by Yoram Schweitzer
Over the past two and a half years, the bloodletting between Syrian President Bashar Assad and opposition forces in his country has become a familiar routine.
However, the violent clashes we have seen these past few months within the opposition, among the Islamist elements, are rather new. Al-Qaida's statement that it has nothing to do with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (abbreviated as ISIS) organization, and that it is not responsible for the group's actions in Syria, points to problems within the global jihad family.
The present conflict between al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi began when Baghdadi, on his own accord, announced last April the merging between his Iraq-based group and the Syria-based Nusra Front rebel group, without coordinating the move first with Zawahiri or Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammed al-Joulani.
The Nusra Front leader rejected Baghdadi's unification decree while simultaneously declaring his allegiance to Zawahiri as his supreme commander. The move was seen as a slap in the face, because it was Baghdadi who sent Joulani to Syria to establish the ISIS branch there. Zawahiri, in efforts to establish his own superior status in the global jihad movement, attempted to intercede and maintain a semblance of unity. He took Joulani's side and declared that each organization should act in its own home country -- Baghdadi in Iraq and Joulani in Syria. He even sent an emissary on his behalf to Syria to mediate between the two.
In response, Baghdadi took several tangible steps to implement his decree and operate in both countries, and since mid-2013 his group has been increasingly conspicuous in Syria. Additionally, ISIS ramped up its activities in Iraq, primarily in Anbar Province. ISIS also became the most active and dominant organization on the Syria front and its forces have captured several towns in the north and north-east of the country, which has led to violent skirmishes with other rebel elements on the ground. These clashes come in the form of military battles and mutual assassinations between ISIS and the Syrian Islamic Front (a Salafist umbrella organization of Islamist rebel groups fighting Assad), as well as the Free Syrian Army. Violent clashes have also recently taken place between ISIS and the Nusra Front.
The brunt of the criticism against ISIS has been over its brutal treatment of the local population and its attempts to forcefully institute strict Shariah Law. These actions have included severe punishment for those who deviated, in their view, from the edicts of Islam.
Due to the swelling number of violent acts perpetrated by ISIS operatives against the locals and other opposition forces in Syria, Joulani in January strongly condemned Baghdadi and his men. In response, Baghdadi was forced to issue an apologetic statement, in which he also claimed that anyone opposing his path was also opposing the ways of the Prophet Muhammad and aiding the enemies of Islam, primarily the Shiites. Despite Zawahiri's declaration of Baghdadi's excommunication, it does not appear Baghdadi intends to abandon his path or bow to Zawahiri's dictates.
Suffice it to say, the main beneficiary of this jihadist infighting is the Syrian president, who is exploiting the splintered opposition to make headway on the battlefield. In addition, the intensifying confrontation between the jihadist elements in the opposition could serve the West as well, including Israel, which are closely watching the growing stream of jihadist fighters spilling into Syria and grabbing a foothold there. The rift created by these global jihadist leaders, who have revealed themselves as power hungry fanatics who fight among themselves for personal prestige and recognition, could be utilized by intelligence services to enlist disillusioned jihadists as agents, to help thwart the terrorist attacks expected to migrate from Syria to other parts of the globe.
Yoram Schweitzer is the director of the Terrorism and Low-Intensity Warfare Research Project at the Institute for National Security Studies.
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