The rebel infighting erupted in early January 2014 between a loose alliance of moderates and Islamists on the one hand, and on the other the violent and ruthless jihadist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and
Syria, commonly known as ISIS.
Then, on Sunday February 23, 2014, Abu Khalid al-Suri, senior al-Qaeda operative and one-time confidant of Osama bin Laden, was killed by a suicide bomber. Reuters reported that during fratricidal fighting near
Aleppo, five members of ISIS entered
the headquarters of Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist brigade that al-Suri helped set
up, and as four of them fought with guards, one ISIS
fighter blew himself up. He took al-Suri, and half-a dozen of al-Suri’s
colleagues, with him to the paradise and the 72 virgins he had been promised
for martyring himself.
ISIS is not a branch of al-Qaeda” ran Zawahiri’s statement, posted on jihadist websites, “and we have no
organizational relationship with it.” As
a result, it added, al-Qaeda is no longer responsible for the “actions and
behaviours” of ISIS, which has been fighting a bloody campaign against other
rebel groups in Syria while imposing strict Islamic law on the parts of Syria
it controls, often executing people it finds to be insufficiently pious.
Al-Suri’s killing is further evidence that ISIS leader al-Baghdadi has no intention of caving in to al-Qaeda’s top leadership, and means to maintain the gang warfare that is fracturing the jihadist movement – and, incidentally, represents the biggest challenge it has faced since
forces disposed of bin Laden. US
“This is going to make the infighting worse,” says Akram al-Halabi, spokesman for the Islamic Front, a coalition of half-a-dozen Islamist brigades, some which have links with al-Qaeda. He is right.
According to Thomas Joscelyn of the US-based think tank ‘The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies’: “The longer al-Baghdadi lasts, the stronger ISIS becomes as a rival to the al-Qaeda-backed groups. This has turned into a full-fledged blood feud.”
Islam Aloush, spokesman for the Islamic Front, a new more moderate grouping of anti-Assad interests, told CNN that
ISIS’s activities had become
unacceptable and has generated a backlash.
Recently, rebels besieged at least 100 ISIS fighters at a police station
used as a base by the group in the key Salheen neighbourhood of . Elsewhere in the
province, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Aleppo ISIS surrendered bases and withdrew from towns and
"ISIS cannot withstand the losses they are taking and the numbers now held as prisoner of war," said Aloush, claiming that his organization, the Islamic Front, far outnumbered
ISIS. The Islamic Front boasts an
estimated 40,000 fighters, making it probably the single largest rebel command.
In Raqqah, the first provincial capital under rebel control, full-scale fighting resulted in losses for
ISIS on February 18. Just a day
earlier insurgents freed at least 50 people held in an ISIS detention facility,
while further to the west, in the Zawiya
Mountain region, rebels executed at
least 34 foreigner jihadists from ISIS.
According to CNN all this infighting further complicates matters for international observers such as the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which announced in January that it will cease updating the death toll for the Syrian civil conflict. It can no longer verify the sources of information that led to its last count of at least 100,000 in July 2013 nor, it said, said could it endorse anyone else's count, including the widely quoted figures from the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Their latest tally is more than 130,000 killed in violence in
since March 2011. Syria
Rebel infighting – marked, as gang warfare invariably is, by seesawing fortunes – will probably continue, regardless of any outcome to the main Syrian civil conflict. The collapse of central government in
will doubtless be resolved before too long, one way or another, but any
accommodation would have little bearing on the wider Islamist ambitions of the
jihadists who have battened on ’s
troubles to advance agendas of their own.
That seems to be a battle without an end. Syria
Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 26 February 2014:http://www.jpost.com/Experts/Gang-warfare-in-Jihadi-land-343591?prmusr=lJQwGbvQ9QGPGkPBVFjHzLF4Dg1axfMLfY3gR1%2fHTIb569tTcDg03dyAlGXZecXk
Published in the Eurasia Review, 25 February 2014: