Syrian Rebels Issue Opposing Fatwas as the Regime Destroys Aleppo

Following the recent Turkish Euphrates Shield operation on Syrian territory against the Islamic State (ISIS), Syrian opposition groups issued several Fatwas (religious rulings) in support of joining operations under Turkish command. The underlying argument behind the fatwas is where opposition fighters should be deployed: fighting to defend Aleppo city, or supporting the Turkish operation further northeast.

 Ahrar al-Sham put out the most important of these rulings, saying that it was permissible to fight under the Turkish flag. That statement prompted several factions to defect from the militia and two Egyptian scholars, Abu al-Yaqzan and Abu Shueib (Talha al-Maysar), quit its Sharia Committee in protest. Scholars from other groups said the need to fight the “Apostate Kharijites” (i.e. ISIS) and the need for an Islamist group such as Ahrar al-Sham to take charge of the situation justified “assistance and coordination” with Turkey.

The most prominent signatories to the ruling were the Sharia scholars Dr. Abdulkarim Najib, Dr Ayman Haroush, and Sheikh Abu al-Sadiq al-Hamawi, as well as Sheikh Abdulrazzaq al-Mahdi. The latter which later disowned it and withdrew from the Sharia Council after Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusra Front, issued another ruling forbidding fighting alongside Turkish forces.

Ahrar’s ruling provoked the ire of several leading figures within Ahrar al-Sham, prompting some to defect—whether publicly, in the case of a faction known as al-Ashidda’, or privately.

Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, was quick to release a counter-ruling saying that working with the Turkish army was haram due to the participation of American forces in recent military operations. “We view fighting in the northern countryside alongside any foreign party from the region or beyond as haram, whether in order to seek help or by coordinating with it, because the reality is that the necessary sharia conditions for such cases have not been met.”

These opposing statements were issued while the regime bombed Aleppo after re-imposing a siege on it. Reports from Aleppo say that the regime and Russia are using new types of bombs and rockets, including bunker busters, to destroy entire neighborhoods, causing the earth to shake and bunkers to collapse. Last week the Friday prayer was not held in the city and schools were closed for the first days of the new term.

The air strikes destroyed the civil defense centers, also known as the white helmets, inside the besieged city. The white helmets announced they might have to cease all rescue operations because of the heavy damage to its vehicles and the equipment used to rescue people trapped under the rubble. As a result, the civilian death toll in recent days rose to 150 over the weekend, many of them women and children. At an Atlantic Council event yesterday, Raed Saleh, head of the white helmets, said the death toll had reached 1,000 over the past eight days.

Residents who remained were unable to leave their houses to go to work or look for food, as planes were targeting markets and the places still providing locals with food.

Fateh al-Sham’s statement provoked an angry response from most other factions in northern Syria, many of which issued rulings similar to that of Ahrar al-Sham—notably the Sharia Council of Aleppo, which ruled that fighting alongside Turkish, Muslim forces in the Euphrates Shield operation was a legitimate, permissible jihad, and that every fighter who died battling ISIS or Syrian Democratic Forces would be considered a martyr.

Meanwhile, the Sham Scholars Group (Tajammu’ Ahl al-‘Ilm fi al-Sham) which includes Saudi jihadist cleric Abdullah al-Muhaysini, issued a statement describing the Free Syrian Army as “the Pentagon’s battalions,” accusing them of taking orders from American officers and claiming that they had tried to enter Jarabulus to take part in the military operation against ISIS. The ruling denounced fighting alongside or coordinating with American forces, which it described as invaders. It stressed that it was essential not to leave the battlefield in Aleppo in order to fight with Turkey in Jarabulus.

It has become obvious that Syria’s opposition forces are deeply divided, including Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. The latter has tried to recruit commanders and jihadists who defect from its rival, while Ahrar al-Sham has taken practical steps regarding its internal leadership and is seeking to become closer to the FSA. Recently a number of al-Qaeda associates have been sacked, such as Saleh Tahhan, the military commander, whose place was taken by Abu Abdullah al-Shami, a Turkmen close to the Turkish authorities.

The remaining opposition factions are fighting in the Hama countryside in an attempt to draw the regime away from Aleppo and ease the burden on the northern city. As this article was being written, they took control of the village of Maan, in Hama, but it was not clear if they were able to secure the area.

Meanwhile, Syrian activists are trying to draw the world’s attention to what is happening in Aleppo, via social media. They launched the hashtag #HolocaustAleppo and used it to publish photos and news of the latest massacres and atrocities experienced by the people of Aleppo, such as the use of bunker busting rockets that activists say aim to destroy underground shelters.

The UN Security Council held a special session to study the situation in Aleppo, based on a request by the United States, Britain and France. During the meeting, the Russian and American envoys exchanged accusations about events in Aleppo. The British envoy accused Russia of war crimes. The summit ended without any outcome that could help bring an end to violence in Aleppo.

Mohammad al-Halabi, an activist in Aleppo, said via Whatsapp that entire neighborhoods had been turned to rubble by Russian and Syrian fighter jets, while the Syrian regime continued to accuse Jabhat Fatah al-Sham of terrorism and said it expected Ahrar al-Sham to carry out terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, regime jets continued to batter. Mohammad al-Halabi said every civilian in Aleppo could be killed at the hands of Putin and Assad.

Saleem al-Omar is a freelance journalist who has written for Al-Jazeera, Alquds Alarabi Newspaper, Arabi 21, and Syria Deeply.

Image: Photo: A man rides a bicycle past damaged buildings in the rebel-held Tariq al-Bab neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail