Syrian Salafi Militants: More United, than Divided on Future

A rebel fighter aims his weapon as he stands amidst snow during clashes with Syrian pro-government forces in the Salaheddin neighbourhood of Syria's northern city of Aleppo on December 11, 2013. (Photo: AFP - Medo Halab).

By: Radwan Mortada

Published Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The relationship between al-Nusra Front, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and the Army of Islam is widely reported to be fraught with doubts and suspicions. Indeed, many Islamists mock the latter brigade, calling it the “Army of Films” and accusing it of letting them down on many occasions. However, some al-Nusra commanders revealed that they met with Army of Islam leader Zahran Alloush to work out an “agreement regarding the features of the post-Assad era.”

Al-Nusra and ISIS fighters appear quite different from other Syrian opposition militants: they can easily be identified by their loose beards, trimmed mustaches and shoulder length hair, resembling the cast members of some sort of historical movie. However, they are the most religiously strict and most isolated compared with other armed groups. They don’t like the media and are said to be the most fearless when facing death. ISIS militants are distinguishable from al-Nusra with their black uniforms and full-face masks. Other than that, there is more uniting these two groups than dividing them.

The leaderships of both Islamist groups have contained the discord between their two emirs, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, and prevented it from contaminating their bases. Hence, al-Nusra and ISIS members are currently working side by side in al-Qalamoun. Sources close to both groups told Al-Akhbar: “You shouldn’t believe that there is a large conflict between al-Nusra and ISIS. These are merely small differences, not worth the waste of time.” Some al-Nusra fighters pointed out that “the ISIS is stricter than us, but we don’t consider that as a fault.”

So why don’t they unite into one group? This question has yet to be answered.

This kind of relationship between al-Qaeda and its sisterly militant formation, ISIS, doesn’t necessarily apply to their relations with other armed groups, particularly those affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Islamist militants look at FSA members with suspicion, considering them “bargainers, traitors, and thieves.. except for a few,” while they lack a unified perspective toward other Islamist formations such as the Army of Islam, Ahrar al-Sham (Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant), the Falcons brigade, the Signs of Victory Brigade, and others.

Fighters on the ground say that members of al-Nusra and ISIS are conducting most operations in Qalamoun and Ghouta with the help of some “faithful” brigades, such as the Green Brigade and Ahrar al-Sham, while “everyone knows that Alloush’s army did not fire a single shot.”

“This formation follows the commands of Saudi intelligence directed by Bandar bin Sultan,” they explained. “Its members won’t take any action without an order from the Saudis, and of course, it is no secret that the US influences Saudi intelligence.”

Accusations of treason continue to haunt the Army of Islam; fighters revealed that “al-Nusra is pursuing two of its commanders after they withdrew from the town of Qara without informing the front’s military commander which caused many deaths.” They even said that one of the commanders known as Abu Khaled al-Jabal refused to provide the front with rockets stored in his warehouses, “which drove our fighters to take them by force.”

Some speculate that the Army of Islam is a future Awakening project [like in Iraq]. A jihadi from al-Nusra mused that “you cannot doubt everyone, but the Army of Islam is in fact gathering brigades to play a foreign game, maybe aiming to turn them against al-Qaeda in the future.”

Regarding the Islamic Front, an umbrella for a number of groups, members of ISIS and al-Nusra say that they grouped themselves as one front, but in their hearts they remain scattered. Asked about their ally Ahrar al-Sham, a fighter answered: “May Allah bless them, they are faithful; may Allah sustain them, but they are easily penetrated because they are a movement and not a formation like al-Nusra.”

Sources among the al-Nusra and ISIS commandership say that the jihadis’ statements were correct in the past but maintain that the situation has now changed. An al-Nusra commander confirmed to Al-Akhbar that “the Army of Islam has previously let us down on some occasions, but that shouldn’t summarize our whole relationship.”

He said that “doubts are now being balanced,” revealing that representatives of al-Nusra and ISIS met with the former Army of Islam commander Zahran Alloush in the town of Yabroud to determine the nature of the relationship between the formations.

Knowledgeable sources point out that the leaders of al-Nusra and ISIS were concerned about Alloush’s connections with the Saudi regime, which is largely financing him, and they are wondering about the price he is paying in return.

These sources indicated that the meeting aimed to clear the air and that they agreed with Sheikh Zahran on an Islamic governance based on the Quran and the Sunnah, after Assad’s ouster.

Alloush was informed about al-Nusra’s and ISIS’ resolute opposition to “any dictations or decisions incompatible with the essence of Islamic governance in the post-Assad era,” one of the sources said. “This also applies to most Syrian opposition leaders who have foreign connections. They may keep their friendships if they wish, but certainly they cannot invest the blood of jihadis.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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