As the revolutions of our time tend to, it started with a Facebook post. “Together for a Day of Rage in Syria to end the state of emergency in Syria and end corruption,” read the post back in February 2011. One revolution, two bloody years, and 11 dark months later, came more Facebook posts—this time calling for: “A day of Anger against ISIS.”
The posts sparked protests on Friday that, once again, turned into armed conflict and a variety of rebel groups are now fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) across Aleppo and Idlib governorates. Activists are calling it "another revolution." Things are getting pretty meta in northern Syria.
Widespread anger at the repressive and arbitrary nature of ISIS's methods in northern Syria has been growing since the group arrived in the country in May 2013. ISIS's primary goal extends further than simply the formation of an Islamic state in Syria, a view shared by the more fundamentalist Islamic brigades within the country. Rather, ISIS, wish to see the restoration of the caliphate across the Levant, a region consisting of much of the eastern Mediterranean and stretching into Iraq.
ISIS have gained a reputation for meting out brutal punishments to those who fail to comply with their strict interpretation of Islamic law and are often criticized for their focus on governance and state building in the areas they occupy, rather than fighting against the government of Bashar al-Assad alongside other rebel groups. The theory that they are working for the Syrian government has gained traction within moderate and activist circles. While at this stage it remains a baseless conspiracy, it's pretty convenient for Assad that ISIS have made his claims that the revolution is the work of "foreign terrorists"—a line spun long before ISIS arrived—more than mere propaganda.
Kafranbel, a town in Idlib province, was one of the first places to see demonstrations against Assad and is seen as the symbolic beating heart of the Syrian revolution. Once again, its inhabitants were at the center of the uprising, this time protesting against ISlS and taking to the streets with signs representing members of the extremist group as creatures from the film Alien, feeding on their hosts.
ISIS fire on a protest in Kvrtkharam on Friday
“Daesh [a derogatory term for ISIS] tried to impose their ideology on the Kafranbel people. They kidnapped activists and destroyed the media center, Radio Fresh, and Karama Bus and stole all the equipment. The very next day, they did the same to GHERBAL magazine and kidnapped the editor,” said Muhammad Khatib, an activist from the town. “They banned smoking, attacked elementary schools, and advised 'Islamic' attire for all the girls. They tried to ban jeans and casual clothes, asked for robes and beards. The people were fed up in less than a month.”
Anger at this attempt to control Kafranbel was further compounded when ISIS killed a popular leader of Ahrar al-Sham, another rebel group. Dr Hussein al-Suleiman, a well-respected commander, had gone to negotiate with ISIS about a local dispute in Maskanah, near Aleppo. His body was returned with an ear missing and visible signs of torture. His brutal killing sparked protests. In scenes of barbarism reminiscent of the early days of the revolution against Assad, ISIS fired on protesters, igniting further rage and turmoil.
A cousin of Dr Hussein, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, wanted payback. “Now is the time for an aberration against ISIS,” he cried. Though visibly upset and angry at the group, he was conflicted about how to deal with them in accordance with his faith. “They are Muslims and I don't want to kill a Muslim,” he said.
Ahrar al-Sham is the name of the Islamist but non-al Qaeda group that Dr Hussein belonged to. They're a major player in the consolidation of rebel outfits known as the Islamic Front (IF). Formed after the arguably bungled chemical-weapons-diplomacy-episode—when it became obvious that the promise of foreign military support was a dangling carrot that had been jerked out of reach for good—the front were quick to reject the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and their military leader, Salam Idriss. The IF claimed the group, which is closely tied to western powers, lacks influence on the ground inside Syria.
The IF, unsurprisingly, were quick to condemn the killing of their commander. Hassan Aboud, IF's political leader, told Al Jazeera: “ISIS denies reality, refusing to recognize that it is simply another group. It refuses to go to independent courts; it attacked many other groups, stole their weapons, occupied their headquarters, and arbitrarily apprehended numerous activists, journalists, and rebels. It has been torturing its prisoners. These transgressions accumulated, and people got fed up with ISIS. Some of those people have attacked ISIS’s positions, but ISIS was first to attack in other places, bringing this on itself.”
Military action from the IF and other rebel coalitions was quick to follow the condemnation. According to an activist named Khatib, “Free Syrian Army in Kafranbel and [the city of] Maarat Alnouman attacked many ISIS holds in the region. They released 14 peaceful Syrian activists and arrested many of the ISIS. The big camp of ISIS near Kafranbel was given the 24-hour notice to leave, they did leave for real.”
In Aratib, on the outskirts of Aleppo, the IF and ISIS engaged in fierce battles which resulted in the death of the Emir of ISIS for the area. As the three rebel coalitions seized on the opportunity created to attack ISIS positions throughout the Aleppo region and Idlib, the fighting spread to other towns where tensions have been bubbling for months. Like the border town of Azaz, the scene of previous battles between ISIS, IF, and FSA brigades.
Tens of fighters on each side have been killed and many more injured, although the figures released by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights suggest the losses are heavier within the FSA-affiliated groups. There have also been reports of prisoners being killed en masse by ISIS fighters as they abandon positions or defect to the rebels.
The jihadist twitter-sphere went into immediate meltdown, as they speculated that the offensive was part of a planned attack on them aided by Zionists, Iran, Saudi Arabia, or numerous other unbelievers, or kafir. However, Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, from the Middle East Forum, said the clashes aren't part of any coordinated operation, “IF operations are not coordinated or pre-planned here. They explicitly denied this in relation to some Idlib operations. These clashes with ISIS are spontaneous and localized.”
Secular Syrian activists have been quick to hype this as the "second revolution," but are likely to find themselves disappointed as the (relatively) less extreme Islamic Front—whose primary motivation Al-Tamimi said is it to "assert Islamism as a coherent ideological program and mainstream in the Syrian insurgency"—kept open the possibility of a negotiated peace with ISIS. Hassan Aboud diplomatically left the door ajar by saying, “We would like these [ISIS] brothers to join their brethren in the Syrian revolution. We see them as nothing but another group. They see themselves as a State. They need to drop this illusion that they have come to believe as an established fact. It causes them to treat allies as opponents.”
A video showing FSA fighters taking over an ISIS base in Manbij on Saturday
The absorption of jihadist ISIS fighters into Islamic Front or FSA brigades would not be viewed as good news by the United States, especially ahead of the planned Geneva II peace talks. The infiltration and possible radicalization of rebel forces would further divide the ideological differences between Western powers and the Islamic Front, with whom they have been unable to create a formal dialogue.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, ISIS haven't taken the assault on them particularly well. Retaliating with "martyr operations"—i.e. suicide car bombings—on rebel checkpoints. Their supporters and social media department have been quick to paint ISIS and the muhajireen—foreign fighter brigades who are aligned with but not always part of ISIS—as misunderstood humanitarians who left their homes to fight for Syria.
Most rebel brigades and groups are being tight-lipped about exactly what the fighting means until the situation on the ground becomes clearer, which could be their way of saying, "We don't know what's going on." The fighting is certainly more widespread than previous incursions between the rebel groups and whether the differences between the groups can be settled without irrevocable escalation remains to be seen.
“If ISIS carries through with its threat to withdraw from key Aleppo theaters, fighting will almost certainly escalate further,” explained Charles Lister from the Brookings Doha Center. “If corroborated, reports of ISIS car bombs targeting rebel checkpoints as part of a limited counter-attack would be a concerning signal.”
As the military operations continue, another Facebook post appears: “10-01-2014 – A Day of Rage Against Al-Qaeda AND Assad.” Next Friday, more protests. This is a revolution, but sometimes it's hard to keep track of who is revolting against whom. And for what.