x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Lessons for Syria’s future from jihadi infighting in Deir Ezzor

Deir Ezzor can stand as a useful case study for how jihadis have established influence in Syria, and how such a challenge should be handled

For some observers, the issue of combating jihadis in Syria will be particularly challenging in areas like Deir Ezzor. It’s here where jihadi veterans – who had fought against the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 – established a route and a base.

In Deir Ezzor, jihadis have led the battles against the regime and, at the same time, have successfully avoided alienating local communities as other factions have done. As a result, whole towns and clans have pledged allegiance to them while the rest generally value their efficiency in the battlefield and in the delivery of services. One of the towns in Deir Ezzor was even named after Jabhat Al Nusra (Shuhail, which has instead been informally called Al Nusra city or Shuhailistan). And, according to more than one source, Deir Ezzor is “close to the heart” of Jabhat Al Nusra’s leader, Abu Mohammed Al Jolani – since he supposedly passed through it when he fought with Al Qaeda in Iraq, and for its strategic importance.

Because of this, Deir Ezzor can stand as a useful case study for how jihadis have established influence in Syria, and how such a challenge should be handled as the two political warring sides are negotiating a solution for the conflict in Geneva.

The use of force to fight extremism in Deir Ezzor will be futile, owing to the demographics of the province: it is predominantly tribal and it has vast, scattered communities over which the regime had historically only tentative control over them.

A good starting point to examine the challenge is the continuing fight between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), a jihadi group that has been disavowed by Al Qaeda, and rebel groups in Deir Ezzor.

Jabhat Al Nusra joined forces with other rebel factions to expel Isil from Deir Ezzor.

A deeper look at this latest counterwave against Isil in Deir Ezzor can explain how Jabhat Al Nusra is sensitive to local dynamics, even if such tactics betray its own established principles.

The push comes after a recent campaign by the Nusra-dominated Sharia body in Mayadeen, the second largest urban centre in Deir Ezzor, launched a campaign against roving bands that steal and attack local communities. This inevitably put Isil face to face with Jabhat Al Nusra.

Jabhat Al Nusra kept the fighting with Isil to a minimum – when Isil took over the Conoco gas plant towards the end of last year, Jabhat Al Nusra did not fight back, although it was more powerful than Isil. There were two reasons for that: the first is that Isil shares a similar jihadi ideology, compared with other Syrian groups.

The second reason, which is more interesting, is that Isil was backed by a sizeable clan in the area, and fighting it will mean that Jabhat Al Nusra might alienate that clan. Also, because the members of Jabhat Al Nusra in Deir Ezzor tend to come from one specific clan, the group tried to avoid the possibility of tribal strife – many people saw the hostility towards Isil there as a tribal affair.

This approach is significant for several other reasons: the jihadi faction fought with groups affiliated to the Free Syrian Army against a fellow extremist group. That, in the jihadi lexicon, is blasphemy, as the FSA is often accused of being “sahwat”, a word for western lackeys.

Also, such a nuanced response to local conditions made Jabhat Al Nusra and its allies even more popular. The group has also extended its control over oilfields, gas plants and other resources in Deir Ezzor.

The sophisticated approach of Jabhat Al Nusra manifested itself in another immensely important area: the fact that it has avoided fighting the regime’s forces in some fronts, despite their strategic importance. Several clans and towns have struck tacit agreements with the regime to prevent rebels from operating in their areas in exchange for not bombing their towns.

Although such agreements are a key reason for the military stalemate in Deir Ezzor, especially around the airport and in some key neighbourhoods in the main urban centre, Jabhat Al Nusra has not attempted to alienate these clans or towns by imposing themselves on their areas – Jabhat Al Nusra is widely known to be the main force that is fighting in the front lines and is eager to make military advances.

Control of lucrative resources in the oil-rich province is perhaps one of the reasons behind Jabhat Al Nusra’s decision to fight Isil. But that fails to explain the full picture. Jabhat Al Nusra could control such resources on its own months ago. It did not need to cooperate with FSA groups against a fellow jihadi group – this particular move has surprised many jihadi supporters.

The episode underlines how Jabhat Al Nusra is sensitive to how it is being perceived in areas where it operates, and that fact presents a daunting challenge for any future government in Syria. How will it deal with such a group (which, according to informed sources, numbers between 6,000 and 7,000 but can rally as many as 25,000 fighters)?

The fact that the province is a tribal area makes it susceptible to jihadi influence, not because tribes are religiously dogmatic but because it is easier to organise their communities around a certain idea and because tribes are pragmatic and flexible, arguably more so than any other social or religious unit in Syria.

But tribes, despite the violence, are really still part of the silent majority and the dynamics that play out in Deir Ezzor can offer insights into how jihadi groups operate and into the challenge they present for the country’s future.

hhassan@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @hhassan140