Bab al-Salam is the first border crossing between Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic emirate and Turkey. If Abu Abdulrahman al-Kuwaiti, the emir of Azaz for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), succeeds in the coming hours in settling the military operation that began on Oct. 2, 2013, at dawn against the Northern Storm Brigade, the borders of the emirate sought to be established by ISIS and its leader will likely be drawn along the line expanding from the northern city of Raqqa, to the countryside of Idlib and all the way to the strategic Syrian crossing with Turkey.
The organization, which was founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq and restructured by Baghdadi in 2006 to comprise 26 factions, including al-Qaeda, occasionally monopolizes control over the strategic line expanding from Latakia to the west to the border with Iraq to the east, and all the way to Iraq’s Anbar province. The organization has no real competition within the armed opposition.
The 48-hour deadline ISIS has given to the fighters of the Northern Storm Brigade to lay down their arms and seek God’s forgiveness — lest “something great” happen, as the emir of Azaz vowed — has ended. Some 40 fighters of the Northern Storm Brigade laid down their arms before the deadline, after the ISIS took some of their wives captive, as was reported last week.
The emir of Azaz’s guerrillas took over the Northern Storm Brigade’s checkpoint in al-Qazie, which is located a kilometer from the Bab al-Salam crossing. The latter is under the thumb of Ahrah al-Sham. Attackers entered the villages of Yizbak and Maarin, near Azaz, which were under the grip of a brigade affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), leading to the residents moving into Turkey. Meanwhile, the ISIS conducted a broad offensive against the sites of the Northern Storm Brigade using heavy artillery and tanks.
The decision to exterminate the Northern Storm Brigade, which is still detaining nine Lebanese captives in Azaz, is becoming starker. This is particularly true given that the al-Tawhid brigade, which mediated between jihadist fighters, remained distant and silent. The Northern Storm Brigade, however, said nothing about the fate of the Lebanese detainees after it announced a few days ago during the first round of battles with the ISIS that it had evacuated them to a safe place.
The ISIS accused the Northern Storm Brigade, the members of which number in the thousands, of having been breached by French, German and British intelligence to justify its military operations. The offensive the ISIS conducted against the FSA in the north to take over villages adjacent to key crossings with Turkey — such as Tal Abyad, Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam — is ongoing. Turkish intelligence agencies have deployed Ahrar al-Sham fighters on these crossings and have also shut down the Tal Abyad crossing when the ISIS drifted closer to it during battles with Kurds.
The crossings provide the armed opposition with a large share of customs revenues and safe passage for the tanks of oil plundered from Deir el-Zour into Turkey. Additionally, the crossings give the ISIS the advantage of monitoring the roads through which Saudi, Qatari and Western weapons are entering, in addition to the advantage of controlling the route taken by jihadists between Syria and Turkey along with what was left of the FSA.
A few days ago, the FSA declared its Nahrawan campaign against those who defected from the ISIS. The FSA’s brigades, however, did not advance on the fronts it mentioned in the Aleppo countryside, Idlib and Deir el-Zour. On the contrary, the ISIS exterminated what was left of the FSA in Deir al-Zour by eliminating the Allahu Akbar brigade, affiliated with Ahfad al-Rasul. Two days ago, battles with some of the latter’s wings were fought in the heart of the city, while the FSA bombarded the sites of all rival parties in the city.
It is unlikely the FSA will hold its ground against the ISIS for long. The presence of the FSA, affiliated with the united military council, has dwindled in the past months, having been reduced to a series of media and military offices managed by Maj. Gen. Salim Idris and the united military council. Meanwhile fighters and battles have no real power.
This is especially true, since the majority of Syrian defectors live in Turkish camps and refuse to join the ranks of the FSA, which recruits civilians with no military experience, compared with jihadists in Iraq or Afghanistan and to the military savvy of the ISIS fighters.
The statement made by Mohammed al-Adnani, a spokesman for the ISIS and its emir in Syria, was no surprise. He declared that two days ago, Oct. 1, ISIS militants took control of the Ming Airport [north of Aleppo], and that the FSA had nothing to do with it, although it had claimed responsibility for the attack.
The majority of the brigades under the FSA’s command were fundamentalist and had a jihadist inclination. They declared their allegiance to the FSA in the media only, with the sole aim of obtaining arms and funding.
The FSA tested its control over its remaining troops a week ago in Raqqa. The FSA’s Platoon 11 vanished in one day. The Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigade and the God's Victory Brigade defected from the FSA and joined Jabhat al-Nusra’s ranks, pledging loyalty to Saad al-Hadrami, a Jabjat al-Nusra leader. The Salah al-Din Brigade and Brigade 313 swore allegiance to the ISIS, while Umanaa al-Raqqa Brigade preferred pledging loyalty to Abu Abdullah al-Hamawai, the commander of Ahrar al-Sham.
Back to the question: Why did the attack against the FSA intensify following the ISIS withdrawal during the period of the American threat to strike Syria? Experts believe that the ISIS saw the suspension of the American strike against Syria as an American-Russian agreement to keep the Syrian regime in power, and that the ISIS has become a target for US military operations on the move in the north of Syria.
The ISIS has been accelerating its operations to pre-empt any Western or Turkish breakthroughs in the region and in anticipation of the Geneva II conference, which could drive some of the Syrian opposition factions to join the alliance against it, based on the calls of Russia and the United States, and in conjunction with the work on the formation of a new “national army” in the opposition.
In this context, a Lebanese security source told As-Safir that he had played a role in providing security guarantees for Syrian opposition figures, who came from Damascus to Beirut and met with the head of national security, Ali Mamlouk, a month and a half ago. The negotiations led to understandings about neutralizing or disarming some of the FSA’s brigades and having some of the members return to civilian life.
The security source added that contacts are underway to promote these meetings in Beirut, and that major changes have taken place within the ranks of the Syrian opposition, especially following the heavy presence of the ISIS in the military action and the threat it poses to the Syrian fabric.
The clashes between the FSA and the ISIS began with the major breakout of the ISIS leaders from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. These senior members who escaped prison conveyed their concerns to the ISIS’s most radical fighters over a repeat of what happened with the Sahwa Army, which fought them in Iraq. They also called for eliminating the FSA because it might replay the Iraqi Sahwa in Syria. Some of the fleeing leaders arrived in Beirut, including Abu Ezzat al-Faqhi, who came to study the possibility of expanding the battles to reach Lebanon.
Thus, by sidelining the FSA, armed Syrian action would be monopolized by Salafists and jihadists, who seek to establish a caliphate in Syria. However, while the first group has pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, under the umbrella of al-Qaeda and the ISIS, the second is loyal to the head of Saudi intelligence, Bandar Bin Sultan, through the role of Sheikh Zahran Alloush and his Liwa al-Islam Brigade.
During the past two days the Liwa al-Islam Brigade has been announcing that it has made agreements with 50 jihadist groups to unite under the umbrella of the “Army of Islam” against the ISIS and to vie for control of the areas from which the FSA has withdrawn. However, the Army of Islam will not make major changes in the balance of power in the regions controlled by the regime, especially in Ghouta.
This announcement does not suggest the emergence of new groups vying with the FSA, since the groups that have pledged open allegiance to Alloush used to work under its command in the Liwa al-Islam Brigade. Yet, this announcement has undermined the “operations room in Damascus,” as many political forces have withdrawn from it and stopped coordinating with the brigade, including Ahrar al-Sham, the al-Habib al-Mustafa Brigade and the al-Sahaba Brigades, which have been fighting in Daraa for the past two years.