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Haid Haid

The rebel fight against Jund al-Aqsa and its ramifications

Recent clashes with the hardline Islamist fighters could hurt relations between Jund’s ally, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, and other opposition groups

A fighter from Jund al-Aqsa raises an Islamist flag after taking control of the northern Syrian town of Tayyibat al-Imam, northwest of Hama from Syrian government forces on August 31, 2016.  (AFP/Omar Haj Kadour)

Heavy rebel infighting broke out last week between Ahrar al-Sham and Jund al-Aqsa (Jund) in northern Syria. The clashes followed growing tensions between the two groups after Jund was accused of ambushing Ahrar al-Sham leaders. A number of Syrian rebel groups rallied behind Ahrar al-Sham and declared war against Jund. The latter has long been accused by other factions of having deep ISIS affiliations and hosting sleeper cells in their ranks. In response, Jund declared their merger with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Fatah al-Sham), the rebranded former Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. The declaration aimed to seek the protection of the Fatah al-Sham Front and put an immediate end to the infighting. However, the merger has barely halted the ongoing offensive against Jund. Moreover, it has also invoked criticism against Fatah al-Sham from other rebels, whose accused the group of providing cover for an extremist group. 

 

Jund, formerly known as Saraya al-Quds, was formed in 2012 as a sub-unit within Fatah al-Sham, when it was known as Jabhat al-Nusra and still affiliated with Al-Qaeda. The group became independent in 2014 after refusing to join Nusra in the fight against ISIS. However, despite the split, the group has remained openly aligned with Fatah al-Sham, illustrated by Jund’s previous decisions to fight alongside Nusra against other Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups in northern Syria in 2014 and 2015. Jund al-Aqsa counts among its ranks between 1000-1600 foreign and Syrian fighters and operates mainly in Idlib, Aleppo and Hama provinces. Furthermore, the US State Department officially labeled the group as a terrorist organization in September 2016.

 

Jund has been accused of harboring ISIS sleeper cells who are thought to be behind a string of assassination attempts against rebel leaders. The current fighting was set off after Jund’s kidnapping of Ahrar al-Sham’s leader, Ali al-Issa, on October 6 in the city of Saraqib in Idilb province. The group refused to release Issa, which led to armed clashes between the two groups in several different areas of Idlib. As a result, more than a dozen members of Ahrar al-Sham and a number of Jund fighters were killed. Following the initial clashes, Ahrar’s religious leadership issued a verdict that called for support in their fight against Jund. In response to the infighting, more than 13 Syrian rebel groups belonging to the FSA released a statement condemning Jund’s attacks against Ahrar al-Sham and “declaring war” against the group due to the latter’s affiliation with ISIS and its assassination attacks against others rebel groups.

 

The ongoing internal struggle between radical and pragmatic factions within both Ahrar al-Sham and Fateh al-Sham has reportedly led to a string of defections towards Jund. This increase in the number of hardline Islamist defectors joining Jund may also be a contributing factor in other rebel groups deciding to stand against the group. A wave of defectors reportedly joined Jund in September from Ahrar al-Sham, Ajnad al-Sham and Fatah al-Sham in order to participate in Jund’s offensive in Hama province. Additionally, Jund’s successful attacks against Syrian regime targets in Hama could have increased fears of allowing a group suspected of having an affiliation with ISIS to seize territories in Hama, some of which are located close to ISIS-controlled areas.   

 

Jund's decision to merge with Fatah al-Sham has led to criticism and resentment toward the former Al-Qaeda affiliate, negatively impacting its popularity. Despite Jund’s union with Fatah al-Sham, the fight led by Ahrar al-Sham against the group continued for almost two days after the declaration. Clashes only halted after it was reported that Fatah al-Sham helped broker a ceasefire on Monday, October 10. The in agreement, the warring parties agreed to cease hostilities, open all roads, and release all prisoners, expects those accused of affiliation with ISIS. A committee of five judges (two from Ahrar al-Sham, two from Fatah al-Sham and one independent) will be tasked with following up on the complaints filed by both groups.

 

Fatah al-Sham’s increase in power, following its absorption of Jund, did not come without consequences. Speaking to the Associated Press, Yasser Alyousef, a senior Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki official, accused Fatah al-Sham of committing treason by taking in Jund members. Additionally, the merger will likely be a blow to Fatah al-Sham’s rebranding effort to portray itself as a non-jihadist entity, which was proving effective after its public break with Al-Qaeda. “Speaking to other opposition groups, it's become increasingly clear that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham’s rebrand has not done nearly enough to seal up the ‘unity’ proposition that its leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani has been pushing for. While military cooperation in operations rooms like Jaysh al-Fatah remains popular for military reasons, formal organizational unity is still a very long way off. In fact, I'd suggest it's almost impossible given recent developments over the past two-three days,” wrote Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

 

It is not clear whether this fragile ceasefire will continue to hold, especially after a car bomb targeted a Ahrar al-Sham checkpoint in Saraqeb. Jund al-Aqsa is widely suspected of being behind the attack. While it is unlikely that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham’s merger with Jund will lead to decreased levels of military cooperation with other rebel groups, namely Ahrar al-Sham, the alliance will negatively impact Jabhat Fatah al-Sham’s popularity and hinder any union with other opposition groups in the near future.

 

Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist, researcher, and Chatham House Associate Fellow who focuses on security policy, conflict studies, and Kurdish and Islamist movements. He tweets @HaidHaid22

A fighter from Jund al-Aqsa raises an Islamist flag after taking control of the northern Syrian town of Tayyibat al-Imam, northwest of Hama from Syrian government forces on August 31, 2016. (AFP/Omar Haj Kadour)

Jund’s successful attacks against Syrian regime targets in Hama could have increased fears of allowing a group suspected of having an affiliation with ISIS to seize territories in Hama, some of which are located close to ISIS-controlled areas.