Syria: A Cold War Deepens Between Jihadis
By: Radwan Mortada
Published Saturday, November 9, 2013
The tug of war between the Islamic militant leaders in Syria reached crisis levels as armed clashes between the“brothers in jihad” raged, despite fatwas prohibiting infighting and efforts by al-Qaeda to unite the factions.
No two informed observers can disagree that Islamic jihadi groups now spearhead the armed rebellion against the Syrian regime. Their experience in organization and combat gave them an edge over other armed opposition factions, giving their project to establish their brand of an Islamic state a real chance, in contrast to the project of other scattered opposition groups to establish a “civil state.”
No two observers can disagree, either, that the quarrel between al-Qaeda commanders over seniority and leadership, since at least April 2013, has benefited the regime. Although this has become apparent in the battlefield, lust for power and leadership has dizzied mediators seeking to reconcile the emir of al-Nusra Front, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, and the emir of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and also the latter with the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Attempts by mediators – many of whom reside in Lebanon – to pull the dispute out of the media failed, with the squabble taking the form of audio recordings and counter recordings. To al-Nusra’s credit, it has so far not reacted, even after ISIS’ fighters seized outposts and weapons caches belonging to the former in Aleppo and Raqqa, not to mention an oil well that ISIS also wrested from al-Nusra’s hands in Deir al-Zour, to avoid a confrontation.
According to Islamist sources, however, mediators have been able to broker a temporary truce, following which quarrels in the media have somewhat subsided. According to the same sources, some of the meetings held by representatives from both sides took place in Lebanon.
In parallel, field commanders in both groups strove to put an end to the dispute over “seniority” among the rank and file, especially after this translated into a sharp split between the Islamic militants, who each accused the other faction’s emir of having committed “the sin of disobeying the real emir.” The first argues that Golani disobeyed his chief Baghdadi when he did not agree to merge al-Nusra with the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) under ISIS. The second argues that it was Baghdadi who was disobedient, when he rejected Zawahiri’s orders to cancel the merger and restore the old groups.
While attempts to keep the dispute among the militants in check partially succeeded, at least on the battlefield, the dispute rages on in the media. Perhaps the sharpest example was a letter titled “From a mujahid to Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri.”
The sender begins his letter by apologizing for addressing the emir publicly, having run out of other options to deliver his message. The sender, who signed the letter with the name “Abu Bakr al-Dimashqi,” did not name any one particular side, but alluded to the practices perpetrated in the areas controlled by ISIS militants. The letter’s author wrote about what he called the “harshness and intimidation of the de facto rulers, who are alienating many Muslims,” citing their all-too-readiness to carry out executions and corporal punishments, sometimes at random.
In the same vein, others have debated and questioned whether Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was eligible to be an imam, and spoke about “ISIS’ deviation from the correct path in light of its practices,” accusing the group of “precipitating the emergence of the sahwa [awakening] groups as a result of its actions,” in reference to the US-funded anti-al Qaeda tribal militias in Iraq.
Baghdadi’s supporters have also been censured for pledging allegiance to an unknown man, as, according to many jihadis, one Sharia-established rule for giving allegiance is that the imam must be well known. Proceeding from this, ISIS’ opponents are questioning Baghdadi’s legitimacy. In response, ISIS issued a brief biography of the “Emir of the Faithful al-Baghdadi,” containing detail abouts his “feats and religious knowledge” to silence skeptics.
ISIS’ supporters, using hadiths, also responded to the accusations against them and defended Baghdadi’s legitimacy and the lawfulness of his appointment, praising his efforts to reestablish the Islamic caliphate. They then justified the brutality of their group by invoking what they termed “the need for a powerful leader that can handle worldly and religious affairs, and subjugate his foes.”
One ISIS supporter argued, “Bin Laden was the leader of one jihadi group among 23 in Afghanistan, and did not gain followers until his actions changed the course of history.” Furthermore, books by an Abi Hammam al-Athari, a jihadi cleric, were published on jihadi forums, urging Islamic militants to pledge allegiance to Baghdadi.
Meanwhile, jihadis on Twitter belonging to both ISIS and al-Nusra have been engaging in fierce arguments, exchanging accusations and questioning each other’s legitimacy. Some supporters of ISIS would even mock operations carried out by al-Nusra, boasting instead of “superior attacks” carried out by ISIS.
Hezbollah and Christians
An audio recording of Saudi cleric Majid al-Majid, emir of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades in the Levant, circulated on jihadi forums, in which Majid tackled the disputes among Islamic brigades in Syria. He called for placing affiliation to the Islamic nation ahead of partisan affiliation, saying that division only benefits the enemies.
Majid dedicated the rest of his message for Lebanese affairs. “Hezbollah and its interests in Lebanon are legitimate targets for us and the rebels,” he said, adding, “The rockets that hit you in the Bekaa, Hermel, and Dahiyeh were only skirmishes.”
The Saudi then addressed other figures, including politicians, calling on them to intervene to withdraw Hezbollah’s fighters from Syria to spare Lebanon from war, and also addressed what he called “Christian gatherings on Hezbollah’s side,” calling on them to distance themselves from the Lebanese resistance group to protect Christian lives.
Majid also singled out the head of Lebanese General Security Abbas Ibrahim, who he said was “working day and night to harass, kill, and detain Sunnis in Lebanon.” He called on Sunni soldiers to leave the Lebanese army since its leadership, he claimed, now answered to Iran.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.