Overnight,the Emir of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, issued a statement in response to the letter from Al Qaeda Central (AQC) chief Dr. Ayman az Zawahiri. It’s a rebuttal to Dr. Zawahiri’s decree that commanded the Islamic State of Iraq and the Jabhat an Nusra (JN) remain separate entities.
The gist of al Baghdadi’s statement is he abrogates Dr. Zawahiri’s abrogation of the Baghdadi-founded Islamic State of Iraq and Sham(ISIS). Yeah, that sounded about right.
I won’t go into the details, but here are the bullet-points:
1.This is an unprecedented , public disobedience by any AQ affiliate towards the AQ chief. This has never happened after AQ started absorbing local affiliates inside its network.
2. The statement was uploaded on the AQ-approved online forums, but not through either Fajr Information Centre , nor ISI’s traditional Al Furqan Media Foundation. As pointed by my friend Mr0rangetracker, this shows AQC at least has control over its transnational information network.
3.Al Baghdadi isn’t overtly disrespectful to Dr. Zawahiri. But a very important point is when Baghdadi says the ISIS Shura has decided that this State should remain. He is overturning the order of the overall Emir of the transnational jihadist network in favor of the decision of local Shura. This cannot be over-emphasized.
This has evidently enraged many jihadi supporters who wanted less confusion in the Syrian realm. I personally read this whole ISIS affair as an artificially created crisis. Jihadist leaders have been so comfortable in Iraq-Syria due to absence of threat of drone-like assassinations, that they have taken the luxury of indulging in what are basically power struggles.
Some jihadis are saying the ISI leadership has been infiltrated by unnamed foreign intel agencies. Others are accusing the newborn Islamic State of Iraq and Sham being led by GIA-style takfiris.
While we cannot say whether the first claim is true or not, it certainly does not make sense. ISIS , and their Iraqi component has been ruthless in dealing blows after blows to the Maliki troops recently, specially in the North, and in the Anbar deserts. That rules out Maliki, Iran, and the whole Khomenist Shia axis. So what, Turkey ? any GCC state? While certainly possible, there is a far more plausible explanation : power struggle.
Also many JN supporters are accusing Baghdadi and his allies of being takfiris. This doesn’t stand up to facts. ISIS hasn’t called publicly any JN leader or soldier kafir. ISIS hasn’t bombed Muslim(Sunni) populations anywhere, unlike GIA. There has been no reported cases of violence due to this quarrel. ISIS has continued humanitarian activities started by JN like providing bread, water and other essential items to the population under their control in Raqqah , Aleppo. While the GIA remains a classical case of jihadis turned into takfiris, none of similar signs have been seen with ISIS yet.
The picture is like this:in Raqqah, JN and ISIS can be considered one and the same.In Deir ez Zor and Hasakah too, that’s the apparent case. But in Aleppo, it’s clear that JN and ISIS are two distinct entities now, issuing statements using separate names, but clearly co-operating with each other. We haven’t seen presence of ISIS in Idlib yet, but lots of presence of quite militarily successful JN units. In Lattakia, we have seen at least one suicide bombing carried out in name of ISIS; the status of who is who in Lattakia is unclear.
About Hama and Homs(specially in the iconic Battle of Qusayr), so far it seems JN and ISIS labels and banners are being used interchangeably, and so are the claims of responsibility.
In Damascus ISIS carried out at least one suicide bombing in Harasta, though my general understanding is here also JN and ISIS names are used interchangeably. For eg. the attack on the Shia international brigade Liwa Abu Fadl al Abbas was carried out in the name of ISIS.
Deraa is a special case. Long home to a quite cohesive Jordanian jihadi-trained JN unit, they remained separate from the disputes. Jihadis in South are firmly JN.
It is also not entirely correct to categorize this inter-jihadi dispute in terms of foreigner VS local. For example, Al Ghareeb al Muhajer al Qahtani, the chief Sharia judge of Jabhat an Nusra and a prolific tweep, is an Iraqi. But he has maintained quite a pro-status quo ,but stridently anti-strife position. Reports claim that in Aleppo city and countryside, more than 70% of JN fighters joined the ISIS.
But the dynamics of all these defections are quite interesting. Though we have very few details, it’s clear al Baghdadi himself traveled to Aleppo(from Iraq!) and threw the gauntlet of the Game of Thrones inside Syria. He carried out sort of a pincer mobilization(though non-violent) against JN chief al Jolani’s allies in the region. He appointed non-JN jihadi commanders like Omar al Shishani of the powerful Jaish Muhajireen wa Ansar in important positions. A lot of smaller but locally important brigades were absorbed inside ISIS.
In effect, regardless of what AQC and others say, ISIS is a fact on the ground ( to borrow a term from the Israelis )
In the midst of all this, Syrian Islamic Front and its Harakah Ahrar al Sham al Islamiyah group, increasingly appear as the most stable, well performing rebel cluster. They have excellent relations with JN.
While it is easy to think JN and ISIS would be at each other’s throats any time soon, I think they would wait for the enemy Hezbollah and Assad to be sufficiently weakened, before fighting with each other, if a solution isn’t devised. Important to note is that, JN’s Al Manara al Bayda Foundation has come back online, but not ISI’s al Furqan foundation.
What could this mean? The answer, as usual, lies in the near future. And the future is far from predictable.