Ahrar al-Sham has joined the controversy regarding Jabhat al-Nusra possibly breaking off with al-Qaeda. A very prominent Ahrar al-Sham leader harshly criticized al-Nusra for sticking with al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, Daraa was in for a major shock following the latest statement from the Islamic Muthanna Movement recognizing the legitimacy of the “pledges of allegiance” toward the Islamic State (IS) in the areas IS controls.
Muthanna’s statement raised the tension that prevailed late last year as a result of the clashes between Jabhat al-Nusra and the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade because of doubts regarding the latter’s pledging allegiance to IS.
Muthanna, one of the most powerful armed factions in Daraa, issued an ambiguous statement that renewed concerns and doubts about whether IS has penetrated the ranks of fighting groups in the south, especially that the statement coincided with violent clashes that broke out between Muthanna and Liwa al-Mutaz Billah, which is affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Tafas, west of Daraa.
Without any introductions, Muthanna issued the statement, which recognized the pledges of allegiance toward IS in areas under IS control. This means that if IS takes control of parts of Daraa, then the people present there, both civilians and gunmen, would have a duty to pledge allegiance to IS. This has caused the leaders of the armed factions to suspect that there may have been a secret “pledge of allegiance” or that the statement paves the way for one in the future.
It was not to Muthanna’s benefit that it mentioned in its statement the failure to “achieve the purposes of the imamate — mainly to establish a caliphate — because the people of jihad had not been consulted.” This statement did not really help Muthanna because its recognition that the pledges of allegiance were legitimate in the areas of IS control makes that statement without effect on the ground, especially since the movement had expressed admiration vis-a-vis the way IS is fighting the “states of infidelity and their associates, the apostates, and has achieved [spite] on God’s enemies.”
Muthanna had issued a previous statement that was in line with the approach pioneered by IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, wherein it declared war on Liwa al-Mutaz Billah because the latter has “corrupted the earth” and accused it of cutting off the road for the mujahedeen during the campaign waged by the Syrian army in the southern region.
Indeed, there have been violent clashes between the two sides on Sunday-Monday night. The clashes caused several deaths and wounded others. Muthanna took control of the Liwa al-Mutaz Billah headquarters and arrested a large number of its elements and of its supporters among the civilians.
Cautious calm has prevailed in the city of Tafas after the cessation of hostilities, but anything can happen, especially as Jabhat al-Nusra had declared war on the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade because it suspected that the latter had a link with IS. So, when a group explicitly declares that it recognized IS’ legitimacy, Jabhat al-Nusra’s reaction would not be any less violent. It should be noted that the problem with the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade is not over yet and may restart as a result of the arrest of Abu Abada al-Homsi from the Iman Brigades Gathering. An escalation in Daraa is highly likely in the future.
In addition, Abu al-Abbas al-Shami (Mohammad Ayman Abul Tout), head of the Islamic Front’s Sharia Council and a founder of Ahrar al-Sham, criticized Jabhat al-Nusra for “dwarfing the Damascene arena” and trying to monopolize it. He also criticized the decision of Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammad al-Joulani to declare his attachment to al-Qaeda.
In an unprecedented intimation that carries a lot of implications in terms of the relationship between the parties and how they view one another, Shami wondered, “Didn’t IS emerge from al-Nusra’s womb? [...] We advised [Jabhat al-Nusra], more than a year before IS emerged, to address the [radicalism] before it turns into a ticking time bomb in Damascene jihad. But they didn’t do so. And what happened, happened.”
This fierce attack from a high-level leader came in response to the position taken by Jabhat al-Nusra’s Sharia official, Sami al-Aridi, in which he rejected Jabhat al-Nusra breaking off from al-Qaeda. That position was repeated in a formal statement from his leadership. The statement explained the details of the negotiations about Jabhat al-Nusra breaking off from al-Qaeda in exchange for receiving support from the Gulf.
Shami pointed out that had Joulani not pledged allegiance to the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri, at the time, Jabhat al-Nusra would have had no significant presence because most of its fighters would have gone to IS, pointing out that “Joulani needed legitimacy, and the latter was given through al-Qaeda.”
It should be noted that although Shami no longer holds any official position in Ahrar al-Sham after his resignation following the killing of the movement’s leaders, he still holds strong influence on the movement’s new senior leaders and many in the rank and file by virtue of him being the actual founder of the movement. So Shami’s attack on al-Nusra — although he does not represent Ahrar al-Sham’s official position — reflects the opinion of a significant current within Ahrar al-Sham.
This is not the first public debate of its kind between the two parties. A similar debate occurred when Ahrar al-Sham signed the “Revolutionary Honor Charter,” when Aridi criticized the signatories, calling them liars and cowards. It was the first time that differences between the two parties became public. They previously sought to keep their differences under wraps so as not to leave any repercussions on the raging military developments.
The new squabbling revealed another dimension of the hidden dispute between the two parties, amid the growing tension between them. The tension was caused by the killing of Yaqoub al-Omar and by al-Nusra’s manipulation of the investigation. Jabhat al-Nusra then executed Abu Obeida, a Sharia emir with Ahrar al-Sham, on the charge of murdering Omar. Jabhat al-Nusra investigated Abu Obeida and found statements from him on the Internet.
However, Abu Obeida’s confessions, which were used to justify his execution, were questioned when Jabhat al-Nusra recently published a video showing the leader of Harakat Hazm (Hazm movement), Abu Abdullah al-Kholi, admitting to killing Omar. This sparked a wave of anger against Hazm, not only by Ahrar al-Sham and Hazm supporters, but also by Abu Maria al-Qahtani, who called for the formation of a neutral committee to investigate the murder. The repercussions of the matter are still ongoing and may lead to unintended developments.