Maya Gebeily

Rebels versus rebels?

Fighters of the jihadist al-Nusra front stand on top of a pick-up truck mounted with a machine gun during clashes with regime forces on April 4, 2013 in the Syrian village of Aziza, on the southern outskirts of Aleppo.

A new front in the Syrian conflict may have opened up last week, when members of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) killed a Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander in Syria’s Latakia province. Kamal Hamami, known by his nom-de-guerre Abu Bassir al-Jeblawi, was shot last Thursday at a checkpoint after a dispute with members of ISIS, an al-Qaeda front group.


Abu Bassir’s death was only the latest casualty in the increasing tensions between Islamist factions – mainly ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra – and the coalition of more moderate FSA battalions. Also last week, FSA member Fadi al-Qash was brutally beheaded in the village of al-Dana in the Syrian province of Idlib by members of ISIS. In the wake of this violence, an unnamed FSA commander described Abu Bassir’s execution as “tantamount to declaration of war” between the FSA and the al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria, namely ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. Many Western and Arab media outlets reported the commander’s announcement as indicative of an official break between the FSA and Islamist factions, which had been conducting joint operations against regime forces.


The reality, however, appears to be much more nuanced. Aron Lund, a Syria specialist who has closely followed the developments of the armed opposition, told NOW that many of the clashes between al-Qaeda affiliates and FSA battalions are a result of local disputes and the specific relationships among battalions; which does not necessarily indicate a materialized front between moderate and Islamist forces.


According to Lund, the relationships between the FSA and Islamist forces vary based on province and (even more so) on the particular battalions in question. Although there are serious tensions between certain battalions, “you have groups that are connected to the FSA in the Idlib area  big groups  that work perfectly well alongside the Islamist factions,” says Lund. “It really varies from group to group and from area to area.”


Lund notes that there hasn’t been much infighting in the actual battles against Syrian government forces, but that altercations occur between the FSA and Islamist factions in liberated areas. “A lot of these incidents seem to have their roots in some sort of power struggles – over a village, a right to have a checkpoint, running the local military council, access to weapons,” Lund told NOW. Indeed, although accounts of Abu Bassir’s death differ widely, all cite a quarrel with ISIS over the presence of a checkpoint in Latakia.


Lund also attributes the tension between the al-Qaeda factions and the FSA to “the fact that international funding for the FSA comes with conditions, one of which is pushing out the al-Qaeda factions.” He pointed to the obvious interest that FSA leaders may have in magnifying the conflict in order to assuage Western concerns over weapons falling into extremist hands.


Overall, Lund assessed that these altercations occurred in localized contexts, where the relationships between particular groups – not competing ideologies – are the primary catalysts to conflict. “My hunch is that one should look at the local situation before drawing conclusions on what a group is doing in all of Syria,” he said. 


NOW also spoke to Abd Hakawati, a Syrian activist in Aleppo. Hakawati confirmed that tensions exist between the FSA and ISIS, but he also described an unwillingness on the part of the FSA to meaningfully confront ISIS. Hakawati told NOW that in Aleppo, ISIS has started governing, issuing decrees, arresting activists opposed to Islamist rule, and operating their own prisons.


“Most civilians in Aleppo, like Raqqa, are against this new dictatorship,” Hakawati added. Despite civilian protests against ISIS’s presence, “the FSA isn’t getting involved – it’s trying to stay neutral because it thinks this isn’t the time for problems with ISIS.”  


Like Lund, Hakawati stressed that cases differed across provinces and groups: the relationships between ISIS units and FSA battalions, for example, did not mirror relationships between Jabhat al-Nusra units and the FSA, and the circumstances in Idlib’s countryside differed from those in the provincial city.


“Problems with ISIS, though, aren’t far away,” Hakawati told NOW. “In the coming period, there will be more executions like the one in Latakia, but uglier.”


For now, however, neither Lund nor Hakawati perceive a full-on war between the FSA and Islamist groups, whether al-Nusra or ISIS. “In the past month or two, we’ve had maybe five flare-ups between these groups, all of which seem to have been local,” Lund said. “Now, FSA spokesmen and some Islamists as well are trying to connect the dots in such a way that it means there’s an all-out war going on, and I don’t think there is one yet.” 


Read this article in Arabic

In northwestern Syria, the relationships between the FSA, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, and Jabhat al-Nusra (picture above) differ based on province and unit (AFP photo).

"Altercations occurred in localized contexts, where the relationships between particular groups – not competing ideologies – are the primary catalysts to conflict."