Free Syrian Army Fights Two Fronts

US Weakness Creates Vacuum For al-Qaeda

The People of Syria are now fighting two fronts. The most obvious front continues to be ridding Syria of Bashar al-Assad. Children are still singing “Yallah Bashar Yallah!” as they gather at peaceful protests. “Go Bashar Go!”

It wasn’t so long ago that every Friend of Syria member country was calling for Bashar al-Assad to step down. However, over time the “message” from the Friends of Syria has weakened. When I speak to Syrians on the ground via internet, they tell me they are not sure what the US position is.

As the hope for assistance from the US has waned, many areas of Syria have been overtaken by al-Qaeda linked extremist groups supposedly fighting on the side of the People of Syria. The two al-Qaeda groups that are prominently operating in Syria are Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and Levant). Both of these extremist groups came into Syria with foreign fighters and have brought their extremely harsh brand of terrorism with them.

Video: Young Syrian Girl takes up the microphone to lead a rally. Abdul Basit al Sarut is fostering a new generation of leaders in Syria.

Both extremist groups professed to be strict Islamist. However, according to an Imam whom I spoke with, he confirmed that “al-Qaeda doesn’t believe in anything but power and greed.” He specifically said “al-Qaeda does not have religion and does not have humanity” The tactics they use are to create terror and submission.

Syria ISIS

The most dangerous of the al-Qaeda groups is the ISIL. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qaeda disbanded the Syrian faction of the Islamic State in April, 2013. Al-Zawahiri blamed the leaders of both groups for acting without the knowledge of the central al-Qaeda leadership.

Zawahiri then specifies the “wilaya makaniyya,” or area of political activity, for each group: the Islamic State of Iraq should confine itself to Iraq, with the Nusra Front given sole authority for Syria.

(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::, giving Nusra Front the sole right to operate in Syria. However, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who is the emir of ISIS made clear that he rejected this ruling and the group continued to operate in Syria. Although initially the ISIL appeared to be a “positive and organized” group that had come to help drive Assad out, it didn’t take long for the perception to change.

The ISIL began to set up their own “Islamic State” within Syria known as ISIS or Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria. The methods that they used were “compassion” vs. “terror.” For those within their “borders” who complied with their rules, they offered food and school rooms which were scarce in other parts of Syria since the revolution started. All of ISIS headquarters buildings or centers were clearly marked with huge black lettering or black flags. An Interesting fact, that may have attracted Syrian people to them was Assad forces never attacked any of of ISIS acquired facilities, which was curious, at least.

ISIS is more commonly known in Syria for their brutality. ISIS has expelled or imprisoned rival militia members, foreign journalists and aid workers. They implemented their own brand of “sharia law” to deal with the Syrians who they judged as not following their own interpretation of “sharia law.” They are routinely involved in killings, executions, whippings, and kidnapings. Most recently, they kidnapped Dr. Hussein Suleiman (Abu Rayan), a top commander from Ahrar Ashaam along with 20 other fighters. The Ahrar Al Sham’s media office reported that following a prisoner exchange negotiated between the two groups, ISIS handed over the body of Abu Rayan who had been executed by firing squad.

Dr. Abu Rayan’s execution was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. Protesters took to the streets on January 3rd under the slogan, “Friday of the martyr Abu Rayyan.” Amateur video shot in Aleppo on Friday shows protesters chanting: “Free Syrian Army forever! Crush ISIL and Assad!”

The Free Syrian Army has been sweeping across Free Syria areas including Aleppo and Idlib to push ISIS out of Syria. The City of Raqqa became a focal point today, January 6th when fierce fighting resulting in ISIS moving out. More than 50 Syrian hostages were freed from a government building in Raqqa where ISIS was holding them. An additional 50 Syrian Activists (including women) were found murdered in the Aleppo Eye Specialist Hospital which was also taken as an ISIS Center.

Bunyamin Aygun, a Turkish photographer, was the only non-Syrian hostage rescued in Raqqa on Sunday, amid the fighting. He reported that the ISIS militants who kidnapped him threatened to executed him by firing squad or “cut him into pieces.” He said they told him, “It’s either execution by firing squad or by being cut into pieces. We will cut you into pieces, this is more honourable for you.” It was hoped that all the kidnapped aid workers and journalists would also be found in Raqqa, however, sources have said that the other hostages were moved earlier to an undisclosed location. Obviously the search for them will continue.

ISIS is being chased back to where they came from. Most of the ISIS foreign fighters are likely from Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan; however; some are from Western countries and Eastern Europe. It just goes to show what a wide net al-qaeda really has. As ISIS is pushed out of Syria, some members have defected and joined either Jabhat al-Nusra or one of the other groups that have merged under the Free Syrian Army such as Saudi backed Islamic Front. Even though ISIS is heading for the “exit,” the fighting strength is still a cocktail with a good amount of Salafists and al-Qaeda, and a bit of Western-backed moderate FSA.

Interview With Syrian Activist

I had a great Skype interview this week with a Syrian Activist, Khaled, who also “fights with the Syrian Free Army on a limited capacity.” He said that it is the FSA’s goal to “eject al-Qaeda totally out of Syria.” This is consistent with other conversations that I have had with Syrians who have said that there is no place in Free Syria for al-Qaeda. Khaled told me that in Idlib where he lives, the FSA and the Islamic Front has been able to free many areas of ISIS, al-Qaeda but there is more work to be done.

Khaled also discussed the disappointment that Syrians have in the US, and how “Syrians hoped the US would provide more direct support to the Free Syrian Army. Al-Qaeda has easily moved into Syria because there was such a need for help, and they had manpower and weapons.” I asked him what had changed that enabled a successful fight against ISIS. He said, “There is a consolidation of Islamic fighting groups, and now there is the Islamic Front.”

I asked if the Islamic Front was separate from the FSA. Khaled said, “No they have joined the FSA. We are getting a lot stronger.” I then asked if the Islamic Front had anything to do with support from Saudi Arabia. His reponse was not surprising. Khaled told me Saudi Arabia was providing training, weapons and manpower. I asked if the Islamic Front shares what they received from Saudi Arabia with the other FSA members. He said, “some [training ideas and the manpower] but not weapons, they keep those for themselves.” In an interview with the Daily Star, an Islamic Front Representative said, “We fight against whoever attacks us and whoever pushes us to battle, whether they are Syrian [Regime Army] or foreign [al-Qaeda].”

Jabhat al-Nusra, the other al-Qaeda, has been taking a different approach from ISIS, not requiring to stand-out as an Islamist leader. They have been working “in sync” with FSA operations often in a support role. In a rare interview, Abu Golani (al-Nusra leader) told Al Jazeera, “The Nusra Front does not seek to rule society on its own when we reach the stage of the liberation of Sham (Syria).” Abu Golani went on to say, “They will put in place an appropriate plan for running the country, which of course will be based on Islamic sharia, ruling on the basis of God’s law.” According to Aljazeera, Abu Golani proposed “a legal council made up of Imams and Islamic thinkers who supported the Syrian uprising, even if they were outside the country.” Syrian activists have reported al-Nusra looked like they were ready to move into Raaqa as ISIS was leaving. It will remain to be seen if al-Nusra is going to make Raaqa their new stronghold.

Who Are The Good Guys?

In the US or other Western countries, it is difficult for people to distinguish between the “good guys and the bad guys.” Abu Leyla, an Idlib-based activist, told AFP via the Internet, “I’d say about 90 percent of people in the opposition areas are against ISIL. They use violence and abuses to crush dissent. They are only Islamic in name. All they want is power.”

Columnist Edward Dark (a pseudonym) who operates out of Aleppo published the following statement in a resent column for Al-Monitor, “This new Saudi-backed Islamic Front is a fusion of Salafist jihadist Islamist groups, not as extreme in ideology as al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) or Jabhat al-Nusra, but nevertheless by no means mainstream like the FSA. It openly calls for Islamic Sharia rule instead of secular democracy, and was even implicated in sectarian war crimes like the Latakia province incidents documented by Human Rights Watch. … Meant to counter the growing power and influence of al-Qaeda, especially in the north of Syria, it has none the less undermined the Western-backed FSA.”

Geopolitical pundits are saying that the United States missed it’s chance to stabilize Syria and keep the extremist groups like al-Qaeda out of the sphere of influence. What expectation will Saudi Arabia have on Syria’s future government should their help lead to a win over the Assad regime?

And to add insult to injury, the UN has said the “complex and dangerous” nature of Syria’s civil war “has made it impossible to accurately update the death toll.”

If after you read this article you are compelled to take action, here are a few things you can do as an individual that will make a difference:

1. Call or write your US Representatives or National Representatives to express your support for action for Syria. The “crimes against humanity” and “acts of genocide” that are happening in Syria must stop. The innocent people in Syria need help.

2. Find a local charity that is working on a Syria project.

3. Check out what initiatives the Free Syria Foundation has in place that you would like to support. This is a wonderful US 501 (3) that is directed by a wonderful Syrian American who works almost 24/7 on behalf of Syria’s children.

Kimberly Jones is a global nomad with a special interest in the Middle East and North Africa. She grew up in Saudi Arabia and traveled throughout the MENA growing deeply attached to the people and the culture.