Saturday, June 15, 2013

On al Baghdadi's disobedience of Dr Zawahiri

Overnight,the Emir of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, issued a statement in response to the letter from Al Qaeda Central (AQC) chief Dr. Ayman az Zawahiri.  It’s a rebuttal to Dr. Zawahiri’s decree that commanded the Islamic State of Iraq and the Jabhat an Nusra (JN) remain separate entities.

The gist of al Baghdadi’s statement is he abrogates Dr. Zawahiri’s abrogation of the Baghdadi-founded Islamic State of Iraq and Sham(ISIS). Yeah, that sounded about right.

I won’t go into the details, but here  are the bullet-points:

1.This is an unprecedented , public disobedience by any AQ affiliate towards the AQ chief. This has never happened after AQ started absorbing local affiliates inside its network.
2. The statement was uploaded on the AQ-approved online forums, but not through either Fajr Information Centre , nor ISI’s traditional Al Furqan Media Foundation. As pointed by my friend Mr0rangetracker, this shows AQC at least has control over its transnational information network.
3.Al Baghdadi isn’t overtly disrespectful to Dr. Zawahiri. But a very important point is when Baghdadi says the ISIS Shura has decided that this State should remain. He is overturning the order of the overall Emir of the transnational jihadist network in favor of the decision of local Shura. This cannot be over-emphasized.

This has evidently enraged many jihadi supporters who wanted less confusion in the Syrian realm. I personally read this whole ISIS affair as an artificially created crisis. Jihadist leaders have been so comfortable in Iraq-Syria due to absence of threat of drone-like assassinations, that they have taken the luxury of indulging in what are basically power struggles.

Some jihadis are saying the ISI leadership has been infiltrated by unnamed foreign intel agencies. Others are accusing the newborn Islamic State of Iraq and Sham being led by GIA-style takfiris.

While we cannot say whether the first claim is true or not, it certainly does not make sense. ISIS , and their Iraqi component has been ruthless in dealing blows after blows to the Maliki troops recently, specially in the North, and in the Anbar deserts. That rules out Maliki, Iran, and the whole Khomenist Shia axis. So what, Turkey ? any GCC state? While certainly possible, there is a far more plausible explanation : power struggle.

Also many JN supporters are accusing Baghdadi and his allies of being takfiris. This doesn’t stand up to facts. ISIS hasn’t called publicly any JN leader or soldier kafir. ISIS hasn’t bombed Muslim(Sunni) populations anywhere, unlike GIA. There has been no reported cases of violence due to this quarrel. ISIS has continued humanitarian activities started by JN like providing bread, water and other essential items to the population under their control in Raqqah , Aleppo. While the GIA remains a classical case of jihadis turned into takfiris, none of similar signs have been seen with ISIS yet.

The picture is like this:in Raqqah, JN and ISIS can be considered one and the same.In Deir ez Zor and Hasakah too, that’s the apparent case. But in Aleppo, it’s clear that JN and ISIS are two distinct entities now, issuing statements using separate names, but clearly co-operating with each other. We haven’t seen presence of ISIS in Idlib yet, but lots of presence of quite militarily successful JN units. In Lattakia, we have seen at least one suicide bombing carried out in name of ISIS; the status of who is who in Lattakia is unclear.

About Hama and Homs(specially in the iconic Battle of Qusayr), so far it seems JN and ISIS labels and banners are being used interchangeably, and so are the claims of responsibility.

In Damascus ISIS carried out at least one suicide bombing in Harasta, though my general understanding is here also JN and ISIS names are used interchangeably. For eg. the attack on the Shia international brigade Liwa Abu Fadl al Abbas was carried out in the name of ISIS.

Deraa is a special case. Long home to a quite cohesive Jordanian jihadi-trained JN unit, they remained separate from the disputes. Jihadis in South are firmly JN.

It is also not entirely correct to categorize this inter-jihadi dispute in terms of foreigner VS local. For example, Al Ghareeb al Muhajer al Qahtani, the chief Sharia judge of Jabhat an Nusra and a prolific tweep, is an Iraqi. But he has maintained quite a pro-status quo ,but stridently anti-strife position. Reports claim that in Aleppo city and countryside, more than 70% of JN fighters joined the ISIS.

But the dynamics of all these defections are quite interesting. Though we have very few details, it’s clear al Baghdadi himself traveled to Aleppo(from Iraq!)  and threw the gauntlet of the Game of Thrones inside Syria. He carried out sort of a pincer mobilization(though non-violent) against JN chief al Jolani’s allies in the region. He appointed non-JN jihadi commanders like Omar al Shishani of the powerful Jaish Muhajireen wa Ansar in important positions.  A lot of smaller but locally important brigades were absorbed inside ISIS.

In effect, regardless of what AQC and others say, ISIS is a fact on the ground ( to borrow a term from the Israelis ;) )

In the midst of all this, Syrian Islamic Front and its Harakah Ahrar al Sham al Islamiyah group, increasingly appear as the most stable, well performing rebel cluster. They have excellent relations with JN.

While it is easy to think JN and ISIS would be at each other’s throats any time soon, I think they would wait for the enemy Hezbollah and Assad to be sufficiently weakened, before fighting with each other, if a solution  isn’t devised. Important to note is that, JN’s Al Manara al Bayda Foundation has come back online, but not ISI’s al Furqan foundation.

What could this mean?  The answer, as usual, lies in the near future. And the future is far from predictable.

Note: The young scholar, Aymann Jawad al Tamimi has meticulously tracked all the JN-ISIS developments, worth checking out.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

When Jihadists are the only ones left standing

Banyas massacre changed a lot of perceptions ,both home and abroad, on the Syrian war. It clearly showed Assad’s will to destroy any semblance of Sunni presence in Alawite dominated regions on and near the coast. Regarding machinations by Western MSM, unlike Houla, Banyas was largely ignored.

The reason being : this is a different time.
This time, US, UK, France agree with Russia, for the need to force a negotiated settlement on the Syrian rebels, which in reality will likely lead to Assad prolonging his rule, and massacring Sunnis till the point they are subdued. At near about the same time, the Syrian dossier was snatched from Qatar and Turkey, under heavy US pressure, and given to the ‘geniuses’ in KSA ,a move supported by the monarchies of Jordan and UAE. They are clearly sick of despots being toppled.

Coupled with this was the almost full drying up of all Croatian weapons deliveries to southern rebels via Jordan. This led to rebels losing control of the key Syrian city of Khirbet Ghazaleh, though the city has changed hands a few times more since then.

Also, as the arms embargo on the rebels was in full swing, Assad troops and Hezbollah made some bold advances in Qusayr (Homs countryside),as in the South.

Enter Jabhat an Nusra

Jabhat an Nusra had very little presence in Homs previously; mostly carried out special operations so the other rebels can move in. But recently, more and more local Homsi rebels have been pledging allegiance to Jabhat an Nusra. Zu al Nurain brigade is one of them.

After regime troops advanced in Homs, Jabhat an Nusra suicide bombers inflicted some tactical defeats on the regime, which due to the very nature of the war, was temporary.

Syrian rebels are putting up a tough fight in Qusayr, while facing the superior weaponry and better trained soldiers of Hezbollah and Assad, and it is evident that even Jabhat an Nusra has not stepped in as much as they are knee-deep in the conflicts in Aleppo, Idlib and elsewhere.

It is known among rebels that unless Jabhat an Nusra is totally confident of its capabilities, it doesn’t jump headlong into a particular battle. That is one of the reasons for their reluctance for more involvement in Homs.

But recent developments suggest JN is prepping for a major , all-gloves-off stand , soon.

Like how they are expanding and taking control of the Deraa front, along with their jihadist allies in Harakah Ahrar ash Sham al Islamiya and others. This is significant in light of the fact that Selim Idriss’ West,GCC supported Supreme Military Command has failed to arm these southern rebels recently. Whom do you think they will ally with now?

Also, videos of a self-styled group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham(ISIS) started floating on Youtube,even though Jawlani seemed to rebuff Baghdadi’s call for the same.(h/t Aymenn Jawad al Tamimi and Mr0rangetracker )

Then more and more Jabhat an Nusra fighters were spotted across Syria waving the Black Rayah al Uqab of the Islamic State of Iraq design, especially in the eastern regions.

And then finally,today emerged this video from United Media Centre of Raqqah, of Jabhat al Nusra openly executing 3 Assad army officers, in broad daylight, in Raqqah city, in revenge for the Banyas and Homs massacres.The speech clearly was signed off in the name of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham,not Jabhat al Nusrah.

 Loud chants of ‘Allahu akbar’ , and approval from the locals followed.

Jabhat an Nusra has clearly chosen this massacre as the launching point where they drop all gloves and choose to fight with much more vigor, as I believe future incidents will show.  All these unofficial videos of the purported Islamic State of Iraq and Sham seem a way of softening up the public opinion that the united Islamic State is already a reality everywhere JN-ISI territorial control is present. A formal acknowledgement will seal the deal. Only this time it is apparent that JN’s crucial allies in the Syrian Islamic Front are already aware of that.

This is a huge opportunity for jihadist expansion. All the regime advances are happening at the expense of the mostly SMC-allied brigades which are losing ground, partly due to lack of weapons. A logical next step for these hapless fighters would be to ally with the one force that very rarely loses territory to Assad regime : Jabhat an Nusra and allied jihadists.

The next few days are crucial. Keep up.