The battle for Syrian fiefdoms

January 30, 2015

Abdallah Suleiman Ali  As-Safir

The war of the emirates to obtain Syrian territories has become more obvious. Each faction of the major warring parties seeks to take a piece of the land and to control it and its inhabitants by setting its own laws.

Appealing to the popular support base or attempting to gain its consent is no longer the focus of any of these factions. What is important at this stage is the formation of an emirate and its preservation, regardless of the cost. In eastern Ghouta, it seemed clear that Zahran Alloush, the commander of Jaysh al-Islam, only launched his rocket attacks against the neighborhoods of the city of Damascus after he sensed the danger lurking on the borders of his emirate, as the town of Arbin (the gate to Ghouta) was about to launch a reconciliation period with the Syrian army. Such reconciliation poses a significant risk to Alloush’s project and crosses all the red lines that he tried to set in the previous phase. Therefore, the rocket attack campaign, the first of its kind, reflected Alloush’s concern over reconciliations seeping into his own stronghold.

By bombing Damascus and Latakia, Alloush wanted to deliver two messages. The first is addressed to factions, especially those that accepted the reconciliation process in Arbin against his objection. He sought to demonstrate that no one can overstep Jaysh al-Islam, even if Alloush has to destroy everything in his path. The second message is addressed to Syrian authorities. It aims to mislead them into thinking that he is able to change the rules of the game if they decide to come near his emirate’s borders, whether by waging war or offering reconciliation. Through this message, he stressed that the cost of such an attempt will be bombing the regime’s strongholds in the heart of Damascus and Latakia, within the scope of a deterrent policy. The Syrian army’s response was clear. It continued to bombard the strongholds of Jaysh al-Islam in the city of Douma, even after Alloush stopped his rocket attack. This represented a counter message: The Syrian army does not heed the red lines that Alloush believes he has set on the ground.

Moreover, it is likely that Alloush aimed to attract more armed factions to Ghouta and entice them with bombing Damascus, leading them to submit to his leadership. Alloush knows that obtaining total control of eastern Ghouta would require many battles, and thus he would need additional militants. If Alloush decides to fight the coming battles, the battle against Jaysh al-Ummah, in which he gained control over Douma, would seem like mere child’s play.

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However, in northern Syria, the emirate of Jabhat al-Nusra now controls the majority of Idlib’s countryside after having expelled moderate factions, most notably the Syria Revolutionaries Front. This particular battle still raises numerous questions, as it was an easy battle and Jamal Maarouf did not exert any real effort to fight it efficiently.

Though Jabhat al-Nusra did not officially announce its emirate, its actions indicate that it considers the region its property. Jabhat al-Nusra established a courthouse, which consists of numerous Sharia courts that are distributed across the region’s towns and villages. This court system aims to implement Islamic law and impose the Hadd punishment on violators. But it also established what it called “the joint force in response to grievances,” a military brigade that will arrest and prosecute perpetrators.

Jabhat al-Nusra recently arrested several wanted men, including leader of the Dawn of Freedom Brigades (Liwa Fajr al-Hurriya) Ayman Frouh. News circulated about Jabhat al-Nusra’s intention to form a “media union” to control regional media and to ban criticism from media activists.

Although Jabhat al-Nusra consistently denied any intention to establish an emirate, several factors forced it to contradict itself and reveal its true plans. The most important of these factors is its competition with IS (Islamic State), which announced the caliphate in June 2014. Jabhat al-Nusra did not find it useful to imitate IS and risk to lose its members, especially since the majority of its members believe the caliphate and the implementation of Sharia are their supreme objectives.

Jabhat al-Nusra also wants to exploit the war waged by the US-led international coalition against IS and to channel the outcomes of this war to its advantage. It would do so by absorbing IS militants who are defeated by the coalition. Without a doubt, Jabhat al-Nusra’s step will greatly confuse the international coalition’s strategy. If the coalition succeeds in eliminating IS, it will face yet another challenge: the emirate led by al-Qaeda’s splinter Jabhat al-Nusra.

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While IS’ eastern emirate, which encompasses Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor, and east of Aleppo, is already well established, southern Syria is the sole territory that has yet to be involved in the war of the emirates.

It is surprising that, after Jabhat al-Nusra’s easy battle for control of Idlib’s countryside, the group did not choose Daraa or its countryside as its emirate’s headquarters. Daraa is al-Nusra’s central power hub and the base of its top leaders, such as Abu Maria al-Qahtani and Abu Hassan al-Kuwaiti, who fled from Deir ez-Zor after defeat at the hands of IS.

Even more surprising is Jabhat al-Nusra’s adoption of different policies in the south and north. In the south, it does not seek to monopolize the judiciary, communal organizations, and the media, but instead joined the other factions to form the House of Justice after dissolving its higher court. Is this evidence of internal disagreements within Jabhat al-Nusra? Or are there regional and international authorities that are still able to exert influence on Jabhat al-Nusra and prevent it from going too far in its actions?

Ghouta on edge over talk of reconciliation with regime

The events in the eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, are further escalating after recent developments. Most important are talks about a reconciliation with the Syrian army and the fear of IS (Islamic State) advancing towards the area.

The factions controlling Ghouta have been preoccupied with trying to thwart reconciliation, while working on containing cells that are suspected of having pledged allegiance to IS. Meanwhile, Jabhat al-Nusra has shifted its battles against the moderate factions from the Idleb countryside to the countryside west of Aleppo, which has seen clashes between the organization and the western-backed Hazm Movement.

Two new developments are unfolding in eastern Ghouta. First, the concerns triggered by a public appearance of IS in Ghouta after a hiatus of several months. Second, there have been talks for the first time about a reconciliation with the government that would include Arbin, one of the cities in Ghouta.

The first development has come as a threat to some factions that are intimidated by the return of IS to the area, especially after the violent blows they had dealt to it by killing dozens of the organization’s leaders. Meanwhile, the second development has caused some mistrust between factions that started to exchange accusations of collaboration with the Syrian regime, which led to clashes between them.

Abu Haroun Jobar, the former leader of the al-Habib al-Mustafa Brigades and current leader of Jund al-Asima Brigade, which is affiliated with the former, has been among those most affected by the Rahman Corps campaign against the cells accused of having pledged allegiance to IS.

The Rahman Corps raided Jobar’s headquarters in Arbin, which led to clashes between the two sides and the killing and wounding many people. The clashes ended with the arrest of Jobar and the surrender of his battalion.

The statement issued by the information office of the Rahman Corps confirmed the link between Jund al-Asima and IS, accusing Jobar of, “Pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and receiving funds from him, sheltering gang leaders in eastern Ghouta and providing assistance to the security cells that committed several crime.”

The statement also said that the Abu Zeid Horan group is also being tracked down in the town of Ain Tarma for the same reasons.

Some activists in Ghouta fear that the accusation of pledging allegiance to IS would turn into a mere pretext by strong factions to get rid of their opponents.

In this context, one of the activists said that Jobar is wanted by the leader of Jaysh al-Islam, Zahran Alloush. When he was still the commander of Al-Habib al-Mustafa brigade, Jobar decided to end an alliance with Alloush instead seeking to join the unified military command in which Alloush holds the position of commander general. Alloush saw this decision as disobedience, which led to the arrest of Jobar.

In parallel, over the past two days, Jan. 28-29, Arbin has witnessed clashes between Jabhat al-Nusra and the Umm al-Qura Brigade, as the latter insisted on carrying out negotiations with the Syrian army to reach an agreement on reconciliation in the city.

The letter, which was sent by the brigade leadership to the Syrian army asking for renewal of negotiations, raised the ire of Jabhat al-Nusra and prompted it to arrest Abu Naeem Yaacoub, the messenger.

Jabhat al-Nusra also surrounded the headquarters of the brigade in Arbin, which led to the outbreak of clashes between the two sides. As a result, Abu al-Barraa al-Doumani, a member of Jabhat al-Nusra, was killed and others were arrested. The group declared a state of alert in the region, while Umm al-Qura rushed to set up checkpoints and fortify its positions for any emergency.

Tension continues to prevail in the city, especially following threats by Jabhat al-Nusra to storm in to free its detainees and avenge the death of one of its members.

In the meantime, Jabhat al-Nusra has also been fighting another battle on a different front in Aleppo, against the Hazm Movement which is described as moderate by the West.

Groups of Jabhat al-Nusra surrounded the village of Sheikh Suleiman in the western countryside of Aleppo. The organization also raided the movement’s headquarters and weapons warehouses, while its other groups have been setting up checkpoints and deploying snipers on the roofs of the buildings near the Atarib-Sarmada road.

Jabhat al-Nusra said in a statement that the reason behind the attack was “the failure of negotiations to release two of our members that are being detained by the movement.” However, a source following up on the developments told As-Safir, “The attack comes within Jabhat al-Nusra’s attempt to control the region and to expand its influence, since now it has its eyes set on Aleppo countryside after it had managed to control the countryside of Idlib.”

However, it needed a reason to attack. “The direct cause of the attack on the headquarters of Sheikh Suleiman was that the piece of information Jabhat al-Nusra received saying that Ahmed Shama, one of the leaders of the Hazm Movement, had ordered the weapons to be transported from the warehouses to an unknown location. This caused the ire of Jabhat al-Nusra, as it considered these warehouses to be its own property and accused the movement of having seized them during the battles with Jamal Maarouf, before the signing of the agreement to neutralize Aleppo some time ago,” the source added.

While the clashes did not leave any dead or wounded, Jabhat al-Nusra captured 15 members of the Hazm movement, who are believed to have handed themselves over without resistance.

The Hazm movement issued a statement accusing Jabhat al-Nusra of “exaggeration in religion and apostasy,” stressing that it would defend itself to the last drop of blood. The movement also called upon factions to implement the cease-fire agreement in Aleppo, given the dangerous situation in the governorate. The Hazm movement also threatened to “withdraw all our fighters from all fronts in Aleppo (against the Syrian army) to defend the movement’s headquarters against the treachery of any oppressor.”

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