“Does the Truce Between ISIS and Suqour al-Sham Mean an End to Syria’s Inter-Rebel War?” By Daniel Abdallah
Posted by Joshua on Friday, February 7th, 2014
Does the Truce Between ISIS and Suqour al-Sham Mean an End to Syria’s Inter-Rebel War?
By Daniel Abdallah – twitter: @Daniel_Abdullah
for Syria Comemnt, February 7, 2014
Has the newly brokered truce between rebel militias in Syria ended the fighting that began in earnest on 3 January 2014? The reasons that Syria’s militias attacked the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria were many. ISIS had arrested members of many militias; it had torture many of those and killed quite a few. The immediate result of the initial onslaught against ISIS was the expulsion of ISIS from most of Idlib province as well as from the city of Aleppo and its rural areas. ISIS positions in ar-Raqqa were also seriously weakened. To the untrained eye, ISIS appeared to be on the verge of total collapse in Syria. Some militias demanded that it leave the country altogether. ISIS promised retaliation.
Although the Islamic Front (IF) – the largest armed rebel coalition in Syria – had numerous grievances with ISIS, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) led the attack on ISIS. To be more correct, the remnants of the FSA led the attack. The FSA proper had ceased to exist when two of its largest constituents joined the IF in November and its putative leadership, the Supreme Military Command, was driven from Syria only weeks later. Those FSA militias that did not find a new home in the Islamic Front formed the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF) and a few other groups, which spearheaded the attack on ISIS. The fight appears to have been well planned, as both Saudi Arabia and Qatar sent money and weapons ahead of the January 3 conflagration. Some claim it was earmarked for the battle against ISIS. The US limited itself to financial support – amounting to $2 million a month.
The Islamic Front, Jabhat an-Nusra, and ISIS disagree on details about the future state in Syria, but all agree basic principles: that ia theocratic state in should take the place of the Assad regime; and Sharia law should be its guiding if not sole source of legislation. The ideological kinship that binds together the Islamist militias along with their professed horror at fitna, or civil discord among Muslims, caused the Islamic Front to hessitate in its response to the fight against ISIS. A local contact informed me that in Tal Abiadh (a town on the border with Turkey), soldiers of Ahrar ash-Sham, a constituent of the IF, handed their weapons over to Turkish authorities and fled into Turkey rather than fight ISIS. The same was taking place in ar-Raqqa; Ahrar soldiers declared their neutrality refusing to fight ISIS. They professed their desire to leave for the East in what amounted to surrender. ISIS soldiers initially agreed to give them safe passage, but ended up executing them to the man.
The IF’s reticence and not only ISIS’ military superiority helped ISIS win the struggle in Raqqa. ISIS was able to reconquer all of Raqqa, Jarablus, al-Bab and Manbij (i.e. most of Eastern rural Aleppo). It also solidified its positions in Deir az-Zour by establishing new alliances with local tribes. Whereas before the ISIS had to share power in all of these locales, it now emerged as sole ‘governor’ ruling by Sharia law and on its own.
Many Jihadi theorists were deeply troubled by this fitna, and they tried their best to bring an end to it. Most famous of such initiatives was one by Saudi theologian, rebel fighter in Syria and Phd Abdullah al-Muhaysini that came to be known as al-Umma Initiative. It called for the cessation of violence and the establishment of a common, neutral Islamic court to arbitrate all disputes according to Sharia law. It was unconditionally embraced by Jabhat an-Nusra, the SRF, the IF, the Mujahideen Army and many Jihadi ideologues. The ISIS, however, predicated its acceptance on two conditions: that all parties involved publicly declare their position regarding democracy and secularism (refused en bloc by the ISIS, the IF and Jabhat an-Nusra) – intended for the SRF and the other remnants of the FSA who accept them half-heartedly – and, second, that all parties clarify their positions regarding current Arab regimes and Turkey – creating a hurdle for factions who are supported by these very countries. The various IF constituents’ position vis-à-vis the ISIS remained a mixture of verbal denouncements and an acceptance of Muhaysini’s initiative, all the while trying to avoid the fight where possible. Hassan Abboud – leader of Ahrar ash-Sham – publicly stated that they were going to ‘avoid any battle [with the ISIS] that can be avoided’. As previously mentioned Suqour ash-Sham’s Abu Issa ash-Shaikh had a much stronger stance against the ISIS – promising to cleanse them from the Levant. A milder version, at least verbally, was put forward by Zahran Alloush – leader of the Islam Army (also an IF constituent and largely based in the South away from the centre of the infighting) – saying the fight with the ISIS was no fitna and that there was no more room for middle-of-the-road positions. Abdul Azeez Salama – head of Liwa at-Tawheed (IF) – reiterated the ‘majority’ position by saying ‘I would be honoured to be judged by Allah’s Sharia’. The nature of the overall conflict in Syria, it is worth mentioning, is resistant to the implementation of centralised strategies. More often, decisions are taken based on local conditions even if they go against orders the particular group had received from its leaders. While the characterisation offered here of the IF publicly distancing itself from the fight with ISIS is perfectly true, it is also true that a number of their sub-factions entered the fray against ISIS with full force.
Until the truce under discussion took place, all calls for arbitration had appeared dead for all intents and purposes. Significantly, ISIS went back on their two conditions when the truce was brokered. No public denunciation of democracy, secularism or regional states by Suqour ash-Sham (or the faction within it that accepted the deal) have taken place so far, while the truce is in full effect. The ISIS, then, have accepted, in principal, the establishment of an Islamic court with 50% of its judges coming from their side and 50% from the side of their opponents. Importantly, the court the ISIS agreed to has no retroactive effect. It only applies to potential disputes that might arise in the future, and SS had no qualms about agreeing to this. The ISIS have also accepted to dealing with a group that was once part of the Western-aligned FSA, not an insignificant step for it. One can read this as the ISIS’ content with the status quo – now that they have become the sole power in a large swathe of territory – and as their readiness to dilute their refusals of arbitration for this purpose, with the not insignificant caveat of nullified retroactivity.
For the IF, the truce can have one of two possible effects. It can either help formalise their so far hesitant approach to the ISIS and offer them a way out of internecine struggle with a face-saving mechanism, such as a Sharia court that may turn out to be largely toothless. Or, less likely, the truce may presage a split within the Islamic Front, a group that never functioned as a single unit, but as an alliance of convenience. If the Islamic Front splits up, Suqour ash-Sham would go its own way. The reason this is unlikely is that larger groups are better channels for funding. Small units cannot survive well on their own or bring in big money and thus will not want to break from the larger coalition for purely ideological reasons. Should leaders of the IF denounce the truce, it could mean that the Front will come apart, but this seems to be a small possibility.
Assad may have had mixed feelings toward the fighting between ISIS and the other rebel militias. Had the enemies of ISIS turned out to be victorious, they would have proven their effectiveness as fighters of “terrorism,” thereby stealing Assad’s fire – or at least the fire he is trying to market to Western powers and the Syrian people. ISIS’ counterattack and success in reconquering Syrian territory is doubtlessly satisfying to Assad for it ensures inter-rebel conflict and chaos in the days to come. It also ensures that western powers will continue to fret about Syria becoming a training ground for future Western Jihadists. Those opposition leaders who claim that mainstream Syrian groups can easily defeat al-Qaida and eject jihadists from Syria once Assad is defeated will have a harder time making this argument. If the ISIS-SS truce becomes a starting point for further deals with other groups in the IF, and so universalizes the uneasy truce begun with the SS, Assad will be reassured. He will claim the rebel groups have re-allied themselves with the ISIS and that it cannot be a regime creation as so many opposition members insist. ‘Assad must be waiting for the call from the CIA’, as one of my friends put it.
Although conspiracy theories claiming to expose ISIS as an Assad back flag operation, designed to mar the purity of the revolution and destroy it from within, are ubiquitous, there is evidence to suggest that Assad looks on ISIS as a strategic ally. The Syrian Army has not bombed their well-known headquarters and has spared their men.
To conclude, it is important to stress that all stated potential ramifications of this truce remain speculative. All the evidence we so far have for analysis is the text of the agreement as released by ISIS-sympathetic sources, the video showing a convoy moving through the desert and Rashed Tuggo (SS’ Head of General Staff) claiming that he was authorised to speak on behalf of SS’ Shura Council. More time and evidence is needed to determine whether the truce will be of any significance to the Syrian Civil War.
 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYa7MnqeqsI&feature=youtu.be. For a summary in English and commentary see http://danielabdullah.wordpress.com/2014/01/28/on-hassan-abbouds-latest-speech/