Sunday 12 January 2014

Syria's Sahwa: A Battle of Confusion

A guest post by Pieter Van Ostaeyen.

Syria's war, waging for almost three years now, seems to have reached a new level. Since the early summer of 2013 "al-Qaeda" ruled the media. A strong presence on social media showed us that Jabhat al-Nusra (the official al-Qaeda branch in Syria) and ad-Dawla al-Islāmiyya fī al-Irāq wa's-Shām (known as ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and as-Shām) were not only waging full scale war against the Syrian regime, but also were clashing with objective allies.  Fighting FSA and Kurdish forces in Rojava was obviously expected but after a while ISIS was getting accused of attacking member groups of the Islamic Front. And vice versa, Harakat Ahrār as-Shām, for example, lost several of its foreign fighters. A Belgian and aTunisian member of ISIS got killed near a checkpoint; news came out early December.

But the incident that seems to have triggered the current events (which can be described as the first signs of Syrian Sahwa or uprising)  must have been the torture and murder of a Harakat Ahrār as-Shām member, Doctor Husayn as-Sulaymān Abū Rayyān. His body was released in a prisoner exchange. Pictures of his mutilated body circulated widely on social media. A statement about Abū Rayyān in Arabic can be read here.  This and other recent violent clashes between ISIS and other rebel groups, unleashed unseen infighting in Syria.

In a few days time close to 700 casualties were reported by Jihādī sources. In about a week there were 16 suicide attacks targeting rebel forces. There are, obviously, no independent sources on these numbers. Rumors are spreading, and have been confirmed in some cases, that foreign fighters have been targeted more than ever. The last few days the most striking would be the abduction of two Belgian teenage girls.  Another report claimed that three Dutch girls were abducted and raped. ISIS seems to be disintegrating in some areas. A contact in Idlib province ( Sunday January 5): "The place is swarming with lost ISIS-fighters ... There's utter chaos ... Some were arrested, some want to secure their families, others prefer to keep on fighting. In some regions Jabhat an-Nusra just took over ISIS strongholds without firing a single shot." Later that day he contacted me again: "There are no more Dawla fighters where I am, Jabhat an-Nusra, Harakat Ahrār as-Shām and FSA took it all. A lot of these boys are now in hiding, because Jaysh al-Mujāhidīn are now arresting all ISIS-fighters and Muhājirīn [foreign fighters]."

In the first few days there was some confusion whether or not Harakat Ahrār as-Shām was involved in the clashes with ISIS, but my contact was clear about that, from day one they were. And hereby the devils were unleashed. The days that followed my Twitter timeline got flooded with accusations, quite quickly there were two camps calling each other names. Some people went berserk and started a true war of words. The name calling and slander were unprecedented; even compared to what happened before between the Kurds and ISIS the tone of voice hardened. And literally all got dragged in, Jabhat an-Nusra for example; some British ISIS fighter stated: "Jabhat an-Nusra in Raqqa attacked us but Jabhat in Badiya gave us a car for free packed with a heavy machine gun. Confusing ?Most certainly."  When I informed my contact about what was going on, he reacted firmly "Are they officially at war ? No ! So what's the point saying such things on Twitter ? Some Nusra guys I know left for Aleppo to protect the families of the Dawla-fighters. They should post that on Twitter."

In the meanwhile it became clear that the leadership of Jabhat an-Nusra and ISIS were bound to react to clear the fog of war. And as expected the first official reaction came from Jabhat an-Nusra's leader Abū Muhammad al-Jūlānī.  In an audio recording that was released by Jabhat an-Nusra's official account he made an offer to negotiate between the clashing factions.  Al-Jūlānī blamed ISIS though for the fighting between Muslims, an example he referred to was the captivity of Jabhat an-Nusra's local leader in ar-Raqqa. To solve the infighting Jabhat an-Nusra formed a committee all groups should join , an independent Sharī'a court should settle the issues. For, if the infighting continues, "we will loose a great battlefield of Jihād."

It only took a few hours before ISIS answered with it's own lengthy statement. Although it took their spokesman, Abū Muhammad al-'Adnānī, 37 minutes to bring his message, it can be summarized as Charles Lister put it in one of his recent articles: "We have armies in Iraq and an army in Syria full of hungry lions who drink blood and eat bones, finding nothing tastier than the blood of Sahwa." This message can clearly be seen as an open declaration of war towards the SNC and SMC. He refers to them as the allies of Jewish and Crusader forces, a quite often used rhetoric. He further calls upon his men to protect the foreign fighters, as they are the main victims of the Sahwa.

And indeed,  as one British fighter put it; "It breaks my heart to know that the people, who in the first place left the comfort of this Dunya, now have to flee out of Syria away from Jihād. My heart is broken. Even though I disagree with ISIS in many things,the hate they are met with today is unbearable. They are my brothers." In the meantime, the infighting and battle of words linger on, it is unneeded to state that Syria's war has reached a new phase. Where this will leave ISIS, for now, is open for speculation but it's likely to result in a weakening of the whole rebellion. Meanwhile al-Assad stands by, gloating to see his enemies fighting amongst themselves.

More of Pieter Van Ostaeyen's work can be found on his blog.


  1. The presence and actions of ISIS have weakened the whole rebellion. For the people of Syria to achieve its emancipation and freedom they must defeat, expel or neutralize ISIS, and hopefully they will.

  2. The rebels turn on the foreign fighters. Indeed, there is nationalism on both sides of this conflict. It may not be fashionable to say so, but nationalism, so long overshadowed by political Islam, has returned as a major force in the discourse of the Middle East.

  3. Supported "rebellion"?

    Or rather "terrorism", a new, cheap weapon of the western countries to sell arms and support geostrategic interests.
    We, the western countries together with SA and Qatar brought barbarism to Syria.
    And call it "friendship".

  4. We'll need to see how this plays out but it looks wrong to say that this will will"weaken the whole rebellion". This struggle has forced JaN to choose sides and may have eliminated a major weak point of the insurgency - a force whose values and conduct contradicts the whole ethos of the revolution and plays into the regime strategy of frightening the minorities with the sectarian spectre. There is evidence that the regime has been happy to facilitate the rise of ISIS. Asad is more likely to be in mourning than gloating.

  5. Good to know I'm not the only one confused about the different factions in Syria right now. The succinct clarification of al-Nusra and ISIS in the first paragraph was very helpful. Broadly speaking, the factions in Syria as I understand them right now are:

    - Syrian Armed Forces - conventional armed forces of Syria.
    - Shabiha - civilian militia.

    - FSA - secular rebels associated with both SNCs.
    - Islamic Front - Islamic organization not associated with al-Nusra or ISIS.
    - Syrian Islamic Front - Islamic organization, dissolved and joined the above.
    - Ahrar (Ansar?) al-Sham - Islamic rebels part of both of the above.
    - Syrian Islamic Liberation Front - Islamic organization, most members joined above.
    - Jabhat al-Nusra - "the official al-Qaeda branch in Syria".
    - ISIS - aims to created a united Islamic Iraq and Syria.
    - PKK, PYD, YPG - various Kurdish groups.

    It would be helpful if someone could speak to the accuracy of my understanding. I especially am confused about the relationship of the Kurdish groups to each other - I understand some are political groups and others are military units. Much of the information I used came from Wikipedia articles and the groups I chose to include were based on my knowledge of their prolificity. Prior to writing this comment, I did not realize that there were two organizations with the acronym SNC: the Syrian National Council which became part of the other "SNC" organization, the Syrian National Coalition. Apparently, there is a subgroup of the former called the Syrian Patriotic Group.

    Good god, this is a mess.

  6. @oneword

    In your dreams sir.

  7. You forgot the elite forces of Al Assad ...

  8. Nothing is confusing.
    ISIS is largeley infiltrated by the regime goons if not entirely created by them.
    In Irak were they came from they've done the same harm to legitimate iraqi resistance.
    For instance in al Baab (Aleppo) they stormed the opposition held town right after the regime bombarded it.
    In every site abandandoned now by ISIS in Aleppo or Idlib, mass graves containing bodies of civilians and oppositions members are discovered.
    Every action undertaken by ISIS serves the regime in the first place, plain and simple.
    Every one that doesn't belong to their wicked group is an apostate.
    As I said before they're evil backstabbing parasites and therfore must be eliminated.