The reality on the ground in Syria indicates that a new conflict could break out at any moment between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The tension between the two was revealed by reports from the liberated areas, where ISIS is practicing a harsh tyranny. The ISIS is harassing the people of Aleppo as they move between the areas held by the FSA and the Syrian army. The ISIS is arresting people on charges of secularism, and the group has also assassinated an FSA leader in the Latakia countryside. Both sides are now on alert and expecting a clash soon.
Between Jabhat al-Nusra and the ISIS
The emergence of the ISIS, which is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was unlike that of Jabhat al-Nusra. The latter is considered the womb that gave birth to the ISIS.
Baghdadi announced the ISIS’ establishment a few months ago based on a request, it is thought, by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri to set up an Islamic state in the region. Despite its loyalty to al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra did not obey the request at the time, claiming that such a move was premature.
In order to avoid a dispute between Baghdadi and Jabhat al-Nusra’s leader Abu Mohammed Joulani, Zawahri did not immediately recognize the ISIS and accused Baghdadi of acting hastily without consulting al-Qaeda. In a tape broadcast by al-Qaeda supporters on social networking sites, Zawahri criticized Jabhat al-Nusra for opposing the ISIS in public.
It seems that Zawahri’s order to dissolve the ISIS was not positively received by Baghdadi, who believes that the ISIS should remain. Thus arose a Salafist schism in Syria between Jabhat al-Nusra militants, whose foreign fighters are a small minority, and the ISIS, which includes many fighters from a variety of countries.
According to sources in opposition-controlled areas, the quarrel between Jabhat al-Nusra and the ISIS is about more than loyalty to their competing leaders. Jabhat al-Nusra operates on a principle similar to that of the FSA: first overthrow the regime, then establish an Islamic state. On the other hand, Baghdadi’s supporters want to establish the Islamic caliphate immediately, regardless of when the regime is overthrown. So the ISIS has decided to halt its military actions and focus on strengthening its grip on the areas it controls: the Aleppo countryside and some the city’s neighborhoods, the Idlib countryside, specifically Binsh, and to a lesser extent the rural areas of Latakia, then Raqqa.
Raqqa is a special case. The ISIS controls most of the city's civil administration buildings in conjunction with the Salafist-leaning Ahrar al-Sham, which has not declared allegiance to al-Qaeda.
What is happening in Raqqa should be carefully examined. According to some activists, Jabhat al-Nusra gradually withdrew from Raqqa and ceded its posts to the ISIS, which moved to set up checkpoints and Islamic courts. The ISIS now controls the roads leading to the area and has imposed a dictatorship whereby anyone who professes secular ideas is arrested and tortured on the grounds that he is an “apostate and an infidel.”
Jabhat al-Nusra, outside the flock
In contrast to the ISIS’ actions, Jabhat al-Nusra seems unconcerned with recent events, as if it is outside the flock. It is still cooperating with like-minded armed groups, especially in the countrysides of Damascus and Aleppo. Jabhat al-Nusra’s media department recently showed pictures showing its men fighting in the Khan al-Asal battle.
Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed Joulani made a speech rejecting any political process or democratic governance and stressing his support for an Islamic state, but only after the fall of the regime. He also denounced transgressions by Jabhat al-Nusra fighters and called for redressing how the civilians in Nusra-controlled areas are dealt with.
Sources in opposition-controlled areas said that Jabhat al-Nusra, which has already established its presence, will try to stay on the sidelines in the expected fight between the FSA and the ISIS. But if Jabhat al-Nusra is attacked, it will defend itself.
Ideological differences that may soon explode
The assassination of Kamal Hamami — aka Abu Basir, an FSA leader in the Latakia countryside — at the hands of ISIS fighters may be a sign that a battle between the two sides is near.
Although some, if not most, FSA battalions have cooperated with radical groups, many differences gradually developed. Moreover, three advantageous factors — organization, financing and armaments — made the Salafist current more popular at the grassroots level than the FSA.
After some training, any individual can join any FSA battalion. But the jihadist organizations are very stringent in accepting new volunteers and only do so after reviewing the volunteer’s past, beliefs and commitment to jihad.
By using this method, the jihadist organizations succeeded in limiting the number of transgressions committed by their members. But many transgressions were committed by the ISIS when it fought anyone who called for a civil state. The ISIS dealt with people harshly, especially a few days ago when ISIS fighters gained control of the crossing separating west Aleppo (opposition-controlled) and east Aleppo (controlled by the regime). After the Aleppo-Damascus road was cut, that crossing became the means to get food and key supplies.
ISIS fighters harassed civilians and even opened fire on a demonstration that called for the opening of the crossing. The pretext the ISIS gave was that the demonstrators were secular and opposed the establishment of an Islamic state.
Recently, ISIS fighters refused to vacate their positions in a battle, leading to the killing of FSA brigade commander Abu Basir. The FSA responded with a harsh anti-ISIS media campaign. One FSA leader called on all battalions to unite under the FSA banner and put an end to the transgressions by FSA members.
Some considered what happened to be the start of a conflict between the FSA and the ISIS, with Jabhat al-Nusra ostensibly on the sidelines. Others believe that such a conflict would improve the FSA’s image in the eyes of the West and the US, which would then start providing the FSA with better weapons.
In contrast, others believe that something like the Iraqi Sahwa forces will be replicated in Syria due to the presence of armed groups outside the realm of control of FSA commander Salim Idris that follow the orders of their backers, be it the Gulf or the West. These battalions will seek to impose their control over the liberated areas, while the independent and self-financed battalions will have no choice but to fight in order to defend themselves against Islamist groups that employ the same dictatorial means — but this time with a religious flavor — that the Syrians rose up against in 2011.