Rifts widen among Syria’s Islamist opposition

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham has escalated its pre-emptive battle to maintain control in northern Syria after signs of confrontations with the Islamic Front began to appear.

al-monitor Free Syrian Army fighters man a checkpoint between the villages of Kvrromh and Maarat Al-Nouman to stop members of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) from entering Jabal Al-Zawya, Idlib, Syria, Jan. 5, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Fadi Mashanal-Shams.

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syrian civil war, syria, salafist jihadists, media, islamic state of iraq and al-sham

Jan 6, 2014

The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) escalated its pre-emptive battle by adopting the carrot-and-stick approach in the north and northwest of [Syria]. This was aimed at ensuring that ISIS has the upper hand in the country, after signs of confrontations with the Islamic Front began to appear. Meanwhile, the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) declared ISIS a “terrorist organization.”

The first confrontation between ISIS and Ahrar al-Sham in the northern suburbs of Aleppo occurred last month and claimed the lives of 12 people, including seven members of Ahrar al-Sham, which constitutes a main bloc in the Islamic Front. The latter took over the Bab al-Hawa border crossing near the Turkish border. Since then, ISIS has been escalating its carrot-and-stick operations in a pre-emptive battle to impose its “state” in the north and northwest of Syria.

In the context of enticement, ISIS released the military council’s leader, Ahmad Berri, in downtown Hama after “joint meetings with the Sharia Committee.” This happened days after the dissident Lt. Col. Ahmad al-Saud, abducted around two weeks ago, was released, following protests and pleas against the organization’s practices in Idlib and Hama.

In the past few months, ISIS had started to extend its influence to the northwest as foreign fighters infiltrated into Syria and allied with local militants to position themselves in schools and remote homes in several villages in the Idlib countryside.

“Three months ago, foreign militants came to a school in Sermin village. At first, they did not interact with anyone. After some time passed and their strength increased, they started their armed appearances in the markets and public places until they finally imposed [Islamic] dress and their own values,” an activist said. It was within this context that they bombed the grave of Khawla Bint al-Azwar [famed female Muslim warrior from Muhammad's time].

It was confirmed that the Liwaa Daoud Brigade — led by Hassan Abboud, who shares the same name as the leader of Ahrar al-Sham — joined ISIS a few days ago in Sermin. A source told Al-Hayat that Abboud was appointed “military emir” in the Idlib countryside, which is linked to the neighboring al-Dana “emirate.” The reason is that Abboud accepted “to join one of the region’s strongest brigades, which includes around 1,000 militants and heavy equipment and enjoys a solid economic and financial structure that relies on its own resources confiscated from tycoons in the region.”

Concurrent with this understanding, the ISIS militants continued their terrorizing approach in other areas of the Idlib countryside and in the north. The latest attack was against the offices of Al-Gherbal magazine in Kfarnebel yesterday [Dec. 31]. They kidnapped the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Muhammad Salloum, two days after they attacked the town’s media office and confiscated equipment at Fresh FM. They also bombed the grave of Job’s wife in the town of Balshoun and occupied a court in another town, in addition to lowering the revolution flag in Sarmada and raising al-Qaeda’s.

In the north of Aleppo, opposition sources declared that Ahrar al-Sham had received the body of leader Hussein al-Suleiman, aka Abu Rayan, which showed signs of torture. The body was handed over as part of an exchange deal that involved 20 militants from Ahrar al-Sham in return for nine ISIS members in the town of Maskana, east of Aleppo. The sources noted that “the other militants were also tortured in a systematic way during their arrest.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that Suleiman was “shot dead by ISIS after being severely tortured. Activists said that the doctor’s ear was cut off with a sharp object and he was shot many times.”

Suleiman (born in 1985) participated in a number of peaceful protests in Aleppo and was arrested by the Syrian authorities several times. He also participated in the armed opposition and formed the Battalion of Musab bin Umair, which took control of Maskana. He then joined the ranks of Ahrar al-Sham. He also contributed to the establishment of a field hospital and a civil council in Maskana. Suleiman participated as well in the battle of Jarrah airport and in [the opposition operation] to take control of Raqqa at the beginning of March last year. According to opposition sources, “Suleiman was later on appointed the head of the Tel Abyad crossing between Syria and Turkey, when Ahrar al-Sham controlled it,” noting that the ISIS killed his uncle before the prisoner swap deal.

These latest acts carried out on behalf of ISIS raised considerable controversy among the opposition. Many opponents said that the FSA [Free Syrian Army] had expelled 30 fighters from the area of Qalamoun near Damascus to protest these practices. Meanwhile, several civilian activists noticed that in its statement, the SNC did not directly criticize the ISIS after the latter had stormed the SNC’s information office.

The SNC had announced that “an armed group attacked the information center in Kafr Nabl and lowered the flag of the revolution in the city, which voiced the sound of freedom, showed the world its bright image and was the truthful speaker on behalf of the revolution.” The SNC added that “attacks [have] targeted writers, journalists, activists and other symbols of the Syrian revolution in Aleppo and Damascus almost every day.”

The SNC’s stance on the ISIS caused a split within the ranks of the Islamic Front, which was formed on Nov. 22 and includes the largest Islamic battalions.

According to the pro-opposition website Koulouna Shouraka’a [We Are All Partners], “Sharp differences emerged in the Shura Council regarding ISIS.” It explained that “the Army of Islam, the Suqour al-Sham Brigades and Liwa al-Tawhid Brigade supported a decision to punish ISIS for its practices, crimes and violations it has recently committed. Meanwhile, Ahrar al-Sham took a stance that was in direct conflict with the position of the majority of the Shura Council of the Islamic Front.”

The coalition, on the other hand, took advantage of the situation to rally activists and fighters against ISIS, condemning the killing of the head of Tel Abyad crossing as “a cowardly criminal act,” stating that “he suffered from the harshest types of torture.” The coalition added that there is “an organic link” between the ISIS and the Syrian regime and that “the blood of Syrians that was shed at the hands of the organization reflects its true nature, the reasons behind its inception, the goals it seeks to achieve and the agendas it serves. This confirms the nature of its terrorist acts that are not compatible with the Syrian revolution.”

The coalition called upon all combatants fighting under the ISIS banner to “withdraw immediately and disclaim” this organization, urging all factions to “defect from it,” pledging to “prosecute the leaders of this terrorist organization as well as the symbols of the criminal regime” in Damascus.

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