Lines blur in efforts to stop ISIL’s march on south Syria
AMMAN // The struggle to stop ISIL spreading into southern Syria has burst into the open.
Moderate rebels and hardline factions including Jabhat Al Nusra are fighting militants connected to the extremists near the Israeli border.
At least 47 fighters have been killed over two weeks in ambushes, kidnappings and shootings.
The fighting has opened up a complex and multilayered conflict on the southern front, the place Syria’s uprising began in March 2011 and where rebels had managed to maintain a faltering unity in their war against president Bashar Al Assad and his allies, Hizbollah and Iran.
The fighting started on April 27 when a shadowy militant faction known as the Jihad Army carried out a surprise attack on a moderate rebel unit, Ahrar Nawa, which is backed by the Military Operations Command (MOC), a secret control centre in Amman staffed by military personnel from western and Gulf states.
Nine Ahrar Nawa fighters were killed and three others wounded in the ambush, which took place in Al Qahtaniyeh, near the frontier with Israel, opposition activists said. The 19-man Ahrar Nawa squad was en route to attack forces loyal to president Bashar Al Assad at the time.
Fighting under the black flag of ISIL – the first time it has been raised on the southern front, moderate rebels say – the Jihad Army also captured 20 fighters from the MOC-affiliated First Army and laid siege to a field hospital used by rebels in Al Maabar.
It remains unclear exactly how close to ISIL the Jihad Army is and whether it has formally pledged allegiance to ISIL leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi or if its association is more of an aspiration than reality. ISIL franchises have spread to 11 countries, including to Libya, Yemen and Nigeria
Rebel commanders familiar with the prevalent thinking in the MOC said it was treating the Jihad Army as part of ISIL and a serious threat.
“The Jihad Army has been a clandestine army. These are Daesh sleeper cells and now they have emerged,” said Bashar Al Zoubi, commander of the Yarmouk Army, a powerful rebel faction on the southern front. Daesh is another name for ISIL, widely used in Syria and Iraq.
Last Tuesday the Yarmouk Army attacked Jihad Army command posts in Al Qhataniyeh and Quneitra.
“We have sent forces to deal with them … We will not allow Daesh here. They know that they do not have a place for them in the south because our response was tough.”
Various moderate rebel factions, still colloquially known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), responded to the first ambush in Al Qahtaniyeh but they quickly scaled down their operations, allowing Nusra to take the lead.
The Al Qaeda affiliate has been at war with ISIL throughout Syria – often coming out second best. Key Nusra commanders and fighters in the south were previously in the eastern desert province of Deir Ezzor, which they were forced to flee after a humiliating ISIL takeover last July.
Apparently intent on not repeating that experience, Nusra mobilised its forces to face the Jihad Army. The day after the initial ambush, Nusra, working with Ahrar Al Sham, another ultraconservative faction, successfully overran several Jihad Army camps.
“They have besieged them,” said a rebel commander. “They took Al Samdaniyeh, Al Hamidiyeh and Al Qahtaniyeh and overran most of their [the Jihad Army’s] headquarters there.”
In the skirmishes, the Jihad Army’s leader, a Syrian militant from the Golan Heights known as Abu Musab Al Fannousi, was variously reported to have been captured and executed, seriously wounded or shot, less seriously, in the shoulder.
A voice recording posted on Twitter on May 1 appeared to dispel rumours of his death, with Al Fannousi calling Nusra and the FSA “puppets of the infidel regimes”, and accusing them of following orders from foreign states to attack the Jihad Army which, he said, “wanted to rule by God’s laws”. The recording was being treated as authentic by moderate rebels.
Details about the Jihad Army remain patchy. Information from rebel fighters and social media sources indicates it was established in January by Al Fannousi and a militant called Abu Bashir, a defector from Al Nusra who took dozens of fighters with him.
It quickly grew to a force of between 400 and 600 men, according to a moderate rebel commander with knowledge of MOC intelligence assessments. Other rebels said it was smaller, numbering between 200 and 300 fighters.
Some of its members were drawn from other rebel groups, including Ahrar Al Sham, rebels said. One moderate fighter said he knew the group to contain militants from Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
The emergence of ISIL on the southern front is something moderate commanders and their allies in western, Jordanian and Gulf intelligence agencies, all part of an anti-ISIL coalition fighting the group in Syria and Iraq since last year, have been trying to prevent.
Unlike parts of northern and eastern Syria, where ISIL has become the dominant force, in the south moderates have retained more influence.
Those claims to moderation have been undermined by the rise of Al Nusra, however, which has stuck firmly to its Al Qaeda affiliation, and by what appears to be a shift by some moderate and conservative factions towards ISIL.
Adding to the fracturing battlefront in the south, two days after the April 27 ambush, and with the fight against the Jihad Army still raging, clashes erupted in Quneitra between Al Nusra and the Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigades, a major rebel faction affiliated to the MOC and separate from the Yarmouk Army, after the latter took control of a town called Sahm Al Golan, in the west of Deraa province, and overran a series of Nusra command posts.
Three Saudis fighting for Nusra were reported among the dead.
Harakat Al Muthana, a powerful hardline faction, then became embroiled in the fighting, manoeuvring to prevent Nusra from implementing an operation on May 3 to try and kill or capture the commander of the Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigades, Mohammad “Abu Ali” Al Baridi, also known as Al Khal, .
Tensions have been simmering between Nusra and the Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigades since December 15, when Nusra assassinated Mousab Ali Qarfan, also known as Mousab Zaytouneh, a top Brigades commander, and three other fighters from the group.
Nusra accused him of being an ISIL sleeper agent and said the Brigades had been infiltrated by ISIL as part of a creeping expansion into southern Syria.
The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigades has denied the claims and recently issued a statement criticising Nusra’s affiliation with Al Qaeda. But the group’s credibility as a moderate force was further damaged in March when a video showing its fighters and commander, Al Khal, singing a nashid, a religious song, praising ISIL was posted on the internet.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the controversy started by that footage, and said eight members of the Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigades were subsequently arrested in the town of Nawa and sentenced to six years in jail by the Islamic Justice Committee, a rebel court.
Revelations last month that ISIL had entered Yarmouk Camp, in southern Damascus, further fuelled speculation of links between the Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigade, which is present in the camp.
A series of overlapping conflicts are now under way in the south, involving Nusra, the Jihad Army, the Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigades, the FSA and forces loyal to Mr Al Assad. In addition, the Syria conflict is a broader proxy war, involving the US, Gulf states, Russia and Iran. More than 200,000 people have been killed since 2011, according to the UN, with millions more fleeing their homes as refugees.
Updated: May 10, 2015 04:00 AM