Five days of fierce rebel-on-rebel infighting in insurgent-controlled towns in northern Syria, involving al Qaeda groups taking opposing sides, has prompted an intense debate between jihadist religious scholars about who is in the right—but the signs are that al Qaeda’s top leaders may be content to see rival affiliates fight each other as a way to re-assert their own authority over a wayward jihadist leader who has been defying them.
The internecine warfare that erupted over the weekend between rebel groups stems from long-simmering rivalry between brigades affiliated to the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and al Qaeda affiliate the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), which in recent months has conducted a campaign of targeted abductions and assassinations of leading moderate rebels.
In December, ISIS, an affiliate analysts estimate numbers up to 15,000 mainly foreign jihadists, overstepped the mark as far as moderate rebels were concerned when its fighters assassinated one of their commanders, Ammar al-Wawi, prompting outrage in insurgent circles.
That outrage only intensified when, over the New Year, ISIS—led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—brutally killed Dr. Hussein al-Suleiman, the leader of Ahrar al-Sham, one of the country’s biggest rebel groups.
Ahrar al-Sham is a member of the Islamic Front, an alliance of hardline Islamist brigades that broke in the autumn with the FSA. It shares some jihadist ideology and has close ties with al Qaeda’s other affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. That killing—Suleiman was tortured before he was slain and photographs of his disfigured body were posted online—set the stage for the current rebel infighting, with equally furious Islamists and moderates banding together to take on ISIS and to demand the affiliate disband and its fighters integrate with other brigades.
The decision by al Qaeda’s smaller affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, which has had its own long-running disputes with the ambitious ISIS leader, to side against their fellow jihadists in fighting this week has prompted sharp debate among jihadi religious scholars.
Some rebels have greeted the clashes as the start of a “second revolution,” one that will see al Qaeda’s overall influence in northern Syria sharply diminished and ISIS curtailed.
Certainly ISIS has been put on the back foot. In recent days clashes have left nearly 300 fighters dead, a hundred of them jihadists. Al-Baghdadi’s affiliate has had to withdraw from its stronghold of Raqqa in northeastern Syria, a city al-Baghdadi planned to be the capital of a Levant caliphate ruled over by him as “Emir of the Believers.”
And ISIS has been forced out of Aleppo, Syria’s onetime commercial hub. “There are hardly any ISIS members left in the city,” according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based pro-opposition group that relies on local activists for its information.
The ISIS response has been bloody. Activists say ISIS carried out a suicide car bombing in the northern town of Darkoush this week, killing at least 17 rebel fighters. And they accuse the group of executing as many as 50 detainees held in Aleppo—possibly abducted journalists and relief workers among them.
But while al-Baghdadi’s initial response is in keeping with a jihadist leader whose mentor was Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant who was rebuked by core al Qaeda’s then deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri in 2005 for excessive extremism in Iraq, it strikes some analysts as restrained compared to what could have been launched. “ISIS’s offensive reaction has so far been relatively minimal, at least in terms of what it is potentially capable,” argues Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
In some towns, ISIS fighters have withdrawn without resistance and the comparative restraint suggests to some al Qaeda watchers there are limits to how far al-Baghdadi will push a confrontation in which he is heavily outnumbered. There are also signs a ceasefire will be brokered in the coming days, probably at the expense of al-Baghdadi. The head of al-Nusra, Abu Mohamed al-Jolani, announced on Monday an initiative to end the fighting, including a “ceasefire” and the establishment of an independent Islamic committee to serve as a mediator. “This unfortunate situation pushed us to launch an initiative to solve the situation,” Jolani said.
“It consists of forming a committee based on Islamic law and composed of the key brigades,” he said, calling on all rebel fighters “to give priority to the fight against the regime.”
Like his mentor, al-Baghdadi has brushed off advice and instructions from al Qaeda’s top leadership. In June, he refused an order from al-Zawahiri to cease efforts to force al-Nusra to merge with ISIS and to return to Iraq.
Since then, top jihadi religious scholars have weighed in about al-Baghdadi. Sheikh Abu Qatada al-Filastini, a Jordanian whom Britain deported to Jordan this summer, wrote from his prison cell in Amman criticizing al-Baghdadi for being power hungry. Another Jordanian Sheikh, Omar Mahdi Zidan, defended the ISIS leader, arguing the mujahedeen are entitled to exercise their own judgment and to choose which commanders they want to follow.
Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, also currently imprisoned in Jordan and—according to the Washington DC-based Middle East Media Research Institute—the most senior jihadist ideologue, has bewailed the al Qaeda disputes in Syria and in an implied condemnation of al-Baghdadi, has ruled local Syrian commanders should be favored over outsiders.
Religious scholars aside, al-Baghdadi appears to have caused deep offense to core al Qaeda by describing himself as “Emir of All Believers,” implying that he is the regional emir when al-Zawahiri has already appointed one—Aleppo-born Abu Khalid al-Suri, an al Qaeda veteran, who also has close ties as well with Islamic Front and plays a central role in Ahrar al-Sham.
Al-Nusra’s siding against ISIS in the infighting “is a clear message to al-Baghdadi,” argues Thomas Joscelyn, an al Qaeda watcher for the U.S.-based think tank, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
“The message is, ‘Don’t think you will rise to be the regional emir.’ Al Qaeda proper is trying to make sure al-Baghdadi does not overstep his bounds.”
Joscelyn says al Qaeda’s top leadership is determined not to go down the same path as it did in Iraq when it lost control of al-Baghdadi’s mentor. “They don’t want al-Baghdadi and the guys who are the most psychopathic within the jihadist sphere to control events in Syria and damage their cause.”
Does that mean a formal split is underway? Joscelyn argues not, maintaining that judging by its modus operandi elsewhere—in sub-Saharan Africa and in Somalia—al Qaeda’s top leadership “wants to maintain influence in different factions in different ways and they want to have different brands to market to Gulf donors.”