The message came last Friday. The alleged voice of al-Qaeda’s emir Ayman al-Zawahiri broadcast by Al Jazeera Arabic told his lieutenants in the Middle East that he, and only he, decides which affiliate fights in Syria.
"The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) will be abolished, while the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) remains functioning [in Iraq]," Zawahiri decreed. He also said that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi "made a mistake by establishing the ISIS without asking for our permission or even informing us," and that Baghdadi’s project ended up becoming "damaging to all jihadis.” (On the other hand, Syrian-formed jihadi group Jabhat al-Nusra, led by Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani, which does report to Zawahiri, has received the green light to continue fighting in Syria as an independent branch of al-Qaeda.)
It wasn’t the first time Zawahiri had warned Baghdadi to withdraw his men from Syria and leave the fight to Jawlani’s Nusra. Zawahiri had done so in a written letter in May 2013. The leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, however, did not give up his ambitions in Syria.
Baghdadi’s intentions were made clear in April 2013, when he announced that Nusra was a subsidiary of al-Qaeda in Iraq, that Jawlani had been sent to Syria with money, training, and a strategy to gather the already existing cells and set up a jihadi group. However, Jawlani responded the next day, announcing that he reports directly to Zawahiri, who then sent the warning letter.
Regardless of al-Qaeda’s internal politics, ISIS engaged in fierce fighting during the summer and fall of 2013 in North Syria against Kurdish militias and Free Syrian Army brigades. ISIS fighters killed FSA battalion chief Abu Bassir al-Jeblawi at a checkpoint in the vicinity of Latakia in July.
In early August 2013, ISIS led the final assault in the siege of Menagh Air Base in Aleppo against the FSA. In September, the group kidnapped and killed the Ahrar al-Sham commander Abu Obeida al-Binnishi, as they mistook their Malaysian flag for that of the United States.
Also in September, ISIS overran the Syrian town of Azaz, taking it from an FSA-affiliated rebel brigade and attempting to kidnap a German doctor working in the town. In November, it was reported that Turkish authorities were on high alert, with the authorities saying they had detailed information on ISIS's plans to carry out suicide bombings in major cities in Turkey using seven explosive-laden cars being constructed in Raqqa. The Committees for the Protection of the Kurds, known as YPG, expelled ISIS from more than 20 communities along the Syrian border with Turkey in the past few weeks.
While there was an obvious war between ISIS and Syrian opposition armed groups, the relationship with Nusra was not clearly antagonistic. Nusra fighters also clashed with YPG, but it wasn’t very clear who supported whom apart from one incident: In September, in Reef al-Hasaka, an ISIS group attacked a Nusra headquarter and killed two members.
For Syrian opposition activists and fighters, the messages circulating in the international media, even from Zawahiri, do not make much difference. A Syrian activist who accompanies FSA brigades in battle and usually broadcasts the brigades’ messages online told NOW that the Syrian opposition faction tries to stay away from anything that has to do with al-Qaeda’s presence in Syria. “This did not affect the FSA,” he said. “The statement did not cause any negative reactions on the ground in Syria. The fighters don’t care about these messages.”
The head of the Syrian Media Center, Ahmad al-Rayes, told NOW that there was definitely a rivalry between Nusra and ISIS. The former only waited until they gained some more ground so that they could assert themselves again. “I am almost sure that ISIS will not respond to this, because Baghdadi ignored the letter a few months ago,” he said. But this time, the situation on the ground is different: Nusra gained control of al-Mouheen weapons depots, and right now they are powerful.
“If people started to put Nusra and ISIS in the same pot, they would start hating them equally. By distancing itself from ISIS, Nusra can still have the respect of the people. By ‘leaking’ this message, every person who originally supported al-Qaeda’s ideas, will now join Nusra and step away from ISIS,” Rayes explained.
ISIS did not respond to Zawahiri’s repeated warnings and had no intention to leave Syria. On the contrary, on November 8 the group’s fighters in Ghouta decided to join an agreement to set up a Sharia Court in the Damascus suburb. It was the first time ISIS entered such an agreement. The commander of al-Huda Islamist brigade, Abu Mohammad al-Fatih, tweeted the document.
For al-Qaeda supporters, the messages coming from Zawahiri are quite confusing, to say the least. “The jihadis on the ground are already fighting closely: Liwa al-Tawhid, Nusra, ISIS, Liwa al-Islam, they are all on the same side fighting against the regime regardless of what the media is trying to reflect. That is why they did not react to Zawahiri’s statement,” Abou Mohammad, a Syrian Nusra supporter, told NOW. “Of course all of the brigades make mistakes, and we condemn those mistakes, but at the end of the day, these brigades are protecting us and our homes,” he added, before declining to comment on whether he preferred Nusra or ISIS.
“I wish all the brigades united under one name.”
Luna Safwan contributed reporting and translation. She tweets @LunaSafwan.
Ana Maria Luca tweets @aml1609.