A tense cease-fire appeared Friday to have halted fighting between key factions of the rebel movement that’s battling to topple Syria’s President Bashar Assad.
Questions remained, however, over whether the arrangement could salvage the relationship between the al Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Sham and the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army, ties that have been crucial to rebel military victories.
The main opposition umbrella group, the Syrian Opposition Coalition, harshly criticized the Islamic State in a statement that said the group’s al Qaida-inspired values “run counter to the principles that the Syrian revolution is trying to achieve." It said the main rebel groups were pursuing an agenda that was "moderate and respects religious and political pluralism while rejecting blind extremism."
But at least one analyst of the rebel movement said it was unlikely that such words would lead to a severing of ties between the groups, if for no other reason than the U.S.-backed rebels were dependent on the Islamic State’s battlefield prowess and its fighters’ zeal to defeat Assad’s better-equipped army.
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The group affiliated with the Free Syrian Army that brokered Thursday night’s cease-fire, Liwa al Tawheed, has long worked closely with the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham and its al Qaida-linked ally, the Nusra Front, and wants to avoid an escalation, said Aymenn Tamimi, a fellow at the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum who’s a doctoral candidate at Oxford University.
“I don’t see the Azaz clashes as evidence of an imminent ‘FSA vs. ISIS’ war,” he said by email. “Notably, Liwa al Tawheed’s commanders still value ISIS as a military asset and were accordingly pushing for a compromise in Azaz, even as many on-the-ground supporters and lower-rank fighters are much more suspicious of ISIS.”
Tamimi also said that another FSA-affiliated group, the Farouq Brigades, which battled Islamic State fighters last week in the town of al Bab in Aleppo province, was likely to want to preserve its contacts with Islamic State fighters. Farouq leaders, he said, “stress they are brothers of ISIS in Islam, and will not accept a non-Islamic or non-Shariah-based constitution.”
Only six weeks ago, the Syrian Opposition Coalition had praised the Islamic State and the Nusra Front for their roles in capturing the government’s Mannagh air base in Idlib province. Pro-Assad troops had resisted a 10-month siege the rebels had imposed on the base until Aug. 6, when two non-Syrians from one of the al Qaida affiliates drove an armored personnel carrier loaded with explosives into a position manned by defenders and blew themselves up.
The fighting this week at Azaz, a town less than three miles from the Turkish border, underscored the danger that the Islamic State’s rise poses for Westerners who’ve entered northern Syria to assist the rebel movement. The spark for the fighting in Azaz reportedly was an argument between the rebel groups over the presence of Western medical personnel treating a Chechen member of the Islamic State. After members of the Northern Storm Brigades, which are loyal to FSA commanders, moved to protect the foreigners from the Islamic State fighters, clashes spread throughout the city.
Kidnappings of Westerners by suspected al Qaida-linked fighters have soared in recent weeks, so much so that Human Rights Watch issued a plea Thursday for Western news reporters to stay out of northern Syria.
Tensions have been mounting over the past year or so as al Qaida-linked groups have been bolstered by a flood of thousands of foreign fighters with significant amounts of experience, funding and equipment. Many Syrians resent the presence of the foreign forces.
"ISIS is determined to irritate every faction of the insurgency," said Will McCants, an expert on Islamist militants at the Brookings Institution, a research center in Washington. Drawing a comparison to Iraq, where ham-fisted rule by the Islamic State’s predecessor, al Qaida in Iraq, led to a rebellion among Sunni Muslim tribal leaders that ultimately drove al Qaida in Iraq from the areas it controlled, McCants noted that it “seems like they learned nothing.”
Tamimi agreed that the Islamic State’s moves were alienating former allies. “It’s clear that ISIS has lost favor among many previous sympathizers in Azaz,” he said. “For example, one local outlet, ‘Ahrar Azaz,’ features the ISIS flag on its Facebook page but is now criticizing ISIS over its conduct in the town.”
There are no firm numbers on al Qaida sympathizers among Syria’s estimated 100,000 rebels. A study released this week by Charles Lister, an analyst with the defense consultancy IHS Jane’s in Great Britain, said 10,000 to 12,000 were members of the Islamic State and the Nusra Front but that perhaps another 30,000 “hard-line Islamists” coordinated their military actions with them.
But it’s difficult to pin down the beliefs of the estimated 1,000 organizations that make up the anti-Assad rebel movement. The main group that fought the Islamic State in Azaz, the Northern Storm Brigades, has admitted to kidnapping and holding nine Lebanese Shiite Muslim pilgrims for more than a year, robbing and shaking down local merchants in the name of the revolution and conducting sectarian attacks on religious minorities in northern Syria.