Will the 'Emirate of the Levant' be announced on Eid al-Fitr?

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Fighters from the Islamist rebel group al-Nusra Front allegedly dig a tunnel under a military site of the Syrian government forces in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on July 17, 2014. (Photo: AFP-Ahmed Deeb)

By: Suhaib Anjarini

Published Friday, July 18, 2014

Preparations are underway by al-Nusra Front on the ground and in terms of sharia (Islamic law) to announce the Emirate of al-Sham [Greater Syria], which a jihadi source expects would be on the first day of Eid al-Fitr [the holiday at the end of Ramadan]. The Nusra waged new battles in Idlib's countryside, established the "Islamic court in Azaz," and held a Call Gathering to recruit fighters in Atma border camp, right under Turkey's nose.

Al-Nusra Front is racing against the clock. Its leaders are engaged in intense activities on all levels, particularly in relation to the emirate being legitimate according to sharia and military prepared. In the meantime, its allies are promoting a forthcoming media appearance by its leader Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, rumored to be a "public and unveiled appearance." These actions fall into the preparations for the Emirate of al-Sham, which is likely to be "announced in a short while," according to a jihadi source.

"The date of declaring the emirate will most probably be on the first day of Eid al-Fitr," the source informed Al-Akhbar. There will also be "a surprise related to the form of the emirate and running Muslim affairs therein." No other details were provided. However, Joulani will not take this step alone and is coordinating with al-Qaeda chief Ayman Zawahiri and the "agents of God." The leader of al-Nusra is determined to make use of the "jihadi weight" Zawahiri still carries and obtain the position enjoyed by the "Commander of the Faithful" Mullah Omar.

"The future Emirate will most likely take the form of a union of several brigades applying sharia in the places they control," another jihadi source explained. "Joulani will be emir over a sharia council, whose members are not exclusively from al-Nusra." The source mentioned some of the groups "pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda" in secret or publicly. They include the Green Brigades, al-Aqsa Soldiers and Sham al-Islam. He also referred to the "intense efforts by Saudi sheikh Abdullah al-Mohaisini to find a compromise ensuring that there will be no clashes between the Emirate and the Islamic Front in the future."

Nusra and the Islamic Front: What next?

Maintaining friendly relations between al-Nusra and the Islamic Front is one of the main challenges ahead. Nusra already enjoys solid relations with several of the Islamic Front's components, which began before they allied together. They shared victories and defeats on various fronts. This also supported by several factors, mainly "the wish of the sponsoring sides," according to jihadi sources.

However, Joulani's intent to announce the Emirate of al-Sham prompted speculations about the future of the relationship with the Islamic Front, especially since al-Nusra preempted the leaking of its commander's speech by announcing its withdrawal from the Sharia Council in Aleppo. However, it seems something changed behind closed doors and it retracted the decision to withdraw, albeit partially, announcing it will "remain in the judicial office of the Sharia Council in Aleppo until the completion of assignments, to protect the interests of Muslims."

This took place in parallel with another declaration announcing that "the two fronts" are working together in "conducting a major security campaign against smugglers and bandits in the villages of Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib's countryside." Yet the "strength of the alliance" is not reliable and neither is conjecture about the anticipated declaration of the emirate.

In the past, the Islamic Front had supported the war by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) against North Storm Brigade, under the banner of "the war against the corrupt." But this did not prevent the two sides from entering a "jihadi civil war," which continues today.

Joulani and Qahtani: Friends or foes?

The same questions are posed when it comes to current relations between Joulani and Abu Maria al-Qahtani (Maisara al-Jabouri, an Iraqi) who is the "general sharia [official] of al-Nusra" and its second-in-command. Jihadis have two stories to tell about this issue. The first speaks about a sharp dispute between the two men and that "Qahtani put Joulani under house arrest." Others go even further, maintaining that he had him killed. The recent appearance by Joulani in Aleppo's countryside put an end to the allegations. But this does not mean there is no disagreement.

Those who support this position presented a great deal of "evidence." The most recent was just before Joulani's latest leaked speech. "The obsession with establishing the state and the fantasy of the caliphate does not end here. Other caliphs might appear, other than Baghdadi, and this is due to lack of clarity and a rupture in justice," Qahtani said on Twitter. Some believe he was anticipating Joulani's announcement of his emirate.

The second story mocks the first, maintaining that the two men are as one. "The jihadi brotherhood between the two sheikhs did not suffer at any time," a source from al-Nusra maintained. He gave the example of "Daraa mujahideen" joining their counterparts in the north. "Sheikh Qahtani and Sheikh Abu Hassan al-Kuwaiti (the deputy sharia official in al-Nusra) went to Daraa in coordination with the conquering sheikh."

Field preparations

Around one week ago, al-Nusra began taking the necessary measures on the ground to announce the emirate. According to al-Qaeda's principles, several conditions have to be met before embarking on such an endeavor, mainly "control over a clear geographical area." Nusra followed in the footsteps of its adversaries in ISIS, which prepared the ground for its control over Aleppo's countryside by declaring a "war against the corrupt,” and by announcing a similar campaign recently. Remarkably, it chose some areas on the borders with Turkey (in Aleppo and Idlib countrysides) as the terrain for this war.

In parallel to its deployment in northern Aleppo countryside, al-Nusra was also busy in the western part of Idlib. On Thursday, it raided the village of al-Zibaqi (Jisr al-Shughour area), controlled by Thiab al-Ghab [Wolves of the Jungle] Brigade (al-Izz Front), part of the Syria Revolutionaries Front. Nusra conquered the town after a fierce confrontation and then attacked the checkpoints of Darkoush Martyrs Brigade in the same village.

In the past week, al-Nusra had undertaken several similar measures in Jabal al-Wastani (eastern Jisr al-Shughour). It attacked the towns of al-Daghali, Mariamin, al-Bailaa, al-Dahr, al-Bohouth, Darkoush, and Hammam al-Sheikh Issa, which included the positions of al-Raed Brigades, Jabal al-Wastani Martyrs Brigade, al-Zawiya Free Brigade, and the Revolutionary Youth Gathering. Recent attacks by al-Nusra against Syrian army position in the northern Hama countryside, adjacent to Aleppo countryside could be seen in this context.

Sharia preparations

At the same time, al-Nusra began implementing "sharia" measures promised by Joulani in the leaked recording and it recently announced the establishment of the Islamic Court in Azaz. Shoaib al-Masri (who used to be known as Abu Shoaib al-Masri and acted as an ISIS judge and deputy governor of Homs, before splitting from the organization). The court is the first step, "ruling by the word of God and establishing limits." Masri is currently supervising the opening of the Sham Judges Academy in the city. Masri is also overseeing the "establishment of the Bayt mal al-Muslimin [Muslim treasury].

"Corresponding steps will be taken in the areas cleansed of the corrupt Rif Idlib," al-Nusra sources maintained. The steps are identical to those announced by Joulani in the leaked speech, which said "sharia courts will be in place in liberated areas in a week's time." This means the remaining measures announced in the speech are in the pipelines. "The armies will be divided into battalions and brigades. There will be an army in Aleppo and one in Idlib… Your brothers in Daraa will follow you and the same goes for besieged Ghouta. There will be a strategy to unite all these emirates into one."

Turkey turning a blind eye

The upcoming announcement of the Emirate sheds light on the emerging "intersection" between al-Nusra and Turkey. A few days ago, Turkey ignored al-Nusra's mobilization in Atmeh camp at the northern borders. It organized a jihadi rally held by the Call Office in west Aleppo's countryside, under the name of Gathering for the Call and slogan of "People heed the call of God's preachers."

"The clearest target for the meeting was to recruit new fighters from the camp residents, for al-Nusra and its promised emirate," a Syrian source from inside the camp told Al-Akhbar. The preachers focused on "the need to meet the jihadi callers to uphold righteousness and the establishment of sharia [rule] in al-Sham [Syria]," according to the same source.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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