A Confused Situation in Northern Syria / Carnegie Endowment

 by: Aron Lund Tuesday, December 17, 2013  – The conflict among rebels at the strategic Bab al-Hawa border crossing into Turkey has rattled both the Syrian opposition and its foreign backers. New versions of what happened continue to emerge, but the exact details remain as murky as ever.

A background to the story can be found here, but to recap, very briefly: On the evening of December 6, the recently formed Islamic Front, a coalition of Syrian Islamist rebels, took charge of warehouses just next to Bab al-Hawa in the northern Idlib Province that were owned by the Western- and Gulf-backed Supreme Military Council (SMC), the command structure for the rebel Free Syria Army. These warehouses were filled with guns and equipment that had been provided by states like Saudi Arabia and the United States. The Islamic Front then apparently proceeded to take control over the local headquarters of the SMC and other factions in the area and to take charge of affairs at the Bab al-Hawa crossing itself.

Competing Claims

In a widely read article, the Wall Street Journal portrayed the events at Bab al-Hawa as part of a simple radical-moderate conflict: the Islamic Front had chased the SMC out of Syria, punching a big hole in American strategy before the planned Syrian peace conference in Geneva. Some SMC officials seem to agree. But as new details emerge, the truth appears to be considerably more nuanced. The Wall Street Journal’s account has now been contradicted by several sources on both sides of the dispute.

For its part, the Islamic Front claims that it only intervened to safeguard the Bab al-Hawa area after a distress call from the SMC leader, Salim Idris, who wanted help protecting his warehouses against attacks by an unnamed group.

Idris himself has come forward in support of this version and seems eager to downplay the conflict between him and the Islamic Front. According to Idris, the SMC headquarters have not been “occupied” by the Islamic Front, rather they are locked and empty after the SMC abandoned them. “I could return to the [SMC] headquarters any time I want,” he claims in an interview with the U.S.-funded al-Hurra television station, “but the entire region is in danger. Most forces have abandoned their headquarters. There’s an unnatural situation in the entire northern region, to be honest. In the northern area of Syria, there is confusion and there are checkpoints for different forces and alliances. The situation in northern Syria is no longer clear, no longer safe.”

The SMC’s political wing, the Western-backed National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, has portrayed the events in a similar fashion, deflecting blame from the Islamic Front and generally praising its intervention.

However, there is still no clarity on which group first attacked the warehouses. The National Coalition claims it was a faction linked to the radical-jihadi Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, but other versions have suggested it was the Nusra Front, another jihadi organization that is affiliated with al-Qaeda, or even groups from the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front (SRF), an alliance of pro-SMC forces that was created just after the December 6 events.

The Fronts Are Friends Again

One of the reasons for the chaotic and dangerous situation in the northern Idlib area is a spate of clashes between the SRF and the Islamic Front. In the days after December 6, these groups faced off, putting up roadblocks in the area, kidnapping each other’s members, and blocking convoys of supplies. Most of the conflict played out in the Jabal al-Zawiya area of Idlib, and it seems to have involved two Islamic Front factions in particular: Ahrar al-Sham and Suqour al-Sham. (Both of these groups are particularly strong in the Idlib-Hama region, just like the SRF.)

However, both sides quickly decided to try to resolve the conflict without further bloodshed, and other factions intervened to help smooth things over. On December 12, the SRF issued a statement that it would release prisoners from Ahrar al-Sham and Suqour al-Sham and look for a peaceful settlement. On December 15, it was decided through a committee of mediators that the SRF would hand over captured vehicles and other supplies to the Nusra Front (perhaps acting as an intermediary). On December 16, the SRF reported that a meeting had been held between Jamal Maarouf, head of the SRF and its largest group, the Syria Martyrs’ Brigade, and Hassan Abboud, head of Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic Front’s political office. They decided that both sides would cease media propaganda against each other and instead settle their disputes amicably in a sharia tribunal.

What exactly took place, and how it relates to the Bab al-Hawa conflict, is anybody’s guess. And whether the deal between the fronts will end the “unnatural situation” in Bab al-Hawa and northern Syria, allowing the SMC to set up shop at Bab al-Hawa again—well, that remains to be seen.

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