Alex Rowell

Why did al-Qaeda turn on the FSA?

Months of mistrust, power politics, and disagreement over prospective Western intervention have driven recent violence between opposition brigades

A rebel in Aleppo takes aim.

In his address marking the twelfth anniversary of the 11 September, 2001, World Trade Center attacks, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri made a conspicuous addition to his organization’s lengthy list of foes. For the first time, formally included in the “enemies of Islam” umbrella category was the loose alliance of militant Syrian opposition brigades commonly known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), whom Zawahiri denounced as treacherous tools of America akin to the ‘Sahwa [Awakening]’ militias financed by the US to combat al-Qaeda in Iraq. The fugitive warlord vowed to “destroy” the FSA factions with whom al-Qaeda’s fighters in Syria have hitherto tended to cooperate against the Bashar al-Assad regime.


This policy shift coincided with last week’s launch of a so-called “Purification of Filth” (naqi al-khabath) campaign by al-Qaeda’s primary Syrian franchise, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which the group said would comprise military attacks in eastern Aleppo against rival factions including the al-Farouq and al-Nasr brigades, both of which nominally fall under the command of the Western-backed Supreme Military Council (SMC) led by General Salim Idris. On Tuesday, photos circulated on social media appearing to show ISIS executing a man in public on charges of belonging to a “Sahwa” (i.e. SMC) group. And for more than a week prior to that, ISIS had engaged in fatal clashes with SMC fighters in Deir az-Zour and al-Raqqa provinces.


Hostilities then reached uncharted territory when on Wednesday ISIS violently seized the northern town of Azaz from the SMC’s Northern Storm Brigade, prompting fellow SMC faction Liwa al-Tawheed to send its fighters to “liberate” the town from the jihadists. A ceasefire deal was later negotiated, and the three groups have now divided the territory between themselves for the time being.


Syrian media activists told NOW that while the pretext for the Azaz clashes was ISIS’ objection to a foreign doctor’s presence in the town, it also appeared to be a plain power grab by the al-Qaeda affiliate.


“ISIS members stormed the Azaz civil hospital during a visit by a German doctor* and demanded that the doctor leave the hospital and leave town immediately,” Aleppo-based activist Naqaa Sadeq told NOW. When the Northern Storm Brigade refused this demand, “the takfiris [ISIS] deemed it permissible for them to control all headquarters in Azaz and began invading houses.”


Much the same rationale was behind the al-Raqqa clashes, according to a local activist who would only give his name as Wael. “The first clash between extremist battalions and the FSA occurred in the Tel Abyad area, which controls the border crossing. Since then, ISIS has spread its influence by controlling vital positions in the liberated areas,” he told NOW.


Beyond mere power politics, however, distrust between jihadists and more moderate opposition forces – which has been reported since at least July, when ISIS killed a number of SMC fighters, including a senior commander, in Latakia and Idlib provinces – has recently been aggravated by the prospect of Western military intervention in Syria following the chemical weapons attack in Damascus in August. As the Guardian’s Martin Chulov reported from Aleppo earlier this month, while ISIS fighters vehemently oppose a US-led strike, believing it to be a plot to target them, the SMC’s rebels welcome the idea, with one even adding that he “hope[s] the Americans know where [ISIS’] headquarters are” too.


Accordingly, when the US backed away from its militant posture in favor of a Russian-sponsored compromise, ISIS may have sensed an opportunity to score a hit against their SMC rivals, according to Charles Lister, analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre.


“The perceived decline in forceful Western pressure on Assad over the last [ten] days has bolstered jihadist confidence and weakened the image of the core moderates […] by combating moderates currently hostile to them, jihadists may be hoping to nip the problem in the bud,” Lister told NOW.


There is also growing resentment at ISIS and its fellow al-Qaeda surrogate, Jabhat al-Nusra, for their increasingly authoritarian rule over the territories they hold, said Lister.


“Both ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra have exerted increasingly public levels of social control in northern and eastern Syria in recent weeks and there is no doubt that this has generated frustration within some locally-based moderate groups.”


Among local civilians, too, dissatisfaction with the jihadists has frequently been on display. At a demonstration in Aleppo Friday, residents chanted familiar anti-Assad songs, but with da’ish [the Arabic acronym for ISIS] in place of the president’s name. And on the Twitter social media network, pro-opposition Syrian users widely circulated the sloganDa’ish does not represent me”.


With rebels now dedicating time and resources to battles against fellow rebels, the question arises as to whether the Assad regime stands to gain militarily. Certainly that is the view of some opposition fighters, who see the descent into rebel-on-rebel killing as handing Assad victory, according to Chulov. Yet Lister told NOW the reality may be more complex.


“So far, incidents of infighting have remained isolated to less active military zones, so the impact on the overall battle against the government has been minimal. However, if this situation expands further, then yes, the military could feasibly benefit, but likely still only on a localized level.”


Doha Hassan contributed reporting.


*This article was amended on September 24 to rectify an inaccurate statement made by one interviewee. The specific quote claimed that a German doctor's employer was Doctors Without Borders (MSF). MSF has since contacted NOW and asserted that this is not the case. 

Al-Qaeda now regards the US-backed rebels as “enemies of Islam.” (AFP photo/JM Lopez)

"When the US backed away from its militant posture in favor of a Russian-sponsored compromise, ISIS may have sensed an opportunity to score a hit against their SMC rivals."

  • geizo


    October 22, 2013

  • JamesKeane

    What this mean militarily is debated, and perhaps unfortunate for the opposition on the short term, but an all out fight against Al Qaeda is a righteous one and one that will rid a future free Syria of insurgency and destabilization. No one ever said this will be easy, but surely if the FSA/SMC get rid of the extremists now, no matter how costly, they might JUST might have enough time to recuperate and go back to fighting Assad. In the meantime, the west must make tough decisions, but I fear they won't and they would rather Syria descends into hell...

    September 24, 2013