The potential of a U.S. military strike over the past several weeks — which mainstream forces largely welcomed, and jihadists, fearing that the United States would target them, opposed — appears to have exacerbated tensions between the groups. Full-blown clashes broke out in the north and east of the country today, with Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated groups in the city of Deir Ezzor battling with the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Meanwhile, ISIS also launched an offensive on the northern town of Azaz, which lies close to the Turkish border.
The clashes follow an ISIS announcement earlier this week declaring war against the FSA-affiliated Farouk Brigades in Aleppo, along with another moderate rebel brigade. Dubbing its operation “The Repudiation of Malignity,” the jihadist group said its offensive was in response to an attack by the brigades against its headquarters in the northern city of al-Bab last week.
ISIS even appears to be picking fights with more radical brigades. The jihadist group reportedly kidnapped nine commanders from the Ahrar Souria group in the northern city of Raqqa on Sept. 12. It also killed a commander from the powerful Ahrar al-Sham militia, after the man objected to ISIS’s kidnapping of Malaysian aid workers. In going after Ahrar al-Sham, ISIS is turning a former friend into an enemy: The Salafist group stood by ISIS last month when it clashed with Ahfad al-Rasoul, an FSA-affiliated rebel group, and as popular protests erupted against ISIS.
ISIS’s feuding with moderate Syrian rebels seems to be sanctioned by the very top of the al Qaeda hierarchy. In an audio statement last week, al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri warned his followers in Syria to avoid cooperation with “secular groups that are allied to the West.”
That’s not to say that mainstream rebel groups can afford to shun al Qaeda affiliates entirely. In the absence of an international push to help the opposition, jihadists are still the rebels’ most lethal weapon. Jihadist suicide attacks have been responsible for some of the most important strategic gains recently: Rebel groups besieged Mennagh military airbase in Aleppo for more than a year, for example, but were unable to completely capture it — until ISIS dispatched its suicide bombers on Aug. 5. The same thing happened at the Hamidiya military complex in the northern province of Idlib last month.
But there is no doubt that rebel groups are growing increasingly uneasy with the behavior of al Qaeda affiliates, particularly in rebel-held areas in the country’s north and east. Jihadists may be an indispensable asset on the front lines, but their behavior in liberated areas — where they have kidnapped activists and aid workers, terrorized civilians, and tried to implement an alien form of Islamic law — is alienating Syrians.
The eastern city of Abu Kamal, close to the Iraqi border, has emerged as a case study of the jihadists’ limited appeal. Over the past several months, multiple residents told me that Syrians were growing increasingly restless over the jihadists’ presence. They cited their tendency to interfere in people’s personal affairs and force their own worldview on residents. But their central complaint was the extremists’ focus on maintaining a monopoly over local resources: One resident from Abu Kamal and another from Aleppo told me that jihadists tend to claim anything under government control as spoils of war, from schools to telephone and water facilities.
Earlier this month, clashes erupted between the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and FSA-affiliated groups. When the gunfire stopped, the moderates were able to negotiate a ceasefire deal that represented a body blow to Jabhat al-Nusra’s influence in the area: The jihadist group agreed to ask foreign jihadists in its ranks to leave the city, “as there is no fighting in Abu Kamal and so there is no need for wearing masks or even carrying arms.” The groups also agreed that security in the city must be handled exclusively by the “security brigade,” and other FSA-affiliated rebel groups. Finally, it prohibited Jabhat al-Nusra from establishing checkpoints in the city, and stipulated that houses can only be raided through a court order and by FSA brigades.
Remarkably, Jabhat al-Nusra issued a two-page apology to the people of Abu Kamal, in which it blamed the FSA for forcing the war on the jihadist organization. It said that it had pulled its fighters from the frontlines to defend itself against “groups that seek to establish a secular state.” Jabhat al-Nusra asserted in the apology that it could easily defeat the FSA — but the fact that it tried to reach out to the public, rather than engage in further confrontation, suggests that it’s mindful of growing public opposition.
Abu Kamal is predominantly tribal and more conservative than most areas in Syria, but this development proves that it’s not a natural breeding ground for jihadist groups. Extremists have tried repeatedly to establish a foothold there — when the regime’s forces left the region, jihadists presented themselves as a force that could get things done. They distributed badly-needed cooking gas, fuel, and foodstuffs to the local population. Meanwhile, the FSA groups stumbled, neglecting the population and focusing on their own financial gain. Jihadists, however, are their own worst enemies — as time passed, the local population grew restless of their medieval style of rule.
Al Qaeda’s operatives in Syria have worked hard to avoid the mistakes they committed in Iraq, where they alienated potential supporters with brutal, indiscriminate tactics. The leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, has repeatedly called on his followers to be flexible on religious matters that are not usul — or fundamentals — to avoid antagonizing local populations. But that sentiment has not trickled down to rank-and-file jihadists. In addition to the fighting against fellow rebel brigades, they have shot at Syrians protesting outside their headquarters in Raqqa,executed a teenage boy in Aleppo, and detained Italian priest Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, a longtime advocate of religious coexistence in Syria.
Jihadists know that the single greatest threat to their existence is not drone attacks or a regime military offensive, but rejection by local populations. They are paranoid about a repeat of the rise of “Awakening Councils,” or sahwat, which began in Iraq’s Anbar Province after al Qaeda alienated the Sunni population of the area. Sahwat is a pejorative term among jihadists, who believe that the Americans pitted Sunnis against each other in Iraq, only to betray them three years later by handing power to a Shiite government that marginalized their sect.
Syria has not yet seen the rise of sahwat — but the jihadists’ fears will likely be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Their attacks on rebel groups may be designed to forestall the very possibility of such an awakening: Many of the groups it has targeted are part of an umbrella organization known as Jabhat al-Asala wa Tanmia — a Salafist-leaning group believed to be funded by private donors in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which has been vehemently attacked by some Gulf citizens who support jihadi groups as sahwites.
Syrians’ growing hostility towards jihadists is not the result of a push from outsider powers — it comes from genuine public concerns about their presence. As people in rebel-held areas no longer have a need for the jihadists’ ruthlessness in battle, moderate groups will have a new opportunity to win the hearts and minds of the local populations in liberated cities and towns, as well as on the front lines. If the world wants an ally in their fight against creeping extremism, they will find a broad array of Syrians willing to help them drive the jihadists out.
This post first appeared at Foreign Policy.