Syria, Infighting and a Negotiated Settlement (2)


Part Two: The Invitation

The Prophet (ﷺ) said: The people will soon summon one another to attack you as people when eating invite others to share their dish. Someone asked: Will that be because of our small numbers at that time? He replied: No, you will be numerous at that time: but you will be scum and rubbish like that carried down by a torrent, and Allah will take fear of you from the breasts of your enemy and last enervation into your hearts. Someone asked: What is wahn (enervation). Messenger of Allah (ﷺ): He replied: Love of the world and dislike of death. – Narrated by Thawban. [رضي الله عنه].

Last year in September, a video spread around the web showing retired Major General of the U.S. Army, Paul E. Vallely, and his Middle East advisor Nagi N. Najjar, meeting with members of the Free Syrian Army. A month later, in an interview with American TV-channel, Vallely commented on the visit, saying:

“The Free Syrians will in fact take out the radicals. They don’t want them there.. They have civilians, professors, engineers.., ready to go in and fill the very important jobs in the new government. That’s where their focus is. After praising Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Egyptian military commander, for his coup against the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Vallely added that if Assad falls, it would be a secular government that would honor treaties with Israel. “The three generals I spoke to, very high up, would in fact negotiate the return of the Golan Heights and they’re willing to work with Israel”, he explained.

A couple of months later, on the 2nd of December last year, a former leader of Liwa’ Ahfad ar-Rasoul (Grandsons of the prophet brigade) and the Supreme Military Council (SMC) of the Free Syrian Army’s Eastern Front defected to ISIS and described foreign involvement in the opposition. He told a story of what he called “a conspiracy against his brethren in ISIS”. In the approximately half-hour long video, he spoke about the support given by some western and Arab countries to the Staff Board, the Syrian Military Council and the Syrian Coalition; and about closed meetings in Ankara between highest leaders of the FSA and the Arab and Western Intel. Addressing a call to former FSA-colleagues to dissociate themselves from the SMC, the Staff Board and the Syrian Coalition, he claimed that the above mentioned groups called them to fight “their brethren the Islamists and to prevent the Shariah of Allah from being established in the land.”

“In general, all the intelligence services of the world were participating in the project of the FSA,” he said. Besides intelligence agencies from all Gulf countries, he claimed that Jordanian, Turkish, American, British and French intelligence agencies attended the meetings of the Staff Board and the Military Councils in Turkey. “They fund the Staff Board, who then distributes money to the battalions and brigades. Recently, the Staff Board was offered a sum of 450,000 USD in the form of relief aid, as far as I know; it was paid by the USA. The money was later distributed to the battle fronts, to the leader of the military council and the leader of the revolutionary council. The money was split between these two councils.”

The intelligence personnel, and in particular Americans, Saudis and Jordanians, would ask whether Islamists, extremists or terrorists were present in Deir ez-Zor. “They wanted to know if there were foreign fighters in Deir ez-Zor. We denied this presence, but it seems like they knew of it and they would tell us that they knew about foreign fighters. Maybe they got this info through their spies.”

Perhaps most profound was his account of the last meeting held in Turkey and the nature of the discussions in the three-day conference. “There were no international intelligence agencies that were not present,” Jamal emphasized. “All senior leaders from the FSA including all leaders of Aleppo, al-Hasakeh, ar-Raqqah and Deir ez-Zor provinces attended the meeting. They held meetings with each front separately, eastern and northern, on the first and second days. On the third they met with both fronts in a single meeting which was sponsored by Prince Salman.” Prince Salman, who was the Saudi Deputy Defense Minister at that time handled the Syrian file, Jamal added. A few months ago, the Syrian file was transferred to Prince Mohamed bin Nayef and Prince Salman was replaced as the Saudi deputy Minister of Defence. It was claimed that this was because “it has turned out that terrorism in Syria is turning into an uncontrollable Saudi problem, which is seen as part of Bandar’s unrestrained policies.”

On the first day of the meeting, Prince Salman asked those who have plans to attack Assad positions to present their needs of arms, ammunition and funds. “A plan to take full control of the Eastern area, just to deny those areas to the Islamists. The suppliers did not openly say this, but they insisted that we capture almost all eastern Syria, including oil fields [currently occupied by the ISIS and JAN]. They asked us to organize ourselves, select a leadership, set up training camps, and pay regular salaries. They asked that all FSA factions unify under the umbrella of the Revolutionary Council or the Military Council.”

Salim Idris attended the meeting in the capacity of Supreme Military Commander and said that “the Prince [Salman] had come to support us and supply us with ammo and money, and that he wants the various factions to unite under the umbrella of the Staff Board, and without any other names or labels, in which case all countries will support us”.

Also present was Ragheb Bashir Tohme, an FSA-commander in Deir ez-Zor city and Member of SMC’s financial and arms committee. According to Jamal, Tohme has ties to Ahmed Jarba, president of SNC and “the favorite man in Syria by Saudi Arabia, Prince Salman and the international intelligence agencies. He even lacks any [university] degrees and he was imposed on everyone without getting anyone’s approval.”

Jamal then speaks of ar-Raqqah plan where 500 fighters were deployed to “liberate” a road from Salmiya to ar-Raqqah, thus a plan that would target ISIS positions in Der ez-Zor. The original plan was however to clear ar-Raqqah of ISIS and continue along the line. Shortly After this meeting, Jamal claimed, Tohme called four FSA-leaders from northern Syria to Turkey where they received financial support totaling 3-5m SYP. Jarba had already given 150,000 USD to Tohme. Upon their return, attacks on ISIS began.

“When the problem started, Maher phoned and asked us [Liwa’ Ahfad ar-Rasoul] to help. The relationship with them worsened after this, and later Maher asked why we did not help the other al Liwa’ Ahfad ar-Rasoul-brigade engaged in the fighting with ISIS.” After Jamal refused, he claims he received a number of angry phone calls from Tohme, threatening that Jamal would be dismissed from the FSA-leadership. “The following day he phoned me and said that we didn’t support him and let him down, and he vowed to fight ISIS even alone. I replied that this is not of my business. He added that he will set up a training camp in Turkey and offered to give us support if we join him, and that he will train the fighters and form Special Forces. For me, if in the future some faction will fight ISIS, it will be the Special Forces.”

The interviewer than asks if any new shipments of arms would arrive in the coming period [the period following December, 2013].

“The countries said that the last shipment was only to boost the morale, but in the coming days a bigger shipment will arrive. They always promised to send anti-aircraft missiles, but they sent none, all they sent was 14,5 mm anti-aircraft guns, shoulder fired OSA anti-armor and anti-personnel grenades.”

He then added: “As far as I know, the shipment would be sent by America and France and Western countries in general, but nobody will receive it. Those countries want to give the weapons to fighters that they call the right hands, fighters who will be trained abroad. They will not give it to any faction inside Syria. They want to receive 25-50 fighters and train them abroad, without disclosing the location of the training camp, whether it is Turkey or Jordan. And when they ask for fighters for training, they at first ask for full information on them, starting from his birth date and so on. They have been asking for this info for the last 9 months.”

“Are there any FSA fighters who are being trained outside Syria?,” the interviewer then asked. “Yes, the FSA, of course, especially from southern Syria. I know since I was in the Staff Board. In Ghouta, Damascus and Dara’a, many groups got trained in Jordan at the hands of the Jordanian intelligence services and Western ones. Everyone knows that when we say Jordan this means Israeli intelligence services. Israel is present in Jordan.”

The Syrian National Council

One day, I was riding behind the Prophet (ﷺ) when he said, “O boy! I will instruct you in some matters. Be watchful of Allah (Commandments of Allah), He will preserve you. Safeguard His Rights, He will be ever with you. If you beg, beg of Him Alone; and if you need assistance, supplicate to Allah Alone for help. And remember that if all the people gather to benefit you, they will not be able to benefit you except that which Allah had foreordained (for you); and if all of them gather to do harm to you, they will not be able to afflict you with anything other than that which Allah had pre-destined against you. The pens had been lifted and the ink had dried up.” – Ibn Abbas (رضي الله عنه)

The SNC and the FSA showed political support early on to fighting ISIS and a negotiated settlement. On the 6th of December last year, FSA Commander Salim Idris even claimed he would participate in the Geneva II Conference without the precondition that Assad must first step down and added that the FSA would be willing to fight Al-Qaeda after the negotiations in Geneva. During a visit to Washington D.C. two weeks ago, in which Jarba met with senior officials in the administration, he also claimed that “the FSA is best placed to fight al Qaeda rebels on the ground in Syria” and denied that the FSA ever had fought alongside JAN. This coincided with similar escalated rhetoric in the West. “The chamber of horrors of the Syrian civil war has spawned a terrorist group so extreme that it has been rejected even by al-Qaeda — and this toxic group is now establishing a safe haven in the city of Raqqah in northern Syria that could soon be used to attack foreign targets”, David Ignatius of The Washington Post recently reported.

The plan for a future liberated state in the north-eastern part of Syria seems very well underway. A tacit understanding between the regime on one side and the FSA and IF on the other, where the regime focuses on western Syria while rebels focus on southern and north-eastern Syria, has appeared following the eruption of infighting. ISIS lost considerable territory in the north with much of northern Syria now controlled by either the FSA or the IF. A number of truces with the Syrian regime have also been made since the infighting broke out and a number of FSA officials and soldiers, primarily in western Syria, even returned to the army of the regime “in fear of Islamist-takeover”. Since infighting broke out on the 3rd of January, at least three instances of truces between the IF and the regime have also been reported. These truces have not only allowed the two sides to prioritize their efforts, but it also serves as a forerunner for a future negotiated settlement.

As anticipated, rhetoric to attract minorities has therefore emerged during the past few months. While Jarba reiterated how Syria belongs to all Syrian minorities, the leader of the arguably most influential coalition within the FSA, Jamal Ma’rouf, began wooing the Druze in Idlib. In addition, n the fifth of April a Kurdish brigade called Komala Kurdish Forces joined the SRF.

Even efforts to unite religious scholars through the formation of the Syrian Islamic Council have commenced. One famous Syrian Scholar, Talha Mullah, commented on this council as being a “coalition created to legitimize the secular coalition of the SNC with Shariah.”

The Islamic Front

“Same scholars, same references, same rhetoric, and same foreign intelligence – Awakening of Iraq and awakening in Syria” – Dr. Faisal Ghamidi

Most important in the process of legitimizing a non-Islamic state in Islamic jurisprudence is the Islamic Front and the evolution of their creed. It appears that “the friends of Syria” have sided with those advocating “jihad only in Syria” against global jihadists. In doing so, they have allowed the Islamic Front to reinvent itself and market itself in the region as a group willing to take up battle against “extremism” and thus become acceptable in the political process.

There is much to indicate that the attacks on ISIS were pre-planned and that the U.S. and the KSA had involved the Islamic Front in this plan. A couple of weeks before the infighting, U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford in Antakya allegedly met with Ahrar ash-Sham, Suqour ash-Sham and Liwa’ at-Tawheed Brigades, and the most prominent leaders of the Islamic Front, to persuade them to return to the FSA General Staff, whose headquarters and weapons stores near Bab al-Hawa they had seized, and to join the political process in Geneva.

The account of one ISIS fighter on the events preceding the blitz launched on 3rd of January would suggest that part of the offensive was pre-planned. One ISIS fighter engaged in the fighting, Abu Dujana al-Muhajir (Abu Dujana the migrant), stated that fighters from Suqour ash-Sham entered ISIS headquarters in Badiya, Idlib, in December after ISIS had seized an oil field. After agreeing to share the oil field, Suqour, whose strength and arsenal in Badiya exceeded that of ISIS, would help in the offensive against the regime. Tanks, BMPs and heavy machine weapons were brought to bolster the offensive against the regime by Suqour ash-Sham and Abu Dujana described the task at that point as being easy due to the added arsenal and number of fighters. ISIS would have one front while Suqour ash-Sham another. However this appeared to have been a Trojan horse planted by Suqour ash-Sham as they didn’t attack the regime for the entire month until the 3rd of January when they launched a full scale war in Badiya against ISIS.

Another sign that the attacks might have been pre-planned was found in Homs province, a province which to this day has been spared from infighting. A couple of days later the coordinated attacks on ISIS began, on the 10th of January and a video showing rebel fighters from Homs province went viral. Fighters belonging to the Qadimoun Campaign (Marching campaign) protested against their leaders, in particular those belonging to the IF-group Liwa’ at-Tawheed, claiming millions of dollars sent for that offensive had been stolen. Derogatorily labeling the campaign Kaziboon (lying), the rebels stated that their “treacherous leaders” were preventing them from liberating besieged Homs: “Leaders announced a campaign only to receive financial support. Liberated areas were not actually liberated but deserted by Assad-regime. Liwa’ at-Tawheed came to Homs, joined the Qadimoun campaign, stole the money and went back to Aleppo.”

“This is not marching campaign, but protect the Alawites-campaign”, a second rebel stated.

A third rebel claims that a relative in the Syrian National Council (SNC) had told him: “We will allow you Sunni villages but not a single Alawite one.” He continues: “We have done nothing for Homs. The leaders are thieves. I’ve been part of Qadimoun campaign for a year. They made us stay in the desert so that we couldn’t reach Homs [city]. They are stealing in our names, exploiting the blood of our martyrs. We asked them for ammunition. They said they have no ammunition but then they started fighting ISIS. And now they have tanks and started killing our foreign brothers who came here to help us with it.”

A fourth rebel claimed that weapons seized from Mahin arms-depot, the largest weapons-facility to be captured to date were sold: “It got sold, it got sold, they sold it back to the Syrian Army.”

A few weeks later, a famous cleric in the KSA, Sheikh Abdul-Aziz al-Jalil, stated in January that he had met with the vocal ISIS-critic military chief of the Islamic Front, Zahran Alloush, during the latter’s trip to Mecca a few months earlier, in which Alloush had revealed his plans to fight ISIS. Al-Jalil states he advised him not to attack ISIS and that Alloush has “ties to Government and Intelligence agencies”.

It is important to note however that if these attacks were in fact pre-planned that very few within the IF were actually aware of the plans. This is supported by the number of large defections amongst the ranks of the IF, in particular to ISIS. During the 3rd week of the infighting several leaders and jurists from Liwa’ at-Tawhid and Ahrar ash-Sham and several battalions defected to ISIS. Suqour ash-Sham, which had previously boasted a strong presence in Idlib, was reduced to being a minor faction after two of its most powerful factions refused to partake in the infighting and defected. Some reports also indicate that funds from KSA were being halted and even shifted to other groups such as the SRF and al-Asala wat-Tanmiya brigade, with Ahrar ash-Sham fighters in complaining of not receiving salaries for four months.

Interestingly however, when Saudi Arabia in March made a preliminary list of organizations and movements inside and outside the kingdom that were deemed to be terrorists, The Islamic Front was excluded. Of course, anything otherwise would complicate assistance to these groups and by extension the efforts against ISIS and JAN.

The list, which intriguingly only named Hezbollah within the Kingdom as a terrorist organization, explicitly named both ISIS and JAN. Stipulating in addition, “Every organization that is similar to these organizations in thought, word, or deed,” the list was vague in nature and allowed for subjective interpretation in the future and thus flexibility in the face of consistence.

Also interesting is that the list was drafted after both Abu Khalid as-Suri, and Hani al-Lahem (رحمة الله عليهم) were killed, both of whom were both leading individuals in Ahrar ash-Sham with explicit connections to al-Qaeda.

Pragmatism

Ahrar ash-Sham in particular has been hit hard by disagreements over how to approach the infighting and ISIS. On the 23rd of February, al Qaeda representative and senior Ahrar ash-Sham leader Abu Khalid as-Suri was killed in a mysterious attack. ISIS immediately denied any responsibility but that seemed not to have mattered as this attack not only caused an increasing number of Ahrar ash-Sham members to rally for war, but also drew in JAN, AQ’s franchise in Syria for the first serious time. It is important to note though that ISIS had little motive to kill Abu Khalid who, despite some criticism, had tried to avoid infighting at any cost. During the height of the infighting, he signed a truce which upset many in the IF, allowing ISIS-fighters to cross freely into the Aleppo countryside. The IF-fighters criticized it for deviating from the alliance’s broader position. In addition, sources close to Ahrar ash-Sham claim members long pushed for confrontation with ISIS, but Abu Khalid amongst others had repeatedly refused. With his death, the voices calling for war won out.

Weakened by the infighting, deep internal divisions over how to handle ISIS appear to have forced out the pragmatic elements of the IF. Other factions have been marginalized or have defected. This can be seen most clearly in the, at times, contradicting behavior of the IF’s senior leadership. When the infighting first began, the leader of Ahrar ash-Sham, Hassan Abboud, claimed in an interview with Al Jazeera that the IF was not fighting ISIS, while two other IF-leaders, Zahran Alloush of Jaish al-Islam and Ahmad Eissa of Suqour ash-Sham claimed they were at war with ISIS and labeled them as Shiites and deviants.

In addition, the loss suffered by the founding brigades forced the front to relax some of the strict conditions required from prospective member brigades. The joining of the Northern Storm Brigade for instance changed the composition of the IF and even altered the center of the Islamist-spectrum.

This is best demonstrated by two recent statements made by the IF. On May 15th, the Front released a condolence Letter to their “brothers in Turkey, both government and citizens.”

Two days later, a “Revolutionary Covenant”, signed by the IF and Jaish al-Mujahideen amongst others, was released. The covenant was allegedly aimed at “Unifying the efforts and joining forces within a common framework that serves the interests of the Syrian people” with signatories confirming their commitment to the detailed pledges.

The group pledged that the revolutionary work would be “Derived from our authentic religion, staying away from fundamentalism and radicalism.” In a plea to build foreign relations, the covenant emphasized fair trials in the future with no acts of retaliation. “The Syrian revolution is a revolution based on morals and values with the objective of achieving freedom, justice and security to the entire Syrian society with its diverse multi-ethnical and multi-sectarian social fabric,” they claimed.

Furthermore, the groups pledged to fight the Syrian regime, its allies, and “All those who carry out aggressions against our people and excommunicate them (apostasy), such as ISIS.” The perhaps most important part of the statement was however that all “Military actions would be limited to the Syrian territories.”

This was not very well received by JAN, with whom the IF has enjoyed a great deal of cooperation. One JAN jurist, Sh. Sami al-’Uraydi, immediately attacked the move by the IF, claiming “Jihad of the nation starts with sacrifices of the elite. They say they don’t want the tragedy of Iraq to repeat itself while they walking into the same tragedy of Bosnia.”

A spokesman for one of the signatories, Idris al-Raad of Failaq ash-Sham, responded by saying, “We did not invite Jabhat al-Nusra to sign the principles covenant. Only Syrians with certain direction and thoughts were invited to sign. We hope more Syrians will join.”

The events that have divided the IF into two camps have also paved the way for the resurgence of the Free Syrian Army as the strongest anti-Assad force on the ground who now hope relatively moderate rebel brigades, like Liwa at-Tawhid, will re-join their cause.

The Free Syrian Army

The FSA, after absorbing a number of rebel factions under central leadership and experiencing a tremendous flow of weapons, including advanced weapons, is now again on the rise. U.S.-made anti-tank, wire-guided rockets represent only a fraction of the arms that have been provided to Western-backed groups in recent months. Leaders say they expect a significant boost in arms supply in preparation for a major offensive against “anti-regime extremist forces such as the ISIS in ar-Raqqah”. Nine different FSA factions have been filmed with U.S.-made TOW missiles. Filmed for the first time around two months ago, the missiles have been delivered to several moderate FSA-factions, all of which have been vetted by Western intelligence and fight under the command of the SMC, the military wing of the SNC. “They passed the test” a U.S. official said

The missiles first appeared in the town of Heesh, in the north-western province of Idlib, where Harakat Hazem (Movement of Steadfastness), an FSA faction that is primarily funded by the U.S. The leader of Harakat Hazm, Abdalla Awda, says that he and his recently formed Harakat Hazm were chosen to receive the weapons because of their moderate views and discipline.

All but one of the recipients are based in Idlib, Aleppo or Dara’a provinces; which appear to be vital provinces in a broader plan. Most notably, the 13th Military Council Division, that ISIS accused of being led by “Western intelligence” was one of the nine recipients. As the defected Ahfad ar-Rasoul-leader, Saddam Jamal predicted, even the Ahfad ar-Rasoul-brigade later received the American anti-tank missiles.

According to rebel sources, many rebel groups that left the FSA for other coalitions have now returned to the command of the FSA for several reasons.

The Syrian Revolutionary Front

Amongst the groups that have recently experienced western military support, the SRF and its commander, Jamal Ma’rouf, are said to be the big winners. The SRF, a part of the FSA, was one of the first to launch the attacks on ISIS, which “shot it to prominence both inside Syria and out.” A collection of moderate rebel groups, about 25,000 fighters in all, they’re bound more by their common cause to fight off Islamists than by a specific ideology. Abu Alewi, a rebel who recently fled ar-Raqqah province in northern Syria, after ISIS retook control of the province stated “Ma’rouf’s support base is primarily drawn from unemployed youth who only gathered around him to collect money and who fight for no doctrine.”

SRF’s lack of any defined ideology also led to condemnations from groups fighting alongside the SRF against ISIS. Hassan Abboud, leader of Ahrar ash-Sham called Ma’rouf’s men “gangs,” accusing them of attacking and stealing from other members of the opposition. Ma’rouf has also been accused of being a warlord who diverted resources for his own use. A Qatar-leaning source in the Syrian National Coalition told Al-Monitor privately that Saudi-backed brigades, formerly part of the Free Syrian Army, were largely criminals and bandits that locals despised. This was supported by the account of an Idlib-based activist following ISIS retreat from Idlib and Latakia, who stated that “Civilians aren’t celebrating because ISIS had eliminated thieves and bandits.” Adding to this reputation, on the 3rd of April this year, it was reported that the SRF shelled and took over Bara, Idlib, a town with no regime presence.

A Vice documentary released a couple of weeks back featured one particular brigade of the SRF, the Wolves of the Valley, and gave a deep insight into the SRF and their connection to foreign actors, Turkey in particular. The leader of this group, Mohamed Zataar, had previously been interviewed by Buzzfeed in an article regarding a particular phone call between him and ISIS’ leader in Syria, Abu Ayman Al Iraqi (Father of Ayman, the Iraqi). According to the article, Zaatar travels frequently between Syria and Turkey and claimed to “fight a war against terror”. By his own account, Zaatar was a former dealer of fake antiques and had spent four years in prison for his illicit activities. He claimed that he had continued his work while in prison, which was so lucrative that it had enabled him to buy three new homes.

What sets the SRF apart from other rebel groups, Ma’rouf claims, is the absence of foreign fighters and transnational ambitions. In an interview in February, Ma’rouf commented on ISIS, saying the SRF would continue their war until they drive them out from Syria. He claimed all non-Syrians were terrorists and would never be accepted. In an interview a week back, he claimed that many rebels welcomed the foreign fighters at first for their effectiveness against regime forces, but soon began to resent them for their efforts to impose strict Islamic values. “They started creating emirates and decided they will govern us in the name of religion…They want to teach Syrians (how to be Muslims), no!”

These actions have led some to hope that Ma’rouf could be the rebel commander that the West could wholeheartedly support — someone with influence on the ground, and no extremist tendencies. He maintains close ties with Syria’s Western-backed political leadership in exile, most recently becoming one of the few commanders to endorse the peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland, last month, stating in an interview afterwards to Al Jazeera that Jarba represented him. However, Ma’rouf denies receiving strong support from the US, citing a one-time $250,000 payment for salaries and benefits of a shared operations room in Jordan to fight the Southern Front. ‘Alaa al-Sheikh, Ma’rouf’s 27-year-old adviser and Saudi-based co-coordinator, insists the SRF prefers to get its funding from Saudi Arabia, so they are not seen as US lackeys.

The most important outcome of the coordinated attacks launched on ISIS in the beginning of January, was ISIS leaving towns of Atmeh, Dana and Sarmada in Idlib near the Turkish border. Most importantly, ISIS gave up its positions around the vital Bab al-Hawa border crossing, through which convoys of foreign fighters in the past passed, and through which weapons supplies from the West and Saudi Arabia now pass.

The Vice reporter, Aris Roussinos, claimed in the documentary that ISIS had placed greater emphasis on fighting rebel forces than fighting the regime while minutes later interviewing the son of Ahmed Zaatar, Mahmoud Zaatar, who boasted about how the U.S. military support was specifically and only for fighting ISIS.

Proud and with a big smile, Mahmoud Zaatar said they received equipments and weapon from the U.S. only to fight ISIS. Hundreds of fighters at a time, once a month receive training he claimed, and that “Only those trained in Qatar received weapons.” Laughing, he added: “They are not giving us weapons to fight Assad. The give us weapons to fight ISIS.”

He had just finished a month of training which included a one week medical checkup, one week of automatic rifle training and two weeks of training in the use of missiles and heavy machine guns. Coordinated together with Turkey and Qatar, pickup trucks loaded with weapons provided for by the US, would await them at the Turkish border once they finished the training, claimed Mahmoud Zaatar. The weapons would then be driven through Bab al-Hawa border crossing to Atmeh, the scene of some of the most ferocious rebel infighting. Why the SRF focused on that city can be understood in this context.

A tour of Darkoush also highlights the importance of clearing the Turkish-Syrian border from ISIS. After expelling ISIS, the Wolves of the Valley took positions along the border and in particular the unofficial “border crossing” that is the Orontes-river. It is now heavily guarded by SRF fighters. “We are protecting the Turkish border,” the commander said, emphasizing that “Nothing is allowed, never, never, except for the transportation of casualties” from their position to the Turkish army.

Absurd as it may seem, one SRF-member also gave an interesting monologue in front of Ahmed Zaatar, the brother of Mohammed Zaatar, a man described as the leader of the fighting against ISIS. During the speech, the SRF fighter showed sympathies to the Ukrainian people but added that “We have been killed day and night for the past three years. Yet no one is talking about us. If they had supported us with a few weapons, we would have beaten this regime a long time ago.” The following day, Ahmed Zaatar said Syria “Doesn’t need foreign fighters.”

The group’s hypocrisy does not stop there. In fact, the Vice documentary alone provides more than enough examples for a longer piece dedicated to that very topic.

During a tour of the brigade’s base, a glimpse of the judicial system of the group is given. The punishment of a member of an allied brigade accused of stealing is overheard in the background. “Relax. Relax. Let them kill him,” Ahmed Zaatar says. “Did they slaughter him?” he added. A fighter from the group reassured him that his commander had shot him. “Good, they were right to do that,” Ahmed Zaatar assured. Allegedly, the SRF, which has a reputation for banditry and looting, claim they have a “zero tolerance policy for stealing.”

The legal system of the SRF is further demonstrated when the Vice media team is given a tour of SRF’s make-shift prison by one of the group’s leaders. The leader who had witnessed Ahmed Zaatar’s comments on the punishment of the thief, suggested that their legal system is based on Islamic Law. After calling one of the prisoners a pimp, the leader then applies a different tone in a monologue attempted to show how ISIS act in conflict with Islam. It is also the only time any SRF member throughout the feature labels ISIS by anything other than “Da3esh” (a derogatory term derived from ISIS’ Arabic acronym suggesting ISIS are oppressors) or “Baghdadi’s gang”. The leader claimed that it was not in accordance with “Islamic law to cut off the hand of thieves,” before denying the Vice media team’s request to visit the reprimanded rebel accused of stealing, claiming that he was at the hospital in a very poor state.

The creed of the Syrian Revolutionary Front

There seem to be contradicting accounts of the purpose and ideology of the group. Ma’rouf claims that he wants “A democratic state that rules over all Syria with equality and freedom for all citizens, free of fascism and dictatorship,” while SRF brigades in Idlib allegedly claim they want to establish an Islamic state.

Discussing the creed of the group would give an idea of how such an “Islamic State” would look like. Emphasizing that they were the true Mujahideen (holy fighters) throughout the 30-minute long documentary, it appears that the SRF-fighters have a slightly unorthodox understanding of Islam. In fact, during the discussion between the leader of the Wolves of the Valley brigade and Abu Ayman al-Iraqi, the leaders disagreed on what was more important, Islam or Syrian people. “To me, Islam is higher than the Syrian people,” Abu Ayman said. “To me it’s the Syrian people, brother,” said Zataar before accusing ISIS of having false versions of the Quran, ignorant of Hafs and Warsh versions. “I don’t know about versions,” he said.

Claiming that the FSA had liberated three fourths of Syria before ISIS came in, Ahmed Zaatar claimed that ISIS were hiding behind Islam. “This isn’t Islam. We are Muslims. But we are moderate Muslims.” “The Christians,” he says, “has his religion and I have mine. And I respect his religion but he has to respect mine.” Failing to see the contradiction, in a later scene, a few hours later that very same day it seems, he then said “ISIS had given up the Islam they pretend to believe. Because really they are a Shiite group and thus have nothing to do with Islam.”

Ma’rouf justifies his war on the foreign Islamists in explicit religious terms as well. “The Quran says you have your religion and I have mine…God also says you can attack anyone if he attacks you, even if he is a Muslim,” he says.

It appears the meaning of both verses invoked passed Ma’rouf as neither could justify attacks made by the SRF on ISIS. In the 49th Surah of the holy Quran, Surat Al-Ĥujurāt (The Rooms), ruling on fighting Muslims is given:

“And if two factions among the believers should fight, then make settlement between the two. But if one of them oppresses the other, then fight against the one that oppresses until it returns to the ordinance of Allah . And if it returns, then make settlement between them in justice and act justly. Indeed, Allah loves those who act justly (9) The believers are but brothers, so make settlement between your brothers. And fear Allah that you may receive mercy (10)”

While the existence of pretext for attacking another Muslim in the manner that the SRF did, is questionable at best, regarding fighting on the behalf of foreign countries, the fifth Surah of the holy Quran, Surat Al-Mā’idah (The Table Spread), should be even clearer to the SRF:

“And judge, [O Muhammad], between them by what Allah has revealed and do not follow their inclinations and beware of them, lest they tempt you away from some of what Allah has revealed to you. And if they turn away – then know that Allah only intends to afflict them with some of their [own] sins. And indeed, many among the people are defiantly disobedient (49) Then is it the judgment of [the time of] ignorance they desire? But who is better than Allah in judgment for a people who are certain [in faith] (50) O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are [in fact] allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you – then indeed, he is [one] of them. Indeed, Allah guides not the wrongdoing people (51) So you see those in whose hearts is disease hastening into [association with] them, saying, “We are afraid a misfortune may strike us.” But perhaps Allah will bring conquest or a decision from Him, and they will become, over what they have been concealing within themselves, regretful (52)”

The holy Quran describes the hypocrites (Munafiqeen) in ten powerful verses in the second Surah, Surat Al-Baqarah (The Cow):

“And when it is said to them, “Do not cause corruption on the earth,” they say, We are but reformers (11) Unquestionably, it is they who are the corrupters, but they perceive [it] not (12) And when it is said to them, ‘Believe as the people have believed,’ they say, ‘Should we believe as the foolish have believed?’ Unquestionably, it is they who are the foolish, but they know [it] not (13) And when they meet those who believe, they say, ‘We believe’; but when they are alone with their evil ones, they say, ‘Indeed, we are with you; we were only mockers (14) [But] Allah mocks them and prolongs them in their transgression [while] they wander blindly (15) Those are the ones who have purchased error [in exchange] for guidance, so their transaction has brought no profit, nor were they guided (16) Their example is that of one who kindled a fire, but when it illuminated what was around him, Allah took away their light and left them in darkness [so] they could not see (17) Deaf, dumb and blind – so they will not return [to the right path] (18) Or [it is] like a rainstorm from the sky within which is darkness, thunder and lightning. They put their fingers in their ears against the thunderclaps in dread of death. But Allah is encompassing of the disbelievers (19) The lightning almost snatches away their sight. Every time it lights [the way] for them, they walk therein; but when darkness comes over them, they stand [still]. And if Allah had willed, He could have taken away their hearing and their sight. Indeed, Allah is over all things competent (20)”

Ibn Jarir, a famous Muslim scholar, said about the first verse quoted: “The hypocrites commit mischief on earth by disobeying their Lord and continuing in acts prohibited. They give as much aid as they can, against Allah’s loyal friends, and support those who deny Allah, His Books and His Messengers. This is how the hypocrites commit mischief on earth, while thinking that they are doing righteous work on earth.”

The interpretation is supported by verses from two other Surahs of the Quran that discuss taking disbelievers as friends against Muslims, which is one of the categories of mischief on the earth.

And those who disbelieved are allies of one another. If you do not do so (help one another), there will be fitnah on earth and great corruption (73)” (Surat al-Anfal)

“O you who have believed, do not take the disbelievers as allies instead of the believers. Do you wish to give Allah against yourselves a clear case? (144) Indeed, the hypocrites will be in the lowest depths of the Fire – and never will you find for them a helper (145)” (Surat al-Nisaa)

The hypocrites’ behavior, and their claim that it is for peace, is itself mischief, although in their ignorance, they do not see it to be mischief. Since they are so thoroughly ignorant, the hypocrites are unaware of their degree of deviation and ignorance, and the severity of blindness, is even more dangerous.

When the hypocrites meet the believers, they proclaim their faith and pretend to be believers and allies to the believers to deceive them. They do this to have a share of the benefits and gains that the believers might possibly acquire.

As stated in another Surah, the punishment for this is that Allah mocks them and allows their deviation to increase so they may wander blindly.

“And We will turn away their hearts and their eyes (from guidance) just as they refused to believe in it the first time. And We will leave them in their transgression, wandering blindly (110)” (Surat al-An’am)

“Allah has stamped their hearts, sealed them, and blinded their vision. Therefore, they do not recognize guidance or find the way out of their deviation,” Ibn Jarir commented.

The hypocrites deviate from the true guidance and prefer misguidance, substituting wickedness in place of righteousness. Their commerce was profitless, and they were unguided throughout it all. Having bought deviation with guidance, acquiring utter blindness, the hypocrites are then likened by Allah to the example of a person who started a fire. When the fire was lit, and illuminated the surrounding area, the person benefited from it and felt safe. But when the fire was suddenly extinguished, total darkness covered them, and they became unable to see anything or find their way out of it.

They were so blinded that even if there were light, they would not be able to see. This is why they cannot return to the state that they were in before this happened to them. Allah removed what benefits them i.e. the light and left them with what harms them i.e. darkness and smoke. Left in total darkness, their doubts, disbelief and hypocrisy, they could not find the correct path. Nor could they hear the guidance or utter the words that might benefit them in total darkness and deviation.

Equally, the second example is by scholarly opinion, a reference to the darkness that follows rain i.e. the doubts, disbelief and hypocrisy. Thunder, which shocks their hearts with fear, relates to the anxiety hypocrites are filled with, believing every cry is against them.

“And when you see them, their forms please you, and if they speak, you listen to their speech. [They are] as if they were pieces of wood propped up – they think that every shout is against them. They are the enemy, so beware of them. May Allah destroy them; how are they deluded? (63)” (Surat al-Nisaa)

Surat At-Tawbah (The Repentance) further explains:

“And they swear by Allah that they are from among you while they are not from among you; but they are a people who are afraid (56) If they could find a refuge or some caves or any place to enter [and hide], they would turn to it while they run heedlessly (57)”

They thrust their fingers in their ears to keep out the stunning thunderclap for fear of death, bur their cautiousness does not benefit them because they are bound by Allah’s all-encompassing will and decision.

The lightning almost snatches away their sight, because the lightning is strong itself, and because their comprehension is weak and does not allow them to embrace the faith. Whenever it flashes for them, they walk therein.

Ali bin Abi Talhah narrated that Ibn Abbas said (رضي الله عنه), “Whenever the hypocrites acquire a share in the victories of Islam, they are content with this share. Whenever Islam suffers a calamity, they are ready to revert to disbelief.”

Similarly, Allah (سبحانه و تعالى‎) said,

“And of the people is he who worships Allah on an edge. If he is touched by good, he is reassured by it; but if he is struck by trial, he turns on his face [to the other direction]. He has lost [this] world and the Hereafter. That is what is the manifest loss (11)” (Surat al-Hajj)

By the end of the phone call between Zaatar and Abu Ayman al-Iraqi, the ISIS leader concluded: “The West has understood the game. They won’t send anyone whose name is William or Benjamin. They’ll send people named Ahmed and Mohamed and Abdullah. The American soldier is expensive, so they will use people from among us — and this is the truth of the battle, they will use you — in the fight against us. I am not saying that you have no relation to the revolution, but I am saying that you people have [foreign] friends, and you go to Turkey and sit there and listen to things that make God angry. You sit with godless and faithless people, and strange things occur.”

He then drew on the example of Iraq, where U.S. forces supported a Sunni-led uprising against al-Qaeda during the occupation, paving the way for the election of a Shiite prime minister.

“I might get hit by a mortar and be killed, and you might live longer than me, but remember my words,” Abu Ayman said. “They [the West] will use you, and they will unite you with Bashar’s army, and with an interim government, and they will promise you seats in parliament, and such things — the same as they did with the Sunnis in Iraq.”

He continued: “The West will sell you cheap. They sold your grandfathers and our grandfathers. And for hundreds of years the West has been controlling us, and they keep these tyrants over our heads.”

Then he added with disdain: “As if it were us who committed the al-Houla massacre, or did the chemical weapons attack, or raped the women in Bashar’s prisons. You forgot about Bashar, and now you came to fight us in earnest, and in the end, you and the [Alawites] will hug each other. You serve this project without knowing. Your army and Bashar’s army will unify to ‘counter terrorism’ — which is us.”

A preview of this can be seen in the last scenes of the Vice documentary. After ISIS retreated from Darkoush, a standoff with Ahrar ash-Sham and JAN takes place. After pushing away Ahrar ash-Sham and JAN, one leader tells his fighters “Let them go first. I’m not following them. I know half of them here and they’re with ISIS. They will trap us. We don’t want to lose people.”

Minutes earlier, while a convoy of fighters holding victory signs and screaming “we are coming for you Bashar” passed, two SRF leaders discuss. Confident after recent gains, one leader says: “If God makes things easy, in two weeks, fifteen days we’ll be done with ISIS.” The SRF leader that had given the tour of the makeshift prison previously, answered “We’ll have to find someone else to fight.”

Written in May 2014 (Source)

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