In fighting that erupted on January 3, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an international jihadi group led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has been driven from several of its strongholds in northern Syria by rival rebel factions. Some ISIL fighters have been killed. Many others have been captured or forced to flee, defect, or hand over their headquarters to the Nusra Front, a closely related al-Qaeda faction that is not part of the fighting.
For background, this piece on Joshua Landis’s Syria Comment provides a very useful overview, with maps and translations of important rebel statements.
Syrian Sahwa or Extremist Invasion?
Naturally, the two sides provide very different explanations for why this is happening. The ISIL claims to be subject to “a very big conspiracy,” timed for the upcoming Geneva II peace conference. It compares its enemies in Aleppo to the U.S.-backed Awakening (or Sahwa) Movement in Iraq, a security force designed to combat the rise of Islamist terrorism in Iraq that in 2006 took up arms against the ISIL’s predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq: “May what happened to your peers in Iraq be a lesson to you; for where are now the factions that fought the Islamic State?”
The ISIL’s enemies see the events of the weekend as a popular uprising and a long-due reckoning with Baghdadi’s overbearing foreign extremists. A rebel commander in Aleppo says that this is the culmination of six months of cold war in which the anti-ISIL factions had until now been too weak to act. He accuses the ISIL of tarnishing the revolution against the Syrian regime by “attacking Christians and Ismailis.” He also says the ISIL “went into northern Latakia and killed everyone and abducted women and children. . . . I took up arms to stand against fighters who want to kill me and kill my family. I didn’t rise up to kill children and the innocent.”
There’s no reason to doubt his sincerity, but portraying the events of the weekend as a spontaneous uprising seems misleading. There are clear signs that at least some preparations had been made for this sudden offensive against the ISIL, although the group’s spectacularly poor relations with other rebels—a self-inflicted problem—made it a much easier target when the hour struck.
Months of Growing Conflict
The fighting started at once in several areas as activists across Syria demonstrated against the murder of Abu Rayyan, a commander from the opposition Salafi Ahrar al-Sham militia who had been tortured and killed by the ISIL. But the death of Abu Rayyan was only the last straw in a series of provocations and abuses by the ISIL.
The ISIL had already begun to seize territory from other fighters by last summer, soon after it finalized its split from the Nusra Front. At first, these clashes were scattered occurrences, but by autumn Baghdadi’s fighters had overreached by seizing the border town of Azaz and picking fights with fellow rebels all across northern Syria. At that point, even the large Islamist factions began to show their frustration and issued public rebukes to the group, which were very mildly worded at first.
While not every conflict was provoked by the ISIL, the group made few attempts to explain its position in public. Instead, it simply kept pushing other rebels on the ground and refused almost every proposal for arbitration and compromise. The ISIL’s intransigence finally managed to alienate even a large and essentially sympathetic Salafi faction that included Ahrar al-Sham, which had long warned that there must be no conflicts among the rebels.
After the formation of the Islamic Front in November, a coalition in which Ahrar al-Sham joined other big Islamist factions like the Tawhid Brigade and the strongly anti-ISIL Army of Islam, Baghdadi’s supporters began to speak of a Saudi-backed conspiracy on the model of the Iraqi Awakening Movement. This was followed by intensified conflict between the ISIL and other factions. Baghdadi’s men were blamed for a string of attacks on Islamic Front members and even for clashing with their fellow Salafi-jihadis in the Nusra Front.
After an ugly feud with Ahrar al-Sham in the eastern Aleppan town of Maskana in December, the conflict was more or less out in the open. Ahrar al-Sham’s leader Hassan Abboud (who is also the Islamic Front’s political chief) was still attempting to keep a civil tone, but then came the gruesome death of Abu Rayyan. “I don’t know which religion it is that ordains the killing of kidnapped mujahideen and revolutionaries,” snapped Abboud.
A New Wave of Non-Jihadi Consolidation
Meanwhile, all through the autumn and winter, several new rebel coalitions emerged that all excluded the jihadis. Although it is considered bad taste for participants to point this out, some of these gatherings appear to have been set up at least partly in reaction to the growing pressure from the ISIL. In other cases, they were intended either to delegitimize the Western-backed National Coalition for the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and its new government-in-exile or as retaliation for the Geneva II peace process. And in yet other cases, these meetings and alliances may have followed a purely military logic.
But whatever the minute explanations, the real and underlying driving force behind these new coalitions, ad hoc gatherings, and mergers appears to have been a wave of encouragement and pressure from foreign funders such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and various private Kuwaiti Islamist sponsors.
The Gulf-led attempt at reorganizing the revolution may have come in response to the Russian-American deal that provided for Syria’s complete chemical disarmament in September, which was concluded over the objections of Saudi Arabia and other advocates of U.S. involvement on the rebel side.
Non-Jihadi Pacts Concluded Since September
Although it happened in fits and starts, this process soon gave birth to several new military and political structures. Although some of them overlap or have succeeded each other, the end result has been a significant restructuring of the Syrian rebel landscape.
Among the more prominent structures and unity declarations of the past few months are the Army of Islam (located mainly in Damascus and declared on September 30), the Amjad al-Sham Gathering (Damascus; October 4), the Greater Damascus Operations Room (Damascus; November 6), the Islamic Front (nationwide; November 22), the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union (Damascus; December 2), the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front (mainly Idlib and Hama; December 9), and the Mujahideen Army (Aleppo and Idlib; January 3).
Some of these groups have been at odds over politics and principles, not to mention money and guns. A few have even fought each other. But they all have one thing in common: whatever their ideological orientations, all of these new collaborative efforts exclude the ISIL and the Nusra Front.
The Gulf-backed rebel consolidation thereby contributed to the growing isolation of the extreme jihadis and empowered other Islamist figures, leading to the confrontation that would finally erupt into violence on January 3, 2014.