Al-Yarmouk camp, located in the south of Damascus, is known to be the largest camp in Syria, housing Palestinian refugees displaced in 1948 and 1967. More recently it has been under the control of armed forces opposed to the Assad regime. With the intensification of violence over the past year the camp has largely emptied out. Very few of al-Yarmouk's residents remain amongst the debris and destruction.
Jubhat al-Nusra li Ahl al-Sham (The Victorious Front in Support of the People of the Levant) and Umm Yazan:
Umm Yazan is one of the very few remaining Christians living in al-Yarmouk. The camp has been her home for the past thirty years after her marriage to a Palestinian Muslim. Despite not having converted to Islam, she has integrated into the conservative daily life patterns of the camp. Umm Yazan was forced to flee her home because of the continuous heavy shelling and intense street-battles which al-Yarmouk was and continues to be subjected to. Intermittent lulls in the fighting have encouraged some residents, including Umm Yazan, to take the opportunity to return to the camp to check on what remains of their homes and to recover belongings left behind.
It was on one such trip that Umm Yazan was held at a checkpoint manned by Jubhat al-Nusra fighters. Wearing both a hijab and a cross around her neck, she had caught the attention of the fighters. Their initial reaction was one of suspicion – she could be a regime informant (mukhabarat). The notoriety of some Jihadi militias had convinced Umm Yazan that she would be shown little mercy. Fortunately for Umm Yazan, the fighters were not inclined to let their imaginations wander and they took the time to ask why a middle-aged woman would mix her religious symbols. On hearing her story the fighters apologised for the misunderstanding and duly escorted her home, helping her gather the belongings she had left behind.
Given that there is no real authority or legal recourse in "liberated" areas it is far from clear that incidents such as the one illustrated above are at all representative of relations between civilians and jihadist fighters. The experience of Umm Yazan could equally be read as nothing more than an isolated anecdote. However, the oft-repeated narrative of al-Nusra being nothing more than an al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist organisation with a blinkered, dogmatic and exclusionary vision towards people of other faiths and beliefs needs to be critically examined.
The majority of inhabitants in "liberated" areas agree on the high moral standing of Jubhat al-Nusra fighters and the success they have attained based on their own merit. They emerge untarnished from charges of plundering and looting resources and the wealth of ordinary Syrians – a charge which is commonly leveled at other militias. It is perhaps unsurprising then that al-Nusra has been able to expand its popular grassroots support.
However, the emergence of Dawlat al-Iraq wa al-Sham al-Islamiyya (the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria) as a new player on the jihadi militia block in Syria has created chaos and much anxiety not only amongst ordinary war-weary Syrians exasperated with ever-increasing sectarianism but also among the jihadi groups themselves. Despite there being clear differences in the practices and strategies of the two factions, many activists and media outlets continue to fall into the trap of confusing the two, attributing the mistakes of one group to the other.
Jubhat al-Nusra vs. al-Dawla
As its name suggests, Jubhat al-Nusra was established to support the Syrians in their fight against the despotic rule of the Assad regime and to help establish a just Islamic state. In April 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – the commander of the Islamic State of Iraq, a conglomerate of jihadi groups borne out of the American invasion of Iraq – released a statement which put the jihadi groups in Syria in a state of confusion and disarray. He announced the merger of his group with Jubhat al-Nusra to create a new entity called Dawlat al-Iraq wa al-Sham al-Islamiya (The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).
This unilateral step on the part of al-Baghdadi came as something of a surprise, it seems, to the leadership of Jubhat al-Nusra. A few days later, Abu Mohammad al-Joulani – the commander of Jubhat al-Nusra – responded in a recorded message through the organisation's media wing, 'the white minaret', rejecting al-Baghdadi’s claim. Couched in a rather deferential register, the statement nonetheless did confirm a shared vision and objectives between the two groups. Moreover, al-Joulani took the opportunity to announce a pledge of allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri – the figurehead of al-Qaeda. In doing so, Jubhat al-Nusra put the Syrian opposition in an awkward position vis-a-vis their foreign backers.
It is worth mentioning here that al-Baghdadi and al-Joulani had indeed been comrades-in-arms during the early years of the American invasion of Iraq. Thus, giving rise to the question: can the current spat between al-Baghdadi and al-Joulani be traced back to earlier disagreements in Iraq?
These disagreements first began to emerge on the ground in the "liberated" city of Raqqa in the north. Almost immediately after establishing al-Dawla's base, considerable sums of money and sophisticated weaponry began flowing into the city leading to a surge in the number of fighters enlisting for it. Fighters from al-Nusra were tempted to join in. The allure of weapons, money and importantly the overt extremism espoused by al-Dawla fighters as being a 'more authentic' jihad, proved too much for some and they switched allegiances.
However, a number of fighters remained unpersuaded. The then commander of al-Nusra in Raqqa was Abu Saad – a university graduate originally from the city who had previously been detained on the back of participating in peaceful demonstrations against the regime – rejected the declared merger between the two factions and kept loyal to al-Joulani with only 70 other fighters. The response from al-Dawla was swift. He was kidnapped, detained briefly and whipped by members of al-Dawla who considered him a rebel. Al-Nusra withdrew from Raqqa and relocated to its surrounding countryside. Abo Saad and others remained in their city fighting under the banner of one of the more powerful FSA militias – the 11th Division.
Al-Dawla's policy with regards to civilians hasn't been any different. There have been several incidences of kidnapping of peaceful and secular activists during the last two months. M.M is an activist from Raqqa detained by al-Dawla when they discovered that he hadn't performed his prayers to their exact standards. They kept him for several days to teach him how to offer up prayers! One of the al-Dawla fighters responsible for arresting M.M told him:"whoever doesn't pray is an infidel even if he was my father. Every infidel deserves to be punished!”
So here I would like to take a pause and to make a brief comparison between al-Dawla and al-Nusra. Contrary to what is commonly assumed outside “liberated areas”, to kill a Christian or to bomb a church runs counter to the principles and beliefs of fighters belonging to al-Nusra, whereas al-Dawla considers them to be infidels and therefore legitimate targets. As a general rule, al-Nusra remains apart from people's daily lives and does not look to impose their ideas on them: AlDawla does.
However, the most prominent difference is hinted at in the nomenclature used by the two groups in reference to one another. Al-Nusra fighters are often given the title of al-Ansaar – a reference to the Medina host community that welcomed the Prophet Mohammad and his companions during their exile from Mecca. The name points to the fact that al-Nusra is made up of mostly Syrian fighters. On the other hand, fighters belonging to al-Dawla are known as al-Muhajireen – a reference to the displaced community of Muslims who along with Prophet Muhammad found refuge in Medina. For the most part, al-Dawla is made up of foreigners who have had the experience of jihad in other countries. It is likely that in transferring their previous experience of jihad to Syria without taking into consideration the particularity or the diversity of Syrian society, its numerous sects, and its suspicions regarding extremism, this has led to al-Dawla having a very small following amongst Syrians.
The FSA v.s al-Dawla
The extent of hatred and distrust the FSA and al-Dawla have towards one another is no secret. It has increased steadily after a series of assassinations al-Dawla carried out against FSA leaders.
However, the contradictory and paradoxical nature of this conflict means that nothing is ever quite what it seems. The FSA continues to make full use of al-Dawla to carry out death sentences in areas under its control! The rationale behind this is the fear of tense escalations between these rival clans that could result if a battalion from a certain clan carried out a death sentence on a criminal from the other clan. Anonymous al-Dawla fighters – by virtue of being foreign – have the added advantage of being able to operate outside of local clan networks. This is what happened recently in the city of Manbej south of Aleppo when three men were sentenced to death because of kidnapping and raping a 15 year old girl. Although the legal committee of the city was responsible for passing the sentence, the FSA did not execute it but mandated al-Dawla to do so.
The relationships between the militias fighting the regime in Syria remains extremely complex and difficult to untangle. To date there have been no outright military confrontations between the various factions. But the simmering tensions are a portent of things to come.
Thousand thanks to Tahir Zaman for editing this piece