Has sahwa hit the fan in Syria? / By Michael Weiss

Michael Weiss is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the Institute of Modern Russia. He tweets @michaeldweiss

8-1-2014 – Has sahwa finally hit the fan in Syria?  Since just after Christmas, the nastiest and most backward group in the country, the schismatic al-Qaeda affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), has had its black-clad ass handed to it by three disparate but equally fed-up rebel super-formations, none of them more than three months old. The largest and most formidable of these anti-ISIS newcomers is the mainly Salafi  Islamic Front, which fields as many as 60,000 fighters and was created, as far as I can tell, to accomplish three things: 1. isolate and marginalize ISIS, though not necessarily through military force; 2. establish the first truly cohesive rebel army with a top-down hierarchy and command-and-control capability; 3. lure the more “moderate” or pragmatic al-Qaeda group in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, into the oppositional mainstream.

If the last few days have been any guide, then number 1 is proceeding apace, number 2 is relatively successful, at least by Syrian standards, although its objective success is still hard to gauge, and number 3 remains a work-in-progress. Nevertheless, any week in which Syrians rise up to denounce Zarqawism and call for its expulsion from the country is not a week to sniff at, especially as positive developments in this conflict are seldom in evidence.

 While it’s true that an anti-ISIS backlash was long in coming, a few key dates and events suggest what made it arrive now. 

An early catalyst occurred on December 29 when ISIS fighters raided opposition-linked news buildings in the Idlib city of Kafranbel. These included, most notoriously, the media center run by Raed Fares, the 41-year-old responsible for pro-revolutionary posters that have caught the world’s attention by broadcasting in English messages that combine wit, poignancy, and indignation about America and the so-called international community’s failure to help the Syrian people. Kafranbel is a byword for the revolution’s first principles and the continuity of democratic sentiment, so an attack on it constitutes an attack on the very reason Syrians rose up in the first place. ISIS took six media workers, then wisely released them two hours later. But its true sinister intent was to destroy the communications hardware and facilities themselves. According to the Daily Star, the jihadis “ransacked the premises of the two locations and confiscated or destroyed computers, cameras, radio and Internet equipment, and pro-uprising banners.” The reason? A radio broadcast made hours earlier in which Syrian women discussed the details of their lives, including their divorces, and because the Kafranbel media center had lately taken to depicting ISIS as what they are: savages more intent on cannibalizing rebels than on fighting the regime. 

Currently on a speaking tour of the United States (his first trip not only outside of Syria, but outside of Kafranbel), Fares spoke to me via Skype from Detroit last Saturday. He said that all the posters he’s thought up, most of which marry withering satire with Western pop cultural references, are simply the product of a lot of movie watching and the desire to talk to the United States in its own language. These have gone viral, all right: I’ve got a print of Fares’ spoof on Titanic’s edge-of-the-bow scene — with Bashar cast as Kate Winslet and Vladimir Putin cast as Leonardo DiCaprio — framed and hanging on my wall at home. 

“The reason Kafranbel became important is because it’s been persistently and consistently supporting the revolution in all of its aspects — whether it’s the non-violent revolution, or the armed revolution or the humanitarian and civil society work,” Fares told me. He absolutely sees the assault on the village and its symbolic importance for the opposition as stirring anti-ISIS sentiment. And, in a sense, going after ISIS is just like going after Assad. “The regime, when we would say something in opposition to them, they’d shell us. ISIS, when we made a drawing against them — the first in June of this year — they wanted to attack us so they came and raided the media center. At the end of the day, they’re both the same.  They’re both tyrants.”

 ISIS had been laying the groundwork for its comeuppance for months, but just after Christmas, confrontation seemed imminent. Days before the assault on Kafranbel, activists and oppositionists in Maarat al-Numan, Idlib, protested in favor of rebel unity and for the release of an FSA officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ahmad Saoud of the 13th battalion, who’d been “arrested” by ISIS on December 13 along with two lower-ranking soldiers at a jihadi-run checkpoint in western Idlib. The entourage had been traveling to the Taftanaz airbase where they were due to negotiate with ISIS about weapons, including anti-aircraft munitions, which the latter had confiscated from Fursan al-Haqq. Perhaps not coincidentally, this FSA brigade is tasked with defending Kafranbel from punishing regime airstrikes. Saoud, a defector from the Syrian army, is also a member of the Idlib military council, which a week earlier had demanded that the jihadi network free all civilians it had abducted, referring any criminal or civil disputes to Sharia courts. The protests in this instance appeared to have worked because within hours of their launch, Saoud became the first FSA officer to be released by ISIS. In a subsequent interview with Syria Deeply, Lieutenant Colonel Fares Baioush, Saoud’s deputy, claimed that all of the FSA’s commanders and officers were now being systematically targeted by the jihadis “as agents for the United States and the West in general.” Baioush listed other FSA officers whom ISIS had kidnapped and executed in past few months. 

Then came New Year’s Day, when ISIS committed another stupid and self-defeating offense: the grim torture, murder, and corpse mutilation of Hussein al-Suleiman, a.k.a. Abu Rayyan, a respected physician and commander in Ahrar al-Sham. Ahrar al-Sham is one of the largest and most formidable Salafi brigades in Syria and is now part of the Islamic Front, which is headed politically by Ahrar’s own leader, Hassan Aboud. Like Saoud, Suleiman was first detained by ISIS while heading to meet a delegation of the jihadis, this time to resolve a dispute that began in Maskaneh, a village in the Aleppo countryside. He was allegedly kept for 20 days and horribly tortured before being shot to death. Images of his disfigured cadaver — featuring a missing ear — were circulated over social media, outraging even those Ahrar al-Sham supporters who had hitherto been tolerant of ISIS. In a statement released by the brigade, Ahrar al-Sham accused the al-Qaeda offshoot of exceeding even the mukhabarat in barbarity and warned that “if ISIS continues with its methodical avoiding of refraining from… resorting to an independent judicial body, and its stalling and ignoring in settling its injustices against others, the revolution and the jihad will head for the quagmire of internal fighting, in which the Syrian revolution will be the first loser.” 

So, naturally, on January 2, ISIS decided to attack the FSA, this time in Atareb, Aleppo, a flashpoint that quickly grew to encompass large swaths of the province as well as neighboring Idlib. The FSA put out a distress call. Remarkably, and unlike previous episodes where the moderates sought to be bailed out by the Islamists, this time the latter rallied to the former’s defense. The Islamic Front, which not a month ago commandeered FSA warehouses in Atmeh, precipitating the United States and other Western countries to cease aid and supply delivers through the Bab al-Hawa border-crossing, issued its own warning to ISIS: “We hereby address the Islamic State of the requirement to immediately withdraw from the city of al-Atareb and to end the killing of the fighters based on false excuses and return all unfairly confiscated properties of weapons and bases to their rightful owners. They must also accept the rule of God by agreeing to the judgments of the independent religious courts to resolve the conflicts that arise between them and the other factions. We remind ISIS that those who originally liberated al-Atareb and the suburbs of Aleppo in general are those whom you are now fighting.” The Islamic Front also demanded that the killers of Abu Rayyan be surrendered by ISIS. 

Enter, too, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF), a consortium of formerly FSA-aligned rebels, which was established mere days after the Islamic Front’s takeover of Atmeh warehouses. The SRF now found itself fighting alongside the group whose aggression it was created to counterman in order to defeat a common takfiri nemesis. The SRF is headed by Jamal Ma’rouf, an Idlib-born Syrian who first took part in the protest movement, then commanded a series of rebel brigades: first the Martyrs of Jabal Zawiyeh Brigade, which later developed into the Syrian Martyrs Brigade, and finally the Grandsons of the Prophet Brigade, which was responsible for a string of impressive victories against regime weapons caches. The SRF claims between 10,000 and 15,000 throughout Syria, drawing on 20 different units including the Military Council of Idlib, the province where the SRF has the heaviest concentration. However, this group is still very much in its infancy and has yet to participate in operations as a single body with command-and-control capabilities, Like most other umbrella organizations in Syria, the SRF seems more a political than military project. 

That said, Lieutenant Colonel Ahmad Saoud, the FSA officer recently released from ISIS prison, is a now a member. “The Syrian Revolutionaries Front is designed to fight [ISIS],” he told me in an interview conducted over the weekend, at the apogee of the anti-ISIS fighting. And while Saoud considers all the brigades of the SRF to be “part of the Free Syrian Army,” he has little time for the current leadership of the Supreme Military Council: Saoud described its head, General Salim Idris, as a “bad commander.” And unlike the SMC, which has signed up for the forthcoming Geneva II peace talks with the regime, Saoud and the SRF don’t think now is any time to negotiate. “We need to destroy Assad first before going to negotiations,” he said. “There is no way for Assad to step down if he is still strong.” 

What about the Islamic Front? “We are not happy with them, especially after their attack on [the Supreme Military Council’s warehouses]. But we are working now with them to destroy the regime. Okay, we aren’t getting along that much, but at the same time, we have the same goal. As long as they are good with us, we will still fight with them just to destroy the regime.” 

Another new formation, the Army of the Mujahedeen, an alliance of eight brigades, represents an Aleppo-based counterpart to the SRF and indeed was responsible for hitting ISIS positions in that province during this latest spate of operations. The jihadis, it said, were “undermining the stability and security in liberated areas” by resorting to gangsterism and draconian sharia law: “We, the Army of the Mujahedeen, pledge to defend ourselves and our honor, wealth, and lands, and to fight [ISIS], which has violated the rule of God, until it announces its dissolution.” Either ISIS defects to the mainstream rebellion, they said, or it gives up its weapons to the true rebels and gets the hell out of the country. 

Friday, January 3 saw the beginnings of a massive campaign by all three rebel militias against ISIS across northern Syria, with an as-yet undetermined level of inter-factional coordination and planning. By the end of the first day of anti-ISIS warfare, at least 60 fatalities were registered by the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. This military sweep coincided with an unprecedented series of anti-ISIS – and often pro-FSA – protests throughout Idlib and Aleppo, even extending into Damascus and Deraa. Many openly characterized the group as moral equivalents of the regime, if not hirelings of it. One such demonstration, in Takharim village in Idlib, was fired upon by ISIS, prompting greater anger at the jihadis. Children donned Guy Fawkes masks in defiance of the many black-clad and faceless foreigners now claiming to rule Syria on their behalf. Abu Rayyan was mourned and eulogized from Binnish to Maarat al-Nouman. One ISIS commander was captured by the FSA in Atareb, out of which the jihadis were said to be expelled completely — and which Assad’s Air Force then swiftly bombed, prompting more speculation among Syrians about ISIS-regime collusion. Fares, unbowed by the attack on his colleagues days prior, released his newest contribution to guerrilla art: the creature from Aliens (the regime) with a smaller version bursting through its chest (ISIS). 

By Saturday, January 4, following an FSA-issued 24 hour-deadline for ISIS to capitulate and quit Syria, 200 jihadis were rounded up, and around 30 people in Idlib, both civilians and rebels, were summarily executed by ISIS, which had also resorted to car bombings and the shelling of rebel-held territories.  At minimum, 38 ISIS fighters had also been killed by this point, according to the Syrian Observatory. As a further sign of the jihadi organization’s waning fortunes, it issued a desperate communique with three demands of its own. The first was that all road blockades in cities and villages intended to hamper the movement of ISIS fighters be listed; the second was that no such fighter be detained or insulted or harmed; the third was that all ISIS detainees and muhajireen from any other groups be released immediately. Failing the satisfaction of these three demands, also within 24 hours, ISIS would issue a general order to withdraw from all the front-lines facing the regime — the clear implication being that it would return the territory to Assad. (Here again, if ISIS was looking to dispel accusations of being handmaid of the regime, it did a piss-poor job.) 

On Sunday, January 5, the Islamic Front redoubled its anti-ISIS sentiment, claiming that it had been “push[ed]” to battle and that while its charter was initially welcoming of foreign fighters offering assistance in the struggle against Assad, “we will not accept any group that claims to be a state” — itself an attack on a foundational and non-negotiable ISIS tenet.  Sunday also saw the internecine warfare spread to Hama and Raqqa provinces, with media reports of ISIS’s being “routed” from Syria. Atareb was taken by the rebels, and the black flag of ISIS replaced with the Free Syrian flag. One activist for the Sham News Network in Raqqa claimed that rebels had “liberat[ed] more than 80% of the Idlib countryside and 65% of Aleppo and its countryside.”  “[T]he presence of the State of Baghdadi is finished,” said another activist, referring to ISIS commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. 

The battle for Raqqa began on Monday, January 6, marking a serious turning point in the anti-ISIS campaign because it was the rival and “official” al-Qaeda franchise in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra that took the lead of battling the rogue Zarqawist al-Qaeda affiliate in this, the only province ever to be completely taken from the regime. ISIS was largely expelled from Raqqa city in a stunning volte-face for a group that had ruled the province as a totalitarian emirate-in-the-making without much confrontation by rival factions for the past several months. Jabhat al-Nusra led the charge against ISIS headquarters in Raqqa city, though Ahrar al-Sham took part in many of the Raqqa skirmishes too. Some 50 Syrian hostages of ISIS were released from the Vehicles Department building, a makeshift prison, as was one of many foreign journalists held captive by the group, Turkish photographer Bunyamin Aygun, who’d been taken in December. Thus did al-Qaeda free the victims of al-Qaeda, a scene either out of Monty Python or M.C. Escher. Two Raqqa churches that been burnt or confiscated by ISIS were also “liberated” by Nusra, which declared its intent to restore them for Christian use (next up: an inter-faith potluck presided over by Ayman al-Zawahiri himself). One fighter from Ahrar al-Sham told the New York Times that some ISIS members weren’t all bad boys: they’d just been deceived by their crazy masters and were now eligible for casting their lot with mainstream rebel forces. The total death toll from rebel-on-ISIS fighting as of Monday was 100. A truce brokered between ISIS, on the one hand, and al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, on the other, appeared to lower the temperature a bit in the Aleppo suburbs, as did ISIS’ withdrawal from strategic areas close to the Turkish border, including Atmeh and al-Danah. 

By Tuesday, after 274 people were confirmed dead as a result of this campaign (the bulk of them non-ISIS rebels), Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani, while laying the blame on ISIS, urged the formation of independent legal councils for resolving rebel disputes to accompany the ceasefire. He also said that “detainees will be exchanged between all parties… and roads will be opened for everyone.” However, sincerity of this seeming gesture of conciliation toward ISIS was complicated by what Nusra spokesman Abu Maya told NOW: that the battle against ISIS was not yet over. “It is not solely up to the Nusra Front. The Islamic Front or even ISIS [itself] might not agree to the initiative,” Abu Maya said, passing responsibility entirely onto the other combatants, both friend and foe. And note that he did not urge or recommend that anyone accede al-Golani’s terms, leaving the possibility wide open that Nusra will continue to battle ISIS. 

Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre in Qatar, said that Nusra’s prominence, however late in the let’s-all-get-ISIS game, should not be underestimated. “Certainly since ISIS’ emergence in Syria in April and May 2013, Jabhat al-Nusra has played a more socially and politically pragmatic game, while ISIS has combined soft social outreach with increasingly harsh forms of penal law in conjunction with the imposition of its behavioral norms. As such, despite it being the official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, on a generalized national level al-Nusra has made very few enemies within Syria’s armed opposition on the ground and is therefore a major benefactor of this anti-ISIS fighting.”  

All this of course means that the preceding events won’t change a thing in Washington, which still expects all good rebels to turn their guns not only on ISIS (killing Assadists, Hezbollah, and IRGC agents is not now, nor has it ever been, an urgent priority for the Obama administration), but also Nusra. America wants everything in exchange for nothing. And it’s not so easily impressed by homegrown Arab surges or semi-sahwas

Whatever happens from here, though, the real casualty of the last week has been the lazy assumption that ISIS was ever unstoppable or too big to fail. 

Michael Weiss is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the Institute of Modern Russia. He tweets @michaeldweiss