The Geneva II peace talks between Syria’s government and a group of Western-backed exiled politicians are still going on in Switzerland. The discussion is now moving on to practical measures, such as aid deliveries for the long-suffering city of Homs, that seem to have little impact on the politics of the conflict.
Inside Syria, however, another peace process has just begun, far from the camera’s eye. It just might turn out to be the more important one.
The War Against the Islamic State
On January 3, 2014, several groups of Syrian rebels attacked the transnational jihadi organization known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) after months of increasing tension in northern Syria.
The groups that initiated the attacks were mostly linked to the Western and Gulf-backed Supreme Military Council (SMC), a fledgling insurgent leadership and funding apparatus headed by Salim Idris. They included the Mujahideen Army and the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front (SRF). The SRF’s former rivals in the Islamic Front—a major Islamist alliance that has publicly cut its ties to the SMC—were also involved from the very first days. Still, it took almost a week for the Islamic Front’s leaders to publicly acknowledge their role in the conflict because of the sensitivity of fighting another Islamist faction.
Things were even more complex for the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda–aligned group spawned from the same roots as the ISIL. After January 3, the Nusra Front tried to distance itself from the fighting. Its leader, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, proposed ceasefires and mediation in a sharia tribunal, all the while criticizing the “faulty policies” of the ISIL. But Golani’s grasp of the situation seemed to be slipping, and in several areas the Nusra Front’s members joined the battles anyway.
Make Peace, Not Fitna
Enter Abdullah bin Mohammed al-Moheisini. By the time the conflict erupted, this Saudi Salafi preacher had already become a minor celebrity on social media, helping to collect funds for the rebellion in Syria. His popularity had exploded when he relocated to Syria in 2013 and began working directly with the Islamist factions on the ground as a roving financier, religious instructor, and mediator—all the while tweeting furiously to his 270,000 followers and asking them to give for the cause or to come join the battle in Syria.
As Moheisini’s attempts to crowdfund the jihad in Syria grew more effective, so did his stature among Syrians. By late 2013, he had appeared in photo ops alongside a virtual who’s who of the hardline Islamist segment of Syria’s uprising, including top commanders from the Islamic Front, the Nusra Front, and the ISIL.
Like so many other Islamists, Moheisini was deeply troubled by the fitna, or internal strife, that erupted in in northern Syria on January 3. It had not only resulted in the shedding of Muslim blood by Muslims, which is forbidden by Islam, but could also derail the struggle against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and expose Islamist ranks to Western and Gulf state penetration.
The Umma Initiative
On January 23, Moheisini launched a peace plan called the Umma Initiative (umma is Arabic for “nation,” used in the sense of a global Islamic community). He began anchoring the plan with visits to rebel leaders as well as in the media, and, true to form, he created an Umma Initiative section on his website, a dedicated Facebook page, a Twitter account, and a hashtag.
Moheisini clearly views Syria as a front in a larger global conflict. The text of the initiative explains that he has consulted with many different rebel leaders and scholars and that he is drawing inspiration from al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s recent call for sharia mediation in Syria.
The plan is as follows: after an immediate ceasefire between the ISIL and other rebels, the factions will elect a joint arbitration court from a list of ten independent religious scholars. The candidates have been drawn from small, second-tier jihadi factions like Suqour al-Ezz (located in Latakia), the Green Battalion (Qalamoun) and Jund al-Aqsa (Idlib/Hama), which Moheisini says have stayed out of the conflict so far. All rebel factions involved in the Umma Initiative must agree to all candidates. If they cannot agree on enough candidates from the list of ten, they may suggest other names to be mutually agreed on in the same way. Once assembled, the decisions of the court will be legally binding upon all who have pledged to the initiative.
As parties to the conflict, Moheisini lists the ISIL, the Islamic Front, the Mujahideen Army, and the SRF, but he also requests comments from the Nusra Front and all other factions, as well as from religious scholars and others. He noted that all actors should state their agreement or disagreement within five days from the launch of the initiative—meaning the deadline is January 27.
Support for the Umma Initiative
Syrian rebel groups named in the statement began issuing statements of approval almost instantly. The SRF agreed to Moheisini’s initiative on January 24, and so did the Nusra Front, through a statement by its leader, Golani. The jihadis of the Green Brigade and Suqour al-Ezz approved the Umma Initiative on the same day, and the Muhajirin wa-Ansar Alliance (which includes four small Salafi factions: Jund al-Aqsa, the Umma Brigade, the Omar Brigade, and the Haq Brigade of Idlib) endorsed it on January 25, as did another small foreign fighter outfit, the Sham al-Islam Movement.
Leaders of the Islamic Front and the Mujahideen Army also responded positively, although a formal statement took a day more to materialize. On January 26, the Islamic Front and the Mujahideen Army finally announced their joint support for the Umma Initiative, even though they made note of their view that Moheisini should have blamed the ISIL for starting the war and for refusing previous mediation attempts.
Will the ISIL Opt for Reconciliation or Isolation?
One faction remains: the ISIL itself. Among Islamist insurgents in both Iraq and Syria, the group is infamous for its intransigence. A recurring trigger for conflict in the run-up to the January 3 fighting was the ISIL’s insistence that it is a “state” and therefore cannot accept joint sharia tribunals with other groups because only its own courts will do. This infuriated even its would-be ideological allies in the Nusra Front and the Islamic Front, and it helped turn minor disputes into open battle. If it now agrees to the Umma Initiative, the ISIL will be compromising its self-perception as an emerging caliphate rather than a mere jihadi group, and it will risk a court ruling that directly challenges its “statehood.”
Yet refusing Moheisini’s peace proposal carries even greater risks. All other big Syrian groups have approved the Umma Initiative, and it has also been endorsed by a number of foreign Salafi scholars, some of whom are likely able to influence the funding of the insurgency.
Moheisini’s peace plan may very well be unworkable, given the chaotic situation on the ground and the distrust between Syria’s rival factions. But to many Islamists it seems like a good-faith effort at reconciliation from a neutral figure with impeccable jihadi credentials. Refusing such a compromise could cost the ISIL crucial religious support and portray it, in the eyes of many of its ostensible ideological allies, as the faction chiefly responsible for prolonging the fitna. For a group dependent on foreign fighters and Islamist fundraisers, this would be no trivial matter. The choice for the ISIL now seems to be one of humiliating reconciliation or dangerous isolation.
UPDATE: Just as this post went online, the ISIL announced that it is rejecting the Umma Initiative. The group demands that all signatories must first cut their ties to states like Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and of course the West, and to non-Islamist groups like the SMC and other foreign-funded entities. Until this happens, it will continue to fight its enemies. While this is a clever way of trying to play the ball back to the signatories of the Umma Initiative, the end results seems to be that the ISIL has opted for increasing isolation instead of reconciliation. It will attempt a military solution to the conflict, in the hope that the anti-ISIL ranks will splinter with time.