It was not a coincidence that the fourth anniversary of the Syrian crisis has come in tandem with a highly significant event: Jabhat al-Nusra cleaning the clock of the Hazm movement. As the war enters its fifth year, the moderation of its American version is fading, while extremism takes central stage with a supply of ammunition from the warehouses of "moderate" groups.
The year 2014 aptly deserves the title of the "year of extremism," not only in Syria, but also on the regional and international level. The threat of extremism is no longer limited to the Syrian scene, but has become transnational, moving through countries and feeding on the smell of blood and oil.
This year witnessed enough events to deserve this title, mainly the Islamic State (IS) announcement of the caliphate state on April 29, 2014 — a step that reversed the course of history back 90 years or so.
When the Syrian crisis began in the spring of 2011, ignited by a movement that, according to organizers, aimed at calling for freedom and democracy, intellectuals expressed doubts at the time. They said that the movement was extracting the seed of extremism and threatening to spread chaos and destruction. Their arguments were based on the absence of a founding ideology and a command able to control the movement and prevent chaos. No one really thought that events would develop as such, to the extent of announcing a caliphate state, stealing history, destroying heritage, and besmirching Islam in such an unprecedented way.
The first parties to carry arms in Syria were Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar ash-Sham. Since the beginning, neither faction objected to the attribution of their operations to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) by the media. Supporting and funding countries wanted for the FSA to be the facade of moderation and democracy, all while the command of both factions considered it a mere tool that could be used until the main goal was achieved: ousting the regime. After that, they would cross the next bridge when they came to it.
Although both factions had a non-homogeneous Islamic aspect, they had disparities, mainly that Jaysh al-Islam, which has a closeted Salafist jihadist penchant, limited its operations to inside Syria. Ahrar ash-Sham, however, which has a more stark Salafist nature, had goals that go beyond Syria: to reach the Levant. This was clearly expressed by its previous leader Hassan Abboud in an interview with Al Jazeera, when he showed desires to remove all borders between countries.
Given its stark jihadist nature, along with a purposeful display of this nature, Ahrar ash-Sham was able to attract the first foreign fighters to its ranks. It is no longer assumptive to say that the majority of Jabhat al-Nusra and IS commanders fought in the first year of the Syrian crisis under the flag of Ahrar ash-Sham. These commanders were promoted directly by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri. It has become known that the latter circulated a decision stipulating that the presence of al-Qaeda and its members be kept strictly secret in Syria as he did not wish for the name of al-Qaeda to constitute an impediment.
It is still unknown why al-Qaeda members split from Ahrar ash-Sham and formed their own entity under the name of Jabhat al-Nusra at the end of 2011, in tandem with Abu Mohammad al-Julani entering Syria after being delegated by the commander of Iraq’s IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to support the people of Sham. The sensitivities that accompanied this split indicated that it was not premeditated, but leveraged by disputes between both parties. Although its nature and reasons remained under the rug, the split constituted the first occasion to exchange cautious accusations about the formation of the Awakening Movement (The Sahwa force) in Iraq.
Ahrar ash-Sham, with its jihadist nature and transnational project, constituted a fertile ground for Jabhat al-Nusra. The latter was the most fertile ground for the growth of IS and its inception in April 2013. This time, however, the split was fulminous, and ushered in the biggest jihadist strife in the history of these groups.
These splits, and the mutation of every group into one of a more extremist nature, were among the factors that instigated competition and encouraged attempts to acquire the biggest share of influence and control. The commands of these groups were trying to justify the disputes by saying they were "methodological." As such, IS controlled the majority of Raqqa and large swaths of Deir ez-Zor, in addition to the eastern rural area of Aleppo, and different areas in Hasakah, Hama, and Homs, announcing the caliphate state. The latter also included cities that fell under the organization's control in Iraq, mainly Mosul. Jabhat al-Nusra, which became even more extreme after its defeat in the eastern area, sought to found an emirate in northern Syria, while Jaysh al-Islam led by Zahran Alloush was imposing control on eastern Ghouta and breaking the exclusivity of operations inside Syria by mounting offensives against IS in Lebanon's Arsal.
Amid this competition and conflict, the environment proved no longer suitable for the FSA to remain, and was therefore put to death. The task was started by IS, fighting al-Shamal brigade in Azaz and Ahfad al-Rasul in Raqqa. At the end of 2013, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham delivered the FSA a severe blow at Bab al-Hawa border crossing, taking over its weapons warehouses, which were supplied by Arab and Western powers. At the end of 2014, the task was fulfilled by defeating its remaining arms in the north: Jabhat al-Nusra defeated the Syria Revolutionaries Front and the Hazm Movement, taking over their quality weapons supplied by the US, mainly anti-armor missiles.
This conflict that lasted for more than a year and a half could not last much longer without entailing radical changes in the factions that were party to it. When it comes to Ahrar ash-Sham, the movement reconsidered its ideological stands that almost ended in giving up on jihadist Salafism, had not scores of its commanders been killed in an operation that is still shrouded in ambiguity. The movement had to split into two currents, one holding on to Salafism, and the second looking to "repent," as explained by one of its late commanders, Yazan al-Shami.
Jabhat al-Nusra is struggling with decentralization on the level of command. It looks like every branch, particularly in Qalamoun, South, and North of Syria, is split from the other. There is also a continuous dispute imposed by internal and external pressures over the issue of disentangling from al-Qaeda. IS, which surfaced as a more extreme movement, was too preoccupied with clashes on all battlefronts in Iraq and Syria and its losses in large swaths to think about settling its internal disparities. The latter surfaced at times in the form of mysterious arrests and assassinations, or quick trials of its commanders and emirs over accusations of corruption and exaggeration.
These splits among jihadist groups indicate the seriousness of the dilemma that each is experiencing. The most important aspect of the dilemma is that any decision that is made under specific circumstances can lead to a group's destabilization, and subject it to splits. This was clearly exemplified with Jabhat al-Nusra in what concerns disentanglement with al-Qaeda, and with Ahrar ash-Sham in what concerns giving up jihadist Salafism.
The seriousness of the dilemma is further intensified with the conflicts among these groups themselves, inflicting material and human losses that exceed those inflicted during the war with armies, such as the Syrian and Iraq militaries.
As the international coalition against these terrorist organizations — mainly Jabhat al-Nusra and IS — was formed, these groups reached a stalemate and became compelled to accept their dilemma against the backdrop of a regional and international isolation that is tightening its grip, although such isolation is still objected to by some countries for different reasons and interests. The projects of these groups have become nonviable. Even if they hold on, how long can they survive under these complicated circumstances?
In light of these facts, developments and open possibilities provided by the general situation in the region in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Egypt and Nigeria, the main question that can be asked as the Syrian crisis enters its fifth year is: Will the coming year witness an entrenchment of the dilemma of these groups on all levels, leading to an inevitable demise, or will this existential dilemma lead to a third mutation, whose genetics cannot be predicted?
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