[Marxism] Syria Rebels Turn Against Most Radical Group Tied to Al Qaeda
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Mon Jan 13 07:02:27 MST 2014
NY Times JAN. 12, 2014
Syria Rebels Turn Against Most Radical Group Tied to Al Qaeda
By ANNE BARNARD
BEIRUT, Lebanon — As a government warplane soared over the northern
Syrian city of Raqqa recently, a fighter from the Islamic State of Iraq
and Syria, the country’s most radical group linked to Al Qaeda, watched
from behind an antiaircraft gun mounted on a pickup truck. Fighters and
activists from rival insurgent factions urged him to fire. He did not.
The others were incredulous, recalled one, who supports the Nusra Front,
a rival group that has Al Qaeda’s official stamp of approval as its
representative in the fight against President Bashar al-Assad. But the
man on the truck replied, “We are here to establish the Islamic state,
not to fight Assad.”
Such disputes helped set off the infighting that has swept
insurgent-held northern Syria for the past week, leaving more than 500
dead, as a broad array of factions have turned against the Islamic State
of Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS, in a showdown over tactics, power and
ideology within a Sunni jihadist movement that has drawn fighters from
across the world.
The dispute has reverberated far beyond Syria’s borders, analysts say,
for instance carving the same divisions in the jihadist movement in
Egypt between pragmatists and ideological purists from the austere
In some places, like Raqqa, the fighting has even pitted the two
Qaeda-inspired groups against each other. Nusra’s leaders and supporters
accuse ISIS of the grave error of focusing too soon on building a
radical Islamic state, the ultimate goal for both groups, at the expense
of the war against Mr. Assad. In the process, they say, it has alienated
potential allies, civilians and militants alike.
While many here see the fighting as a wrestling match over the future
character of the rebel opposition, experts say it has many other facets.
“It is a struggle for the heart and soul of jihadism, but it’s also a
dirty little turf war,” said Aron Lund, who studies militant Islam and
edits the Carnegie Endowment’s Syria In Crisis website.
At stake is power in the insurgency and over daily life in rebel-held
northern Syria, where ISIS has sought to impose draconian religious
rules and clamp down on public protest. The outcome is unclear, and
different factions are fighting for different scenarios, whether to
eradicate ISIS or bring it into the fold as more a cooperative
participant in the insurgency.
A decisive victory over ISIS could lift the Syrian opposition ahead of
planned peace talks in Switzerland on Jan. 22, if disparate factions
show a new unity and coordination that they could use to regain momentum
against the government. The timing has prompted speculation that the
coalition of rebel leaders in exile, which has steadily been losing
influence, or its regional and Western backers have encouraged or
supported the fighting.
The exile coalition hopes the battles will persuade the West that the
insurgents, not Mr. Assad, can best stop Al Qaeda from establishing a
base in the country. That security threat has made foreign powers, not
to mention many Syrians, more open to accommodation with the government.
Advocates of increased Western aid to the rebels argue that the fighting
shows that the Islamic Front, a collection of Islamist Syrian groups now
fighting ISIS, is not a Qaeda-like threat. But many of its leaders, and
even some in other groups that nominally answer to the exile coalition,
say they have no quarrel with the main Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front.
Nusra, indeed, could be the main beneficiary of the scuffling. Taking a
more pragmatic approach has helped Nusra recruit many Syrian fighters
and could now enable it to cement alliances, rid itself of a rival for
Qaeda-inspired donations, absorb foreign fighters fleeing ISIS and embed
itself more deeply in society. In trying to mediate the dispute, it has
also set itself up as peacemaker and power broker.
Clothes and character: "American Hustle"
But Nusra has come in for its own share of criticism for clashes with
rebel groups, killing civilians and branding minority Shiites and
Alawites as the enemy. For the West and for secular Syrians, said
Michael Hanna, an analyst at the Century Foundation, “Nusra, because
they are more pragmatic, are a much more intractable problem.”
The picture is further complicated by the fluidity of alliances. In the
highly localized conflict, ISIS and its rivals remain united even now
against Kurdish militias in the northeast. Fighters often switch
factions, not always sharing the views of nominal leaders, and sometimes
Qaeda trappings signify branding more than chain of command.
Some homegrown rebels say they are fighting ISIS to reclaim the
insurgency from extremists and regain trust from supporters who want a
pluralistic Syria. Others say they want to salvage an Islamist movement
stained by the extreme brutality of ISIS and its zeal for attacking
“They call themselves Qaeda because they know the young fighters love
our great sheikh Osama bin Laden,” said Abu Ibrahim al-Masri, an
Egyptian fighter near the central city of Hama. He spoke in a video
announcing that he was defecting from ISIS to Nusra because he had been
ordered to kill civilians and members of the rebel Free Syrian Army
instead of army soldiers and, as he put it, Alawites.
“We came to kill them, not to kill our brothers from the F.S.A.,” he said.
Those sentiments fail to reassure Syria’s religious minorities and
others opposed to Islamic rule in a country long steeped in secular Arab
nationalism. Syrian Muslims who are personally conservative tend to be
more traditional than ideological and open to religious coexistence,
though more and more are being radicalized during the nearly three-year war.
While the Nusra Front has rejected parliamentary democracy, it has also
opposed the autocracy of ISIS in favor of a consultative approach to
decision-making and for putting off politics until after the war, said
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Institute.
The fight mirrors, in some ways, a demand of the original uprisings in
2011 for accountability from the powerful. A broad array of insurgents
say they are simply fed up with the arrogance and abuses of a
foreign-led faction that came late to the war, took over territory
others had wrested from the government and posted street signs declaring
Syrian towns part of its Islamic state. It provided some social
services, but also arrested and executed hundreds of antigovernment
fighters and civilians, and even used suicide bombs against other
On Friday in the northern city of Aleppo, protesters in a district
called Al Bab waved the green, white and black flag of the uprising,
often replaced nowadays with the black flag of jihad. In a scene
reminiscent of early protests against Mr. Assad, they chanted, “Al Bab
is free, ISIS should go. The traitor is the one who kills his own people.”
The next evening, people rushed to find food, even scarcer than usual
because of roads blocked by new fighting, and get home by sunset. A
civilian antigovernment activist, who gave only a first name, Shadi,
said he initially welcomed ISIS, thinking they would be fierce fighters,
but turned against them after they executed a young boy they accused of
insulting the Prophet Muhammad.
“We expected the ISIS fighters to liberate the western part of the
city,” he said, “not deploy their fighters in the liberated areas and
apply their religious rules on people.”
But another Aleppo activist, Thaer, worried that without the iron rule
of ISIS, chaos would worsen. “It will be like Chicago,” he said, in the
days of Al Capone.
A Syrian ISIS fighter, Abu Omar, recuperating from an injury in his
family home nearby, said that the group would keep attacking its rivals.
They were tools of the West, he said. “It is an American order to finish
Reporting was contributed by an employee of The New York Times from
Aleppo, Syria, Karam Shoumali from Istanbul, and Hwaida Saad and
Mohammad Ghannam from Beirut.
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