It marks the first time ISIS, which has been steadily consolidating its power in northern Syria over the past year, has seen that power substantially rolled back. It also showcases the coordination abilities of Ahrar al-Sham and Liwa al-Tawhid, two of the country’s largest rebel fighting groups and the de facto leaders of the newly formed Islamic Front, an alliance of the seven most powerful rebel fighting brigades.
We asked Noah Bonsey, senior Syria analyst for the International Crisis Group, Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Atlantic Council and Aymenn al-Tamimi, Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at Middle East Forum, to weigh in on the rebel-on-rebel fighting.
Syria Deeply: Was the Islamic Front looking for a confrontation with ISIS?
Aymenn al-Tamimi: The Islamic Front’s policy isn’t necessarily to destroy ISIS. They want ISIS to change its conduct. I think they’ll try to incorporate some ISIS fighters into their ranks, but I don’t think their leaders were looking for a confrontation with ISIS. I think ISIS brought this about. It’s something the IF has been forced into.
Faysal Itani: I sensed that this was something a long time coming, rather than them being provoked into it. The killing of Abu Rayan certainly put them in a spoliation where they had to respond. It’s an unwelcome distraction for them but they have come to the conclusion that even through its a diversion of resources, ISIS is something that has hurt their cause and their ability to focus on the right fight [against Assad], to the extent that Nusra fighting ISIS shows you that they have become detrimental to the interests of the fighting groups.
What’s interesting is the degree of coordination, because it’s not often you see so many fighting groups at the same time. That level of focus is significant in my eyes, and it fits the overall trend of consolidation within the rebel movement. That’s a phase they’re in now that they haven’t been in before.
SD: What led to that coordination this week? Rebel forces are famously fractious and uncoordinated.
Itani: I’m not sure the problem was ever that they haven’t been able to coordinate, I think there just wasn’t a will or consensus to do it. But then they found an operation that they all have an interest in doing and can all make a contribution to. It also helps that there’s a rising center of gravity for the armed uprising, and that’s these armed Islamist groups. They are a new phenomenon and they allow for coordination you can’t have in the revolution when you have no center of gravity.
Once the largest fighting groups engage, if you’re a faction, what’s your interest in staying out of the fighting? You want to get on board that train. That’s why a lot of fighters defected to these [extremist] groups to begin with, and why I could see them now defecting back as well.
SD: What was the tipping point that led to the fighting in the north [fighting began in Idlib and Aleppo before spreading to Raqqa]?
al-Tamimi: This was a spontaneous thing. The idea that it was long preplanned is not true. It began with the ISIS takeover of a town in Aleppo. They expelled Ahrar al-Sham from there. Ahrar al-Sham then tried to mediate it, and ISIS killed Abu Rayan, the commander and the guy they sent back in to mediate. So then its fighters got pulled in.
Noah Bonsey: The final straw here was ISIS’s kidnapping and execution of an Ahrar al-Sham commander, Hussein Suleiman (known as Abu Rayan). But the rebel groups who initially escalated the fighting following that incident were not part of Ahrar al-Sham or the Islamic Front: it was mostly Jaish al-Mujahideen and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front. The IF’s role here was not in initiating this, but in helping it expand as quickly and widely as it did.
SD: Has the IF’s role in Raqqa been overstated? It’s an alliance of different entities, not one sole entity.
Bonsey: From what we can tell, it appears that both [IF member] Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra have been fighting ISIS in Raqqa. To take control of Raqqa from ISIS, you need Ahrar al-Sham, just as to take ground from them in Aleppo you need Liwa al-Tawhid. So participation of these groups is crucial. But again, you want to break the IF down into individual component groups, rather than looking at it as a single entity. There’s some evidence that the groups within the IF are growing closer, but we’re still talking about distinct factions within an alliance. Overall, in the recent fighting with ISIS in the north we’ve seen Liwa al-Tawhid more publicly involved than Ahrar al-Sham.
We want to distinguish between the component factions of IF. We also want to distinguish between geographic areas. In general, to understand the dynamics of any given battle, we need to look closely at the local level. From what we can see in the last 48 hours, Ahrar al-Sham is joining with Nusra fighters in driving ISIS out of Raqqa. At the same time, you have Ahrar al-Sham and al-Nusra fighters continuing to cooperate with ISIS fighters in Hassakeh province against PYD forces. So we don’t want to oversimplify things here.
al-Tamimi: This couldn’t have happened without the IF. They are playing a key role. In Raqqa, it’s fighters from Ahrar al-Sham and then Free Syrian Army remnants who have pledged allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra and are fighting ISIS.
SD: Was the speed of the takeover surprising?
Bonsey: It’s been startling how quickly ISIS has been dealt this series of blows in northern Syria. It was clear that we’d see a significant escalation between ISIS and other rebel factions eventually. The fact that ISIS’s strategy is to expand in rebel-held areas at the expense of other groups, combined with their brutal culture, i.e., the manner in which they behave in confronting other factions, made this inevitable. But I’m surprised by how quickly the clashes have spread. To see them being pushed out of Raqqa this quickly is really notable.
al-Tamimi: People were caught by surprise because they didn’t realize the nature of ISIS’s presence in northern Syria. They had a few strongholds in Azaz, but in most places they were one of many factions, not the dominant faction. That makes it very vulnerable to a multi-pronged attack from Syrian and Islamic revolution fighters.This is why I was skeptical of ISIS’s power in the north: I thought that was overstated. There are so many rebel factions there that I lose count.
SD: What might we see in the next week?
Bonsey: There have been proposals for reconciliation between the warring sides: prominent activist, Salafi and militant figures have proposed terms of a truce, including Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, the leader of al-Nusra. The common denominator of these proposals is an end to the fighting, and everyone involved agreeing to the arbitration of a neutral court including representatives from all parties, with the ultimate swing vote going to neutral voices. This seems to be the way towards a resolution.
If ISIS were to accept these initiatives, there’s a chance things could calm in the coming days. But similar offers have been on the table for weeks. Part of the reason for this escalation is that ISIS has refused to participate in joint courts; this has alienated them from the rebel mainstream, and even from fellow jihadis. Everything we’ve seen from ISIS suggests they’ll be reluctant to make concessions or accept compromise, and as long as they don’t, the fighting will continue and the territorial gains ISIS has made in recent months will likely continue to be rolled back. In that case, expect ISIS to fight dirtier: increasing use of bombings and assassinations targeting their rebel opponents, similar to what we saw in Iraq beginning in 2007.
Itani: The backlash in the south hasn’t been as intense. It could be that ISIS’s conduct in the central and southern theaters has been slightly better. I’d keep an eye on whether all this spreads to other fronts.