The Syrian Civil War appears to be becoming increasingly three-way (four-way if you count the Kurds). The Islamic State of Iraq and as Sham assassinated Ahrar al Sham’s chief humanitarian aid worker on Sept. 11, apparently in keeping with an operational strategy voiced by Ayman al Zawahiri the next day. On Sept. 12, Zawahiri issued a statement in which he warned the Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria, the Al Nusra Front and Islamic State of Iraq and as Sham, that the United States would try to push them into alliances with more secular groups backed by the Gulf States and the West. He said, “I warn my brothers and people in the Syria of unity and jihad against coming close to any of these groups.” Just how much actual influence Zawahiri has over the Emirs of either Al Nusra or ISIS is open to question, but it is apparent that they have no intention of allying with any group that doesn’t fit their philosophy of jihad.
To accentuate the differences, fighting broke out in Boukamal, a village in the east of Syria that was one of the initiation points for the rebellion, on Friday, Sept. 20. Reportedly, elements of the FSA and other more moderate groups commandeered the local mosque loudspeakers to demand that the Al Qaeda elements leave the city. Boukamal’s place in the history of the rebellion so far has made it a major symbolic location, explaining the Al Qaeda attempt to establish themselves there. In doing so, they establish their primacy in the rebellion.
The ISIS response to the demand was a car bomb that killed the brother of Saddam al Gamal, a commander of the Allahu Akhbar Brigades, affiliated with the FSA. Gamal’s men counterattacked on Sunday, killing at least four ISIS fighters.
The FSA has so far tried to avoid directly clashing with Al Qaeda’s affiliates, reportedly wanting to wait until the Assad regime is gone before mopping up the more radical Salafist fighters. Recent events have possibly rendered that strategy unworkable, especially with the events of Sept. 24.
On Sept. 24, 11 rebel groups signed a statement rejecting the Syrian National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army, calling for shariah in Syria. The announcement of the agreement was made by Abd al Aziz Salamah, the head of Liwa al Tawhid. He said, “These forces and factions call on all military and civilian organizations to unite under a clear Islamic framework, set forth by the magnanimity of Islam, operating on the basis that Sharia is the arbiter of governance and making it the sole source of legislation.”
The signatories include the Al Nusra Front, Ahrar al Sham, Liwa al Tawhid, Liwa al Islam, the Suqur al Sham Brigades, the Al Fajr Islamic Movement, Al Noor Islamic Movement, Noor al Din al Zanki Battalions, the Fastaqim Kama Umirta Group, the 19th Division, and Liwa al Ansar. Liwa al Tawhid, the Suqur al Sham Brigades, and the 19th Division are all some of the largest Free Syrian Army units. Their rejection of the FSA is a serious blow to that organization.
The ISIS, interestingly, was not a signatory; perhaps a sign of their continuing squabble with Al Nusra, as well as enmity with Ahrar al Sham after the assassination of Abu Obeida?
Salamah accused the Syrian National Coalition of being outside the front lines and therefore unable to represent the Syrian people.
The growing radicalization of the insurgency is a cause for alarm for many, including Ahmad Jarba, the head of the Syrian National Coalition. In a recent statement, he accused the Islamists of “hijacking our revolution,” and even went so far as to suggest that the regime is supporting them. This appears absurd in the face of the situation as it stands, but Jarba appears to be fixated on overthrowing Assad as the only possible solution, going so far as to say, “There is no horizon for the Syrians before the fall of the regime. When it goes, Syrians will regain their freedom and civil peace and harmony will be restored.”
Given the infighting between Islamist groups, other Islamist groups, and the FSA, this seems unlikely.