Yesterday, thirteen Islamist rebel groups issued a declaration of independence from the Syrian Opposition Coalition. Repudiating secularism and a political leadership that exists almost wholly outside of war-torn Syria, the declaration, read out by the political chief of Liwa al-Tawhid, the largest and most effective mainstream rebel group in Aleppo, called for an “Islamic framework based on sharia.” As such, the thirteen groups would now form their own Islamic Coalition and sever all ties to the Western-backed opposition. Liwa al-Tawhid alone issued the announcement and stressed that at the top of the list of signatories certifying this new alliance was Jabhat al-Nusra, the earliest, and still mainly homegrown, al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.
It was no coincidence that this repudiation of Syria’s Washington-backed leadership followed swiftly from several major turning points. The first was the calamitous US climb-down from direct military action for the Assad regime’s August 21 chemical weapons attack in East Ghouta. The majority of yesterday’s rebel signatories had been hoping for weeks for US airstrikes on regime installations – however minor or symbolic these might have been – because they would have at least afforded the chance for opportunistic ground assaults. Two weeks ago, while on assignment in Antakya, I interviewed half a dozen fighters who felt, not for the first time, completely disillusioned with the United States for a promised intervention that got un-promised overnight – and all because John Kerry was said to have put his foot in his mouth.
The formation of the Islamic Coalition also came less than a week after a major escalation in fighting between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the other al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, and the Free Syrian Army. Tensions rose after the Islamic State seized control of the Azaz border-crossing in Aleppo from the FSA’s Northern Storm Brigade and then spread to other parts of Syria including Raqqa, the province where al-Qaeda’s footprint is deepest. Protests against the Islamic State – and counter-protests in support of it – erupted throughout the country.
Significantly, what began as a rebel vs. jihadist showdown soon transformed into a jihadist vs. jihadist one. The Islamic State even battled Nusra in Hasakah, reifying months of simmering hostility between the more hardcore and veteran Zarqawist branch of al-Qaeda (the Islamic State was established a decade ago in Iraq) and the comparatively more “pragmatic” junior partner (Nusra came into existence in late 2011), which has since been overshadowed by it. And, just to complicate things further, an entire “division” of the FSA defected to Nusra in Raqqa last Thursday. According to local activists cited by the Syria Deeply website, the FSA’s Division 11 felt hopelessly outgunned and terrified by the Islamic State and saw Nusra as their only safeguard against annihilation. This was doubly interesting, in fact, because the Islamic State had expelled Nusra from Raqqa last spring. Nusra only returned on September 7 and evidently in enough force to become the second-most powerful militia in the province in a matter of days.
In a just world, it would fall to Lewis Carroll rather than your humble servant to explain why moderate rebels would align with al-Qaeda in order to close ranks against al-Qaeda. The last fortnight has produced so many new declensions in a conflict defined less and less by a common struggle to dislodge a dictator and more and more by a race to cannibalize that common struggle. It really is useless to refer to any such thing as the Syrian civil war when FUBAR more adequately characterizes what’s happening now. It’s obvious enough to say that this all benefits Bashar al-Assad enormously. And yet, there’s an important context, or conspiracy, to the latest state of chaos, and it all began with a principal chaos merchant: Ayman al-Zawahiri.
On September 11, the global head of al-Qaeda elected to celebrate the twelfth anniversary of his organization’s most spectacular terrorist attack by adding the Free Syrian Army to his list of “enemies of Islam.” Zawahiri’s rationale was that the FSA was an American hireling and therefore an inevitable vehicle for an “Awakening”-style turn against al-Qaeda in Syria. So an enormous bull’s-eye was suddenly painted on the back of this loose confederation of rebel militias, many of which had been pining in vain for over a year to see Zawahiri’s portrayal of them made real. His words were not wasted. Within days of this announcement, the Islamic State launched Operation “Purification of Filth” (rhetoric not really indicative of a localized territorial spat or ideological misunderstanding) aimed at sites in Aleppo run mostly by the al-Farouq and al-Nasr brigades, both members of the US-backed Supreme Military Command of the Free Syrian Army. This is what led to the Islamic State’s seizure of Azaz, a crisis that was only tenuously negotiated after Liwa al-Tawhid, one of the new signatories to the Islamic Coalition, dispatched reinforcements to the border crossing, effectively surrounding the Islamic State nasties, and shooting a few too.
I’ve tried for the past week to get a hold of Abdul Jabbar al-Oqaidi, the head of the Aleppo Military Council and a heavy in Liwa al-Tawhid, as well as Abdel Qader Saleh, the top commander of the super-brigade. Both have declined interview requests but sources close to them have told me that there exists a difference of opinion on how best to face the new menace of takfiri filth-purifiers. Oqaidi, who has in the recent past publicly appeared shoulder-to-shoulder with the Islamic State, wanted to “deal with the problem once and for all” (in the words of my source) rather than sue for peace. Saleh argued that Tawhid couldn’t afford to fight the Islamic State and the regime at the same time.
So how might we hazard a tentative reading of this new Coalition and what it means for the rebellion? Does it simply represent the logical and inevitable coalescence of like-minded Islamists under their own umbrella organization? Perhaps. But it also seems like a giant middle finger to the Obama administration, now intent on chemical disarmament talks with Russia rather than Tomahawk strikes against Bashar, as well as a way of trying to cool the temperature a bit with al-Qaeda. What becomes of Zawahiri’s call to arms if the basis for it disappears?
The question now is whether this Coalition will last. Or, will it, as other separatist threats or proclamations have done, prove fleeting.
One of the rebels I met in Antakya was named Abu Kasim. He belongs to Suqoor al-Sham, probably the most conservative Islamist group in the so-called Syrian Islamic Liberation Front and now a member of the Islamic Coalition. Abu Kasim believes that the Koran is the only constitution the Syria people need and he waved off any question of Suqoor al-Sham’s technical partnership with the Supreme Military Command and Gen. Salim Idris. On paper, yes, but in reality, no, he told me. When we parted company, he bid me farewell by saying that he hoped to meet me again someday “after you become a Muslim.” Yet throughout our interview, I had to compete for Abu Kasim’s attention because he was busy arguing with my taxi driver Abu Nour, who was defending Jabhat al-Nusra. Abu Kasim was discussing all the “mistakes” this al-Qaeda affiliate has made even though Suqoor al-Sham’s emir, Ahmad al-Issa, was the first Islamist rebel to declare solidarity with Nusra after the US Treasury Department designated it a terrorist entity.
For Abu Kasim, these mistakes are also a reflection of a deeper rot that has afflicted Syrian society at large: cynicism and opportunism borne of forty years of mafia rule by the Assad and Makhlouf families. Like other rebels I’d interviewed, he retained hope that Nusra’s excesses could be brought under control through “peaceful” means.
Whether the Islamic Coalition can do that remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: as the United States fiddles with Russia and Iran, Western influence in Syria continues to disappear as quickly as the irreconcilable sub-conflicts of the war multiply.