Syria's war, waging for almost three years now, seems to have reached a new level. Since the early summer of 2013 "al-Qaeda" ruled the media. A strong presence on social media showed us that Jabhat al-Nusra (the official al-Qaeda branch in Syria) and ad-Dawla al-Islāmiyya fī al-Irāq wa's-Shām (known as ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and as-Shām) were not only waging full scale war against the Syrian regime, but also were clashing with objective allies. Fighting FSA and Kurdish forces in Rojava was obviously expected but after a while ISIS was getting accused of attacking member groups of the Islamic Front. And vice versa, Harakat Ahrār as-Shām, for example, lost several of its foreign fighters. A Belgian and aTunisian member of ISIS got killed near a checkpoint; news came out early December.
But the incident that seems to have triggered the current events (which can be described as the first signs of Syrian Sahwa or uprising) must have been the torture and murder of a Harakat Ahrār as-Shām member, Doctor Husayn as-Sulaymān Abū Rayyān. His body was released in a prisoner exchange. Pictures of his mutilated body circulated widely on social media. A statement about Abū Rayyān in Arabic can be read here. This and other recent violent clashes between ISIS and other rebel groups, unleashed unseen infighting in Syria.
In a few days time close to 700 casualties were reported by Jihādī sources. In about a week there were 16 suicide attacks targeting rebel forces. There are, obviously, no independent sources on these numbers. Rumors are spreading, and have been confirmed in some cases, that foreign fighters have been targeted more than ever. The last few days the most striking would be the abduction of two Belgian teenage girls. Another report claimed that three Dutch girls were abducted and raped. ISIS seems to be disintegrating in some areas. A contact in Idlib province ( Sunday January 5): "The place is swarming with lost ISIS-fighters ... There's utter chaos ... Some were arrested, some want to secure their families, others prefer to keep on fighting. In some regions Jabhat an-Nusra just took over ISIS strongholds without firing a single shot." Later that day he contacted me again: "There are no more Dawla fighters where I am, Jabhat an-Nusra, Harakat Ahrār as-Shām and FSA took it all. A lot of these boys are now in hiding, because Jaysh al-Mujāhidīn are now arresting all ISIS-fighters and Muhājirīn [foreign fighters]."
In the first few days there was some confusion whether or not Harakat Ahrār as-Shām was involved in the clashes with ISIS, but my contact was clear about that, from day one they were. And hereby the devils were unleashed. The days that followed my Twitter timeline got flooded with accusations, quite quickly there were two camps calling each other names. Some people went berserk and started a true war of words. The name calling and slander were unprecedented; even compared to what happened before between the Kurds and ISIS the tone of voice hardened. And literally all got dragged in, Jabhat an-Nusra for example; some British ISIS fighter stated: "Jabhat an-Nusra in Raqqa attacked us but Jabhat in Badiya gave us a car for free packed with a heavy machine gun. Confusing ?Most certainly." When I informed my contact about what was going on, he reacted firmly "Are they officially at war ? No ! So what's the point saying such things on Twitter ? Some Nusra guys I know left for Aleppo to protect the families of the Dawla-fighters. They should post that on Twitter."
In the meanwhile it became clear that the leadership of Jabhat an-Nusra and ISIS were bound to react to clear the fog of war. And as expected the first official reaction came from Jabhat an-Nusra's leader Abū Muhammad al-Jūlānī. In an audio recording that was released by Jabhat an-Nusra's official account he made an offer to negotiate between the clashing factions. Al-Jūlānī blamed ISIS though for the fighting between Muslims, an example he referred to was the captivity of Jabhat an-Nusra's local leader in ar-Raqqa. To solve the infighting Jabhat an-Nusra formed a committee all groups should join , an independent Sharī'a court should settle the issues. For, if the infighting continues, "we will loose a great battlefield of Jihād."
It only took a few hours before ISIS answered with it's own lengthy statement. Although it took their spokesman, Abū Muhammad al-'Adnānī, 37 minutes to bring his message, it can be summarized as Charles Lister put it in one of his recent articles: "We have armies in Iraq and an army in Syria full of hungry lions who drink blood and eat bones, finding nothing tastier than the blood of Sahwa." This message can clearly be seen as an open declaration of war towards the SNC and SMC. He refers to them as the allies of Jewish and Crusader forces, a quite often used rhetoric. He further calls upon his men to protect the foreign fighters, as they are the main victims of the Sahwa.
And indeed, as one British fighter put it; "It breaks my heart to know that the people, who in the first place left the comfort of this Dunya, now have to flee out of Syria away from Jihād. My heart is broken. Even though I disagree with ISIS in many things,the hate they are met with today is unbearable. They are my brothers." In the meantime, the infighting and battle of words linger on, it is unneeded to state that Syria's war has reached a new phase. Where this will leave ISIS, for now, is open for speculation but it's likely to result in a weakening of the whole rebellion. Meanwhile al-Assad stands by, gloating to see his enemies fighting amongst themselves.
More of Pieter Van Ostaeyen's work can be found on his blog.