Sporadic observations on the Syrian Civil War

Month: January, 2014

Discussion of Aymenn J. Al-Tamimi’s Latest Article

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’.[1] 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.[2]

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.[3] 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’.[4] 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).[5] 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’.[6] 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.[7]


On Hassan Abboud’s Latest Speech

I have heard it said that Abboud holds a degree in Arabic Literature and his speech seems to bear this out. As far the composition of announcements, proclamations and speeches made during the Syrian Civil War go, his is certainly in the top tier. His oratorical skills are surprisingly good, much unlike the timid personality he conveys during interviews. Now to the content.

The speech is about the recent rebel infighting between ISIS on the one hand, and most of the other active factions on the other. It is also a response to Dr Abdullah al-Muheisini’s (https://twitter.com/mhesne) initiative (https://twitter.com/mobadratalomah) to put an end to the intra-rebel fighting. Al-Muheisini – whose personal webpage displays his photo in its banner with light rays emanating out of it – an iconographic display he certainly disproves of –   announced his initiative on 23rd January in which he called for all warring parties to stop fighting and agree, by consensus, to a group of judges to arbitrate between them. It was later embraced by several other prominent jihadi ideologues (http://www.aksalser.com/?page=view_articles&id=0b44977776e785b59824f19e4063584f), and by Jabhat an-Nusra, the SRF, the Sham al-Islam Movement and al-Mujahideen Army.

Abboud starts by listing a set of injustices he claims his faction had suffered on the hands of ISIS. Examples include the murder of Abu Ubaida al-Binshiy: an aid worker with Ahrar ash-Sham who was arrested by ISIS along with a Malaysian aid convoy and subsequently shot to death while trying to escape, although ISIS disputes this (http://www.dawaalhaq.com/?p=8114); the beheading of Ahrar member Muhammad Fares in what appeared to be a case of mistaken identity; a dispute in Maskana that ended with ISIS taking over the town and the arrest, torture and killing of several Ahrar members including – what was to become a catalyst for the infighting – Abu Rayyan. A picture of the latter’s dead body bearing signs of severe disfigurement indicative of torture circulated on Facebook and Twitter eliciting outrage and incredulity at ISIS.

Abboud moves on and claims that when the fighting commenced, Ahrar ash-Sham did not actively partake in the conflict but, to the contrary, tried to mediate and stem any escalation between remnants of the FSA (under new names) and ISIS – blocking back up convoys for both parties. Ahrar had also opened up their centres and houses for any ISIS members looking for a way not to participate in the fight and to remain neutral.

Ahrar’s ‘non-alignment’, however, did not pay off. ISIS soon arrested some of their members who were going to the frontlines in Aleppo to fight Assad forces. It also overtook their command centres and confiscated their weapons. In Raqqa, around 100 Ahrar members refused to fight ISIS and demanded, instead, that they be allowed to leave to Deir Azzour. ISIS initially agreed to this but ended up executing them to the man (https://twitter.com/HassanAbboud_Ah/statuses/422770031412654080). Naturally, ISIS claims they did not execute a single Ahrar member in Raqqa. ISIS also sent several suicide bombers to Ahrar centres.

ISIS then, according to Abboud, launched a propaganda campaign against all the other factions claiming that local fighters from different militias had been attacking al-Muhajereen (foreign fighters) – who constitute the bulk of ISIS’ rank and file – and their families, going as far as, in some cases, raping their wives. ISIS’ PR efforts, as Abboud explains, attempted to pit local fighter against their foreign counterparts. He is deeply hurt by these claims and says that they had always welcomed the foreign fighters, ‘cheered their arrival and viewed the advent of the finest people among all whom Allah had created as a positive sign’. He gives some evidence to counter ISIS’ allegations, such as prominent Jihadi ideologues refuting them and the fact that al-Anbari (Baghdadi’s second-in-command) entrusted many foreign families to the care of local militias.

In addition to this, we are told by Abboud, ISIS had set the lowest possible threshold for infidelity ever encountered among Muslims. Here he is referring to ISIS branding the Northern Storm Brigade (NSB) as infidels for meeting with John McCain and taking pictures with him. This is not entirely accurate as ISIS cites other reasons for their ruling, including the NSB cooperating with foreign intelligence services and harbouring a spy who was filming their headquarters (http://eaworldview.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/BU2cwR5CQAASrPa.jpg). They also do not use the word ‘infidel’ and leave room for repentance.

Despite all the reasons he had just elaborated, Abboud says that Ahrar ash-Sham are still willing to conduct debates with ISIS to determine the theological legitimacy of all these actions and positions. He is keen to stress the victimhood of his movement, as this makes any subsequent actions they may take against ISIS fall into the category of self-defence. He is still unwilling to start an all-out war against them and says that they will avoid any battle that can be avoided. This he explains as a means of directing as much of their effort as possible to fighting Assad. However, for him any attack by ISIS that ends up standing in the way of their fight against Assad, or ends up hurting civilians constitutes ‘a red line’ – an unavoidable battle.

Finally, he welcomes Muhaysini’s initiative, and says that any ISIS member who repents becomes ‘our dear brother’ and that Sharia law is the supreme arbiter in determining guilt. He concludes with a few words to the opposition’s coalition to Geneva: ‘History is made by the honourable stances that men take. We remind those who are after transient things [money], who are wasting their time in a lowly barter that leads to the selling out of the blood of martyrs and the turning of the tragedies of our blockaded and homeless people into a commodity, that those people did not authorize the carrying out of these negotiations. Put your papers away and go back. Tyrants, and especially Bashar al-Assad, only understand the language of bullets and guns’.

In conclusion, it is interesting to note that Abboud speaks for Ahrar as-Sham, not for the Islamic Front (IF). Other factions – such as the Islam Army and Suqour ash-Sham – in the IF have taken a much stronger stance against ISIS. The very fact that each constituent of the IF needed to determine their own separate position regarding Muhaysini’s initiative and ISIS indicates that integration within the IF is far from well underway, and that the IF is still a nominal entity – a federation more than a centralised body.