I would like to briefly discuss a particular point in Aymenn J. Al-Tamimi’s latest article – ‘The Dawn of the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham’. Although only a peripheral point in the essay, if passed without critical examination, it has the potential of leading to some significantly off-the-mark conclusions. Towards the end of the article, Tamimi comments on the recent rebel infighting in Northern Syria noting that
[the] fighting has been spontaneous and opportunistic, rather than a pre-planned initiative against ISIS. For example, the murder of Abu Rayyan provoked widespread demonstrations in northern Syrian towns against ISIS, thereby allowing members of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and the Jaysh al-Mujahideen to exploit the opportunity to attack ISIS. The squabbling that ensued dragged Islamic Front fighters into the conflict. [There is also] a degree of localization to these clashes: Ahrar ash-Sham fighters still collaborate with ISIS on the Qamishli front against the YPG, and some Ahrar ash-Sham affiliates (e.g. in Tel Abyad) refuse to fight ISIS. Likewise, Jabhat al-Nusra tries to play a mediating role in Damascus and Idlib provinces and to protect ISIS fighters in Qalamoun.
According to Tamimi, then, the violence is localised and is instigated at that level by particular events which the party wishing to start the fight takes advantage of for that purpose. True as it is, recent reports suggest that facts exceed this characterisation particularly where the absence of a ‘pre-planned initiative against ISIS’ and the ‘spontaneous’ nature of the clashes are concerned. Ruth Sherlock reports for the Telegraph that various rebel factions have received weapons and cash from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, as well as financial assistance from the US amounting to $2 million a month, to support their fight against ISIS. She quotes one rebel commander as saying ‘[e]veryone is offering us funding to fight [ISIS]. […] We used to have no weapons with which to fight the regime, but now the stocks are full’. A source involved in the distribution of non-lethal aid as well as arms to the rebels explains that ‘Qatar sent arms first. Saudi Arabia didn’t want to be out done, so one week before the attack on ISIS, they gave 80 tons of weaponry, including heavy machine guns’ (emphasis mine). This makes it not unreasonable to conclude that the delivery of arms – earmarked for use against ISIS – antedates the eruption of hostilities and suggests a pre-existing plan to counter ISIS’ growing influence. According to Sherlock’s sources a meeting in Turkey, in late December, took place between Saudi and American officials and senior rebel leaders. ‘They talked about the fighting with ISIS, and the Americans encouraged the commanders to attack’. In particular, two rebel groups – the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and the Army of Islam – have been involved in continued coordination with the CIA, Saudi and Qatari intelligence.
However rudimentary, pre-planning and coordination between different rebel groups on the one hand, and between rebels and regional and Western intelligence agencies on the other, then, did take place for the explicit purpose of fighting ISIS. This is not to say that particular incidences (e.g. the torture and murder of Abu Rayyan) were not used by those rebel groups as public casus belli to justify the attacks. Neither is it to say that similar incidences, going as far back as ISIS’ formation, were not the actual casus belli that propelled the rebels to cooperate with foreign parties against ISIS. Their recent operations against ISIS help the rebels project and solidify an image of ‘moderation’ viewed against ISIS’ extremism. It might be one of the reason why the Obama administration has decided to officially resume non-lethal aid to rebel-held areas, and why it is considering resuming direct aid to the SNC.