Does the agreement between 12 factions in Deir ez-Zor to form a unified Shura Council point to a new escalation in the eastern region? Or is it just a media stunt aimed at lifting morale? Is there a relationship between the formation of the Shura Council and the “revolutionary honor code”? How will the formation of the Shura Council affect the fate of Jabhat al-Nusra in the eastern region and the relationships among its multiple currents, whose disagreements have started showing more clearly?
The available information about the formation of the Shura Council indicates that it was the culmination of efforts by the general mufti of al-Nusra, Abu Maria al-Qahtani. During the last period, Qahtani made extensive calls with faction leaders to persuade them to find a solution before the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) breaks into his main stronghold of al-Shahil. Earlier, ISIS made progress and started knocking on the doors of al-Shahil by controlling Tall al-Atal, which overlooks al-Shahil.
But informed sources confirmed that the step to form the Shura Council is about more than facing the threat against al-Nusra’s stronghold. According to these sources, there was a consensus in the countries supporting the factions, most notably Turkey, to prevent ISIS from controlling Deir ez-Zor, whatever the cost, because otherwise there would be high danger and losses for Turkey. Also, Ankara and other governments want to preserve the role of the Islamic factions that are close to them and not have the rug pulled from under them on the pretext of fighting terrorism.
In this context, there are leaks confirming that several meetings were held in Kuwait and included sheikhs from different currents (the al-Sourouria current, the Umma Party and the Muslim Brotherhood), businessmen and intelligence officers. They discussed how to stop the advance of ISIS in the eastern region, and these meetings produced the idea of uniting the factions under one banner with the aim of unifying the effort and preventing it from being duplicated.
Observers believe that without regional pressure, it would not have been possible to unite these factions, which have nothing in common and are in fact considered to have contradictory thoughts and methods. It should be noted that the same forces and countries that stood behind the formation of the Islamic Front late last year are the same ones today who stood behind the formation of the unified “jihadist Shura Council” in the eastern region. The goal is the same: to fight ISIS, polish the image of the factions and show that they are fighting terrorism.
There have been different opinions about why the Shura Council was formed. Some said it was a media stunt to boost morale. This theory is based on the fact that all the factions that signed on had already been fighting ISIS, and therefore forming the council would make no difference on the ground. Others said that forming the council portends a major escalation in Deir ez-Zor soon, and that this escalation will be a major offensive led by the council to break the siege on Deir ez-Zor and then to attack ISIS in its Raqqa bastion.
But the most important point not mentioned by those theories, according to sources, is the relationship between the formation of the Shura Council and the “revolutionary honor code” signed two weeks ago by five factions, including the Islamic Front. They said the “revolutionary honor code” is not a minor step in the history of the Syrian crisis, but is a foundation stone to build a united front of Islamist factions having different currents and designed to compete with Jabhat Thuwwar Suria and its allies, which have started to gain the trust of the West and the supporting countries, and also to fight ISIS, a fight that has become a top priority at this stage.
This is likely because announcing the Shura Council’s formation coincided with an important message by Abu Maria al-Qahtani to both al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, two groups that have been bickering about the “revolutionary honor code.” There was a disagreement between Qahtani and al-Nusra leaders in the south about the honor code. In his message, Qahtani didn’t criticize the honor code and asked both sides to sit down with each other, pointing out that what happened doesn’t spoil the relationship. But “al-Nusra’s mufti in Daraa,” Sami al-Aridi, characterized the honor code as “prostration and weakness.”
There is no doubt that sending a message about the honor code hours before the announcement of the Shura Council’s formation points to a link between the two. It also shows that there are differences within al-Nusra about the position toward the honor code and its signatories.
The formation of the Shura Council raises questions about the fate of the factions in it, especially “Jabhat al-Nusra in the eastern region.” Does the council’s formation mean that the factions merged and that their names and independent presence has ended, or that they formed an alliance?
Although the statement did not clarify that point, historical experience indicates that factions forming a joint body eliminates their independent presence and integrates them into the new entity under a new name and a new symbol. That’s what al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi, did when he founded the mujahedeen Shura Council. It eliminated the previous name of the organization, Qaeda al-Tawhid wal Jihad.
So, has al-Nusra abandoned its branch in the east to form the Shura Council? Did Jabhat al-Nusra in the east dissolve inside the new council? Or is it the start of an attempt by al-Qaeda to dominate the factions in the council while avoiding its errors in Iraq, which led to permanently removing al-Qaeda from among the effective actors there?
Twelve of the largest armed factions in the eastern region agreed to form what they called “the Shura Council of the Mujahedeen of the Eastern Area.” That name was shortened to the acronym Mishmish, taking the first letter of each word in Arabic. Mishmish was formed to face the current phase and “the great challenges now threatening the eastern region in general, especially the city of Deir ez-Zor, which is under siege from all sides,” according to the video statement announcing the council’s formation.
The factions that signed the statement are: Jabhat al-Nusra in the eastern region, the Army of Islam, Ahrar al-Sham, the Army of Ahl al-Sunni wal Jamaa, Jabhat al-Asala wal Tanmiya, al-Qaaqaa, Jabhat al-Jihad wal Bina, Bayareq al-Shaaitat, Liwa al-Qadisiya, the Army of Maoata al-Islami, the Army of al-Ikhlas and the Muhajirin and al-Ansar Brigade.