Asenior figure in the Free Syrian Army said this week that al-Qaida in Syria is
preparing to declare an “Islamic state” in rebel-held northern Syria.
announcement came in the course of a frenetic period of activity for the jihadi
rebels of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Jabhat al- Nusra
Such jihadi activity is leading to the emergence of new
and complicated lines of conflict in northern Syria, both within
rebel-controlled areas and beyond them.
In the last weeks, jihadi rebels
in Syria have assassinated a number of commanders of the Free Syrian Army. These
included a member of the Western backed Supreme Military Council, Kamal Hamami,
and FSA battalion commander Fadi al-Qash, together with one of his
The FSA holds ISIS commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi responsible
for the killings and is demanding his arrest.
The jihadis also clashed
this week with Kurdish fighters in the area of Ras al-ain/Sere Kaniyeh, on the
border with Syria. These clashes began after Jabhat al-Nusra fighters attacked a
convoy guarded by female fighters of the Kurdish YPG militia. The YPG’s response
has led to the near expulsion of the jihadis from the Kurdish majority
Tensions between the jihadis and other armed elements in northern
Syria are now at an unprecedented peak. There are also indications of wider
discontent with jihadi activities among the civilian population in the
The jihadis have a reputation for non-corruption
and a murderous commitment to the fight against government forces. Despite these
aspects, it appears that the rigidity and oppressiveness of their version of
Islamic rule is provoking a backlash.
In Raqqa, the largest town under
rebel control, demonstrations have taken place against the attempts by Jabhat
al-Nusra and the more locally oriented Salafis of Ahrar al-Sham to impose their
version of Islamic rule. Youthful inhabitants of Raqqa, including many who were
activists against the Bashar Assad regime and who welcomed the expulsion of the
regime from the area, are now engaged in the protests against the new jihadi
rulers of the town.
Amid the deteriorating relations between the FSA and
the jihadis, there are those who claim that at least some elements of the
jihadis are in contact with the regime, and that their Syrian fighters include
those who in the past fought with pro- Assad militias.
this type should not simply be dismissed as the usual Middle Eastern conspiracy
Certainly, it is the case that in the pre-2011 period, the
Assad regime was expert in manipulating and directing the energies of Sunni
jihadis for its own ends.
Damascus airport, for one, famously became a
hub for jihadis seeking to reach Iraq to take part in the fighting against US
forces. The Assad regime also created a puppet Islamist group in Lebanon, the
Fatah al-Islam group, to further its aim of destabilizing that country after
Syrian troops were expelled in 2005.
So it is quite possible that the
regime is in contact with and possibly directing some elements among the jihadis
engaged in Syria. The jihadis serve the regime’s narrative that it is engaged in
fighting against mainly foreign terrorists, and thus help to discredit Assad’s
But at the same time, it would be equally mistaken to assume
that this is the whole story. ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra are not puppet
organizations. They remain, demonstrably, among the most fierce of the regime’s
The veracity of the statements by the unnamed FSA commander
concerning the imminent declaration of statehood by then-jihadis also remains
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a UK-based researcher who monitors
jihadi statements and activity in Syria for the Jihadology website, said that he
had found “nothing on ISIS pages to corroborate the idea of a planned
declaration for a northern state in Syria after Ramadan,” as asserted by the FSA
Tamimi, however, did not rule out the possibility that ISIS
could be planning such a move, given its “expansion” in northern Syria and its
rule in certain areas.
It is possible that the release of these claims
forms part of a prelude to retaliatory action by FSA elements in Syria against
the jihadis. Certainly, sources close to the rebels confirm that they view such
a clash to be an eventual inevitability.
It should also be noted that
ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra are themselves involved in a lengthy feud of their own,
over who is the authentic representative of al-Qaida in Syria.
in northern Syria, in addition to the war between the Assad regime and the
rebellion, there are at least three additional, discernible conflicts taking
The al-Qaida-supporting jihadis are fighting the Kurdish defense
The jihadis are also engaging in the killing of other rebel
leaders, and anti-jihadi oppositionists are organizing against them in the areas
Lastly, the jihadis are also in dispute with one another,
though not (yet) violently.
It is also possible, given the Assad regime’s
track record and its interests, that some among the jihadi ranks are linked to
Thus, in addition to metastasizing beyond its borders, the
Syrian civil war is also giving birth to a variety of new conflicts within the
It is wars within wars – and no end in sight.
main victims of all this are, of course, the people of Syria.