Gang warfare in Jihadi-land

The collapse of central government in Syria will doubtless be resolved before too long, but any accommodation will have little bearing on the wider Islamist ambitions of the jihadists who have battened on Syria’s troubles to advance agendas of their own.

Al- Qaida linked fighters in Syria. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Al- Qaida linked fighters in Syria.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
They love death so much, these Islamist extremists, that they have taken to practicing it on each other. Not content with inducing young people to blow themselves up, or with slaughtering innocent civilians who happen to get in their way, they have turned on themselves. Like Chicago in the 1920's, rival gangs are scrabbling for supremacy in the lawless, free-for-all battleground that is today’s Syria. At least 2,300 rebels and jihadists have been slain in the past month battling each other in that benighted country.
The rebel infighting erupted in early January 2014 between a loose alliance of moderates and Islamists on one hand, and on the other, the violent and ruthless jihadist group, the 'Islamic State of Iraq and Syria', commonly known as ISIS.
ISIS fighters triggered the war-within-the-civil-war by carrying out a string of assassinations of high-profile rebel commanders. Disputes over territory and the division of captured and smuggled weapons added fuel to the fire.
Then, on Sunday, February 23, 2014, Abu Khalid al-Suri, a senior al-Qaida operative and one-time confidant of Osama bin Laden, was killed by a suicide bomber. Reuters reported that during fratricidal fighting near Aleppo, five members of ISIS entered the headquarters of Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist brigade that al-Suri helped set up, and as four of them fought with guards, one ISIS fighter blew himself up. He took al-Suri and half-a dozen of al-Suri’s colleagues with him to the paradise and the 72 virgins he had been promised for martyring himself.
According to Western intelligence agencies, al-Suri worked for Osama bin Laden from at least the 1990's, and had been appointed by current al-Qaida leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as his personal envoy to mediate disputes among followers in the Syrian rebel movement. The group al-Suri helped found, 'Ahrar al-Sham', is now one of the most powerful factions in Syria, but is at violent odds with ISIS, which was formally disowned by Al-Qaida’s top brass in Pakistan earlier in February.
“ISIS is not a branch of al-Qaida” ran Zawahiri’s statement, posted on jihadist websites, “and we have no organizational relationship with it.” As a result, it added, al-Qaida is no longer responsible for the “actions and behaviors” of ISIS, which has been fighting a bloody campaign against other rebel groups in Syria while imposing strict Islamic law on the parts of Syria it controls, often executing people it finds to be insufficiently pious.
ISIS is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who envisages carving out his own caliphate stretching across the Levant. Some analysts believe al-Baghdadi caused particular offense to core al-Qaeda by describing himself as the “Emir of All Believers,” implying that he was the regional emir, a position that al-Zawahiri appointed al-Suri to in May 2013.
ISIS was immediately blamed by Ahrar al-Sham for al-Suri’s assassination, unleashing furious arguments between supporters of each on the social media sites used obsessively by many jihadist groups in Syria.
Al-Suri’s killing is further evidence that ISIS leader al-Baghdadi has no intention of caving in to al-Qaida’s top leadership, and aims to maintain the gang warfare that is fracturing the jihadist movement. Incidentally, this represents the biggest challenge it has faced since US special forces disposed of bin Laden.
“This is going to make the infighting worse,” says Akram al-Halabi, spokesman for the Islamic Front, a coalition of half-a-dozen Islamist brigades, some which have links with al-Qaida. He is right.
According to Thomas Joscelyn of the US-based think tank ‘The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies’: “The longer al-Baghdadi lasts, the stronger ISIS becomes as a rival to the al-Qaida-backed groups. This has turned into a full-fledged blood feud.”
ISIS is not having it all its own way, however. Just weeks ago ISIS, which claims tens of thousands of fighters among its ranks, appeared as the dominant military force in northern Syria. More recently, though, its attempt to impose the severest form of Sharia law in the areas under its control, as well as its public executions, and the unutterable brutality with which its deals with its opponents, have turned opinion against it.
Islam Aloush, spokesman for the Islamic Front, a new more moderate grouping of anti-Assad interests, told CNN that ISIS’s activities had become unacceptable and has generated a backlash. Recently, rebels besieged at least 100 ISIS fighters at a police station used as a base by the group in the key Salheen neighborhood of Aleppo. Elsewhere in the province, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, ISIS surrendered bases and withdrew from towns and villages.
"ISIS cannot withstand the losses they are taking and the numbers now held as prisoner of war," said Aloush, claiming that his organization, the Islamic Front, far outnumbered ISIS. The Islamic Front boasts an estimated 40,000 fighters, making it probably the single largest rebel command.
In Raqqah, the first provincial capital under rebel control, full-scale fighting resulted in losses for ISIS on February 18. Just a day earlier insurgents freed at least 50 people held in an ISIS detention facility, while further to the west, in the Zawiya Mountain region, rebels executed at least 34 foreigner jihadists from ISIS.
According to CNN all this infighting further complicates matters for international observers such as the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which announced in January that it will cease updating the death toll for the Syrian civil conflict. It can no longer verify the sources of information that led to its last count of at least 100,000 in July 2013 nor, it said, could it endorse anyone else's count, including the widely quoted figures from the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Their latest tally is more than 130,000 killed in violence in Syria since March 2011.
Rebel infighting, marked, as gang warfare invariably is, by seesawing fortunes, will probably continue, regardless of any outcome to the main Syrian civil conflict. The collapse of central government in Syria will doubtless be resolved before too long, one way or another, but any accommodation would have little bearing on the wider Islamist ambitions of the jihadists who have battened on Syria’s troubles to advance agendas of their own. This seems to be a battle without an end.
The writer is the author of One Year in the History of Israel and Palestine (2011) and writes the blog “A Mid-East Journal” (