Today, a major bombshell dropped in Syria, but it wasn’t dropped from one of Assad’s planes. It was news that the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham (Sham means, roughly, “the Levant,” or “greater Syria” – we’ll just call them ISIS, but they are often just referred to as Al Qaeda in Syria) attacked several Free Syrian Army positions – including the FSA headquarters in Deir Ez Zor, and the entire town of Azaz in northern Aleppo.
I’ll get the disclaimers out of the way first. News on both of these events is highly sketchy. In Deir Ez Zor, some of my sources suggest that what is going on is one step down from a hostage situation, with little bloodshed. According to this narrative, ISIS took control of the headquarters as more of a negotiating tactic than a frontal assault. Other sources deny the report entirely. The bottom line is that very little is known for sure about what’s happening at the moment in Deir Ez Zor.
Azaz is somewhat of a different story. First, I have significantly more contacts who are either in northern Syria or who have contacts in northern Syria. Many journalists have spent a lot of time there (including many whom I’ve been in contact with in the past). They have trusted contacts in many cities and towns. Azaz, a key border town, is known to many of them because they have passed through that area on their way to other areas, and still others have spent time in the town. However, information from the Azaz media center has been cut off today. There are even reports that ISIS openly attacked the media center, killing a prominent activist. My sources reported this to me as a rumor, though it seems that the BBC’s Ian Pannel has more information than I have:
— Ian Pannell (@BBCiPannell) September 18, 2013
Jenan Moussa tweeted out a graphic picture that reportedly showed Hazem, before and after he was reportedly killed by ISIS. CNN has heard similar things about other activists:
Activists tell CNN Al Qaeda-linked ISIS sniper killed Omar Hadouli, head of Azaz Media Center in strategic Syrian town on Turkish border — Ivan Watson (@IvanCNN) September 18, 2013
There are also conflicting reports about the status of the town. Earlier there were many reports that ISIS took the entire town in a gunfight with the FSA, but since then there have been reports that the town has been partially recaptured. Many near the town report that everything is now quiet, indicating a ceasefire might be in place. I could be wrong, but it is my understanding that ISIS is in complete control of the town, which is why, for the moment, the gunfire has stopped. Again, Ian Pannel appears to be hearing the same thing:
There are a lot of things we don’t know, so let’s focus on what we do know. Azaz is the nearest town to the Bab al Salama border crossing. That crossing has now been closed. Here’s the significance, in a nutshell:
Turkish border guards closed entry to Syria via BabElSalama border gate. ambulances streaming out from battle in Azaz between ISIS/FSA.
— Ivan Watson (@IvanCNN) September 18, 2013
Syrians coming to Turkey from Azaz say Al Qaeda/ISIS fighters on verge of capturing main entry gate for internat’l aid from Turkey to Syria
— Ivan Watson (@IvanCNN) September 18, 2013
Here’s what else we know. Tensions have been growing between the moderate Free Syrian Army and the jihadist groups, ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra (JAN). I won’t retrace that entire history at the moment, but I will briefly provide some summary background.
ISIS has been accused of assassinating several FSA leaders, ISIS has clashed with unarmed activists over their support of democracy and freedom of religion. ISIS has led an attack against a Christian stronghold (to the dismay of some moderates), and both ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra have clashed with Kurdish groups. In other words, the list of complaints that the FSA has against ISIS is growing, undermining the pragmatic alliance between moderates and extremists that has existed since last summer.
In recent weeks, however, this tension has been far more palpable. For a great sense of how these tensions are playing out on the ground, it’s worth reading a report from the Bab al Hawa border crossing, written by Michael Weiss who visited the crossing just last week. Weiss found Syrian rebels, particularly those associated with the Al Farouq and Ahrar al Sham brigades, on the verge of open warfare against ISIS. This war, to be clear, would not be the FSA’s choice – but there was a sense that it was about to happen. Weiss also interviewed Lieutenant Colonel Mohammed al-Abboud of the Supreme Military Command of the Free Syrian Army. Abboud is in command of the SMC in Deir Ez Zor, Hassakah, and al Raqqah, areas where tensions between jihadists and moderates are rapidly growing, perhaps to a breaking point. While Abboud said that they were all united by a common enemy, and he hoped their differences could be settled off the battlefield, there is also an underlying theme that violence might be unavoidable:
How long this will last is questionable because a single war has devolved into a series of smaller but significant internecine conflicts. The problem that Abboud and his men face is simple: they cannot fight Assad and al-Qaeda at the same time – at least not yet. And so, he told me, the way of dealing with the latter is to try and foment popular rejection of it through non-martial means. “We want [the Islamic State] to be foiled on the civilian level. Protests are already being held in Mayadin against them.” But the prospect of asking al-Qaeda to pack it up and leave without direct military force is dim indeed. Moreover, the germs of an eventual physical confrontation with such elements are everywhere in Syria now, as conditions “off the battlefield,” as Abboud put it, amply attest.
A day before this interview was conducted, there was a gunfight in Deir Ezzor and Hasaka between Ahfad ar-Rasoul Brigades and the Islamic State, which had weeks earlier expelled the former from Raqqa. Ahfad ar-Rasoul fighters have been fighting the al-Qaeda movement a lot, even allegedly capturing a number of militants whom they say confessed to being agents of Iran and the regime. Some point to the US Treasury Department’s recent sanctioning of Iran-based al-Qaeda network as evidence that Assad’s strongest ally is also in league with his supposed strongest enemy.
In recent days, my sources suggested that the al Farouq Brigade (which has already fought battles against jihadists) and Ahrar al Sham were both on the verge of openly fighting ISIS. Furthermore, other, more moderate, groups were also reaching a breaking point with ISIS. I would caution that local fighting, local behavior, and local ideology are not always shared regionally or nationally, even within groups that share the same name. For instance, while Jabhat al Nusra is at odds with the FSA in Deir Ez Zor and al Raqqah, JAN brigades operated side by side with both Al Farouq and the rest of the FSA in recent campaigns to take Idlib city. In some areas, JAN has a reputation of being more moderate, while in others they are viewed as ruthless jihadists who cannot cooperate with the rest of the FSA. In fact, it is precisely this diversity that may have given rise to ISIS as a distinctly different group than Jabhat al Nusra. Membership in all of these groups is also fluid. Many JAN members are former Al Farouq members, and many Ahrar al Sham members have left JAN. ISIS, however, is the group that has the most uniformly dangerous ideology.
Today’s events may mean that, at least in some regions, the Cold War between jihadists and moderates has exploded. In the next days and weeks, we’ll see if this turns into a nation-wide war. It is far too early to tell, however, and pragmatism may trump ideology. For the first time since the start of the conflict, however, it is possible that it won’t. There is a new sign of escalation, a trump card that could determine the result of this war between ISIS and the FSA. One of Aleppo’s key activist groups has called for the Tawid Brigade to intervene and join the FSA in the fight against ISIS. The Tawid, or “Unity,” brigade was formed specifically to serve as an alliance between moderates and hardline Islamists within the opposition. If the Tawid brigade picks the FSA over ISIS, this would mean that the Syrian opposition is more ideologically unified, and ultimately stronger, than it has ever been. It could also mean an all-out war with extremists within the ranks. The extremists will lose this fight. But at what cost? An insurgency within an insurgency could leave the front lines open for Assad to retake territory. To say nothing of the carnage that such a fight could create.
Now is a critical time for future of #Syria insurgency – if Liwa al-Tawhid meet Asifat al-Shamal’s request for help = major implications.
— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) September 18, 2013
It’s also possible, however, that Tawid will be able to play a moderating role – with the threat of force, they will be able to convince ISIS to stand down.
Al Qaeda, however, is not known for pragmatism. And if this incident has taught us anything, it has taught us that this might only be a temporary truce in an inevitable civil war.
At this hour, several FSA brigades have announced that they have sent reinforcements to the border. And at this moment, sources have informed me that the Tawid Brigade has now arrived on the border. If there is to be a bloodbath between the moderates and the extremists in Syria, it may start soon.