attack the FSA, this time in Atareb, Aleppo, a flashpoint that quickly grew to encompass large swaths of the province as well as neighboring Idlib. The FSA put out a distress call. Remarkably, and unlike previous episodes where the moderates sought to be bailed out by the Islamists, this time the latter rallied to the former’s defense. The Islamic Front, which not a month ago commandeered FSA warehouses in Atmeh, precipitating the United States and other Western countries to cease aid and supply delivers through the Bab al-Hawa border-crossing, issued its own warning to ISIS: “We hereby address the Islamic State of the requirement to immediately withdraw from the city of al-Atareb and to end the killing of the fighters based on false excuses and return all unfairly confiscated properties of weapons and bases to their rightful owners. They must also accept the rule of God by agreeing to the judgments of the independent religious courts to resolve the conflicts that arise between them and the other factions. We remind ISIS that those who originally liberated al-Atareb and the suburbs of Aleppo in general are those whom you are now fighting.” The Islamic Front also demanded that the killers of Abu Rayyan be surrendered by ISIS.

Enter, too, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF), a consortium of formerly FSA-aligned rebels, which was established mere days after the Islamic Front’s takeover of Atmeh warehouses. The SRF now found itself fighting alongside the group whose aggression it was created to counterman in order to defeat a common takfiri nemesis. The SRF is headed by Jamal Ma’rouf, an Idlib-born Syrian who first took part in the protest movement, then commanded a series of rebel brigades: first the Martyrs of Jabal Zawiyeh Brigade, which later developed into the Syrian Martyrs Brigade, and finally the Grandsons of the Prophet Brigade, which was responsible for a string of impressive victories against regime weapons caches. The SRF claims between 10,000 and 15,000 throughout Syria, drawing on 20 different units including the Military Council of Idlib, the province where the SRF has the heaviest concentration. However, this group is still very much in its infancy and has yet to participate in operations as a single body with command-and-control capabilities, Like most other umbrella organizations in Syria, the SRF seems more a political than military project.

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Michael Weiss is a NOW columnist and a fellow at the Institute of Modern Russia. He tweets @michaeldweiss

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