What the Recent Infighting Between Islamist Groups Tells Us

Clashes between Islamist opposition units Jund al-Aqsa and Ahrar al-Sham have continued for several days in a row in opposition-held areas of northern Syria. This recent string of fights began when Jund al-Aqsa attempted to abduct Ahrar al-Sham’s security officer in Saraqeb in Idlib province. The operation resulted in the death of his brother and wife, with the officer himself left in critical condition. Immediately afterward, clashes in Idlib province broke out between Ahrar and Jund al-Aqsa in Hama, which left, according to local sources, hundreds injured and dozens dead on both sides, including leaders of Ahrar al-Sham. Mohamed al-Munir, Ahrar’s commander in Jabal al-Zawiya, was killed after Jund al-Aqsa forces besieged the village of Hazareen, where he was hiding.

These clashes are not new; there were clashes as recently as last month in Ariha, a village in central Idlib. Jund al-Aqsa soldiers attacked one of Ahrar al-Sham’s local leaders in that area, leaving him in critical condition. Other clashes followed, leaving scores injured, according to local activists. The situation was resolved when the armed groups settled their disputes in a Sharia court and decided to suspend hostilities. However, what is happening now has complex roots starting early in the war.

Originally a subunit of the Nusra Front, Jund al-Aqsa was founded by Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Qatari, who fought for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and was “close to” Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. They began operating in Syria in 2013.

Since 2012, Islamist groups, in particular Nusra, have tried to drive out rebel groups that differed from them ideologically. In the fight against other rebel groups, Jund al-Aqsa has played a significant role.

In 2014, when clashes started between ISIS and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), al-Qatari went to Jamal Ma’rouf—at the time the commander of the FSA unit Syrian Martyrs Brigade—hoping to stop the fighting. Soon after that he disappeared, and nine months after his disappearance his body was found buried in Ma’rouf’s backyard, leading to further clashes between the FSA and Jund al-Aqsa. With 2,000 fighters—mostly foreigners alongside a small number of Syrians—Jund al-Aqsa along with the Nusra Front started their war against the FSA in 2014, marginalizing the FSA units in the north so the Islamists could dominate.

Although Jund al-Aqsa played a critical role against other rebels, many groups, including Ahrar al-Sham, still retained a degree of trust in them and considered them an effective fighting force, with one source referring to them as “a winning card” in every battle. In 2015, they joined Jaysh al-Fateh, an armed coalition that included Nusra, and helped win key battles in northwest Syria. During the battle for the city of Idlib, al-Aqsa suicide bombers struck Assad regime checkpoints, allowing other fighters to stream in. Idlib fell to Jaysh al-Fateh in just days. However, later that year, Jund al-Aqsa defected from Jaysh al-Fateh after refusing to sign on an agreement to fight ISIS, considering them instead to be “brothers and allies.”

Unlike Ahrar, Jund al-Aqsa has never considered itself a part of the Syrian uprising against the tyranny of the Assad regime. Like Nusra and ISIS, they do not recognize Syria as a national entity but as part of a larger caliphate and they’ve taken advantage of war to try to achieve that dream. Ideologically, they are Salafi-jihadist, meaning they want to create a Salafist Islamic state and will use force to do so.

Jund al-Aqsa is reliant on the local population for support and resources, but its brutal methods make it unpopular. For instance, Khan Sheikhun is well known from Jund al-Aqsa’s arrests and executions, and just last week Rami al-Sinjwai, a 13-year-old boy from Khan Sheikhun in Idlib province, was tortured and killed after he was overheard cursing God while playing with his friends. Saeed al-Swid, a FSA fighter who was detained by Jund al-Aqsa in 2014, was tortured to death at Jund al-Aqsa’s infamous “correctional facility,” located inside a shelter deep inside a series of caves in the mountains of Idlib, between Kafr Nabl and Kinsafra, known as Jabal al-Zawiya. Former detainees have told terrible stories about the prison and the torture they endured there. These actions were not only done to opposing fighters, but also to non-combatants who did not support Jund al-Aqsa or its ideology, including aid workers and civil society activists.  

Sources in Jund al-Aqsa complain that Nusra, despite their partnership, has been taking the spoils of recent gains all for itself. Jund al-Aqsa has no source of funding and relies on victory spoils and extorting resources from local communities. Even their fighters do not receive regular financial compensation, but rather get food baskets, which they often sell and are worth no more than 7,000 Syrian pounds, or around $30. All their amenities come from battle and they often rely on Nusra for supplies when fighting together.

Part of what we are seeing now are lines drawn between the two most effective Islamist groups, Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which was previously affiliated with al-Qaeda and known as the Nusra Front. Recently, Jund al-Aqsa released a statement pledging allegiance to Fateh al-Sham. Though formalizing relations with al-Aqsa will strengthen Fateh al-Sham, it will complicate its relationship with Ahrar. Though they have coordinated on the battlefield in the past, such as in August to briefly break the siege of Aleppo, they have also been competing for influence in northern Syria. Recently, both groups issued competing fatwas that tried to influence whether opposition groups should be fighting to break the siege on Aleppo or fight with the Turkish Euphrates Shield operation. Moreover, Fateh al-Sham’s hope of creating a unified Islamist coalition by breaking ties with al-Qaeda has failed, in particular because Ahrar al-Sham and other groups saw Fateh al-Sham’s break with al-Qaeda as a chance to push for it to moderate its behavior.

A twitter statement from Ahrar al-Sham’s spokesperson Ahmad Qarali declared that Jund al-Aqsa’s allegiance to Fateh al-Sham would not prevent them from “eradicating” Jund al-Aqsa. Almost all forces in the north of Syria have released statements supporting Ahrar al-Sham in their battle against Jund al-Aqsa, reaching a consensus that Jund Al-Aqsa is an Islamic State (ISIS) sleeper cell. Ahrar al-Sham has also shared audio recordings of Jund al-Aqsa fighters allegedly confessing that they are ISIS sleeper cells. Fateh al-Sham, though, has been unwilling to side with Ahrar in this matter, instead accepting al-Aqsa’s allegiance, which risks putting it in direct confrontation with Ahrar al-Sham

Before swearing allegiance to Nusra, there was friction between Nusra and Jund al-Aqsa because the latter refused to take part in the Aleppo operations, preferring instead to fight in Hama where it has found it can take ground from regime forces, since the regime and its allies are concentrating on Aleppo. Nusra decided to not provide supplies and protection, leaving al-Aqsa economically weak and vulnerable to Ahrar al-Sham and other groups seeking revenge from al-Aqsa’s previous attacks against them. Nusra may also have seen withholding supplies as a way to force Jund al-Aqsa to merge with it.

As the regime and its allies intensify their attacks on northern Syria, rebel groups are still sorting out their ideologies and allegiances. As Jund al-Aqsa’s story shows, though, the equation is complex, balancing ideology, resources, local support, and the need to survive.

Loubna Mrie is a Syrian activist who participated in the initial stages of the revolution. She later became a photojournalist with Reuters based in Aleppo, where she covered the ongoing conflict in the Idlib, Aleppo, Latakia, and Hama governorates. Originally from the Syrian coastal city of Jableh, she is currently based in New York City where she is a researcher and commentator on Syrian and Middle Eastern affairs and is completing an MA at NYU. Her work has been published in major outlets including the Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and New Republic.

Image: Photo: Rebel fighters from the hardline jihadist Jund al-Aqsa ride on a motorbike in Taybat al Imam town after they advanced in the town in Hama province, Syria August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah