The group under consideration in this paper–like al-Qa’ida central under Usama bin Ladin and subsequently Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Tehrik-e-Taliban of Waziristan, and others–is part of what one might term the “global jihad” movement.
This movement is not a coherent whole organized by a strict central hierarchy, but rather one defined by a shared ideology. This ideology aims firstly to reestablish a system of governance known as the Caliphate–an Islamic form of government that first came into being after Muhammad’s death under Abu Bakr and saw its last manifestation in the Ottoman Empire–across the entire Muslim world. From there, the intention is to spread the Caliphate across the entire world.
This worldview is one of many answers formulated to answer a question posed in the wider Muslim world: Namely, what has been the cause of decline of the Muslim world–and the Arab world in particular–in contrast to the apparent success of the West since the nineteenth century? The answer formulated by ideologues of the global jihad movement is that the cause of this decline is rooted in the Muslim world’s deviation from the path of Islam by not applying Islamic law to governance in its totality. This is to be contrasted with the “Islamic Golden Age” in Islam’s first five centuries or so–idealized in different ways by others not of this orientation–when the Muslim world was supposedly uncontaminated by foreign influences. Of course, given that era’s exploitation of the classical Greek heritage through the translation movement under the Abbasids- the global jihad movement’s portrayal of this era is blatantly unhistorical. Nonetheless, the perception is what matters.
In light of the ISIS’ ambitious goals, it is imperative to consider the group’s fortunes in Syria, which in turn will allow policymakers to assess what threat, if any, the group poses to the wider international order in the long-term.
BACKGROUND: QUARRELS AT THE LEADERSHIP LEVEL
Prior to the announcement of ISIS by the leader of Iraq’s al-Qa’ida affiliate, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the main al-Qa’ida-aligned group operating in Syria was Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) under the leadership of Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani. JN, which had initially been established in January 2012 with financial and manpower support from the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), had enjoyed a fair degree of success throughout Syria in conducting operations and establishing a foothold in areas freed from regime control.
The success was partly rooted in the manner in which JN has portrayed its efforts in Syria–namely, as a defensive jihad to protect the Muslim population in the face of oppression. Thus, outreach to locals became and still remains an important part of JN’s strategy. For example, media reports widely noted JN’s running of bakery services for locals in places such as Aleppo, and one jihadi news outlet–the Himam News Agency–regularly puts out videos of JN’s provision of public services in towns such as Binnish in Idlib, where JN fighters run garbage collection and disposal.
In terms of JN’s overall position in Syria, while it was clear that the group had a presence in operations throughout the country from Dar’a in the far southwest to Hasakah in the far northeast, the evidence suggested that the group was best established in the Aleppo and Deir al-Zor governorates. However, it by no means follows from this assessment that JN somehow controlled a substantial amount of territory in either of these provinces. Moreover, JN had faced a degree of resentment and backlash from locals, as occurred in the town of Mayadin in the Deir al-Zor governorate–though such demonstrations of opposition could easily be met with counter-rallies by JN supporters. In March 2013, JN along with the Salafi battalion Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya played a key role in the takeover of the provincial capital of the Raqqa Governorate in the north.
April 2013 then saw the unexpected development of the announcement by ISI leader Baghdadi of a merger between ISI and JN to form ISIS. In the speech released on April 8, 2013, by ISI’s official outlet al-Furqan Media, Baghdadi described Jawlani as “one of our soldiers” and stated that Jawlani had established his organization “from our sons.” Baghdadi went on to explain that while there had been no explicit statement of the links between ISI and JN, the time had now come to declare that JN was simply an “extension” of ISI “and a part of it.” Thus, Baghdadi announced the “cancellation of the name Islamic State of Iraq and the cancellation of the name Jabhat al-Nusra, and the joining of the two under one name: the “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.”
Baghdadi’s words, therefore, confirmed long-standing suspicions among Western intelligence officials that JN had been established as the Syrian arm of the ISI, something that was also corroborated in a prompt response released by JN’s official media wing al-Manara al-Bayda (“The White Minaret”) on 10 April. In his response, Jawlani denied that either he or anyone in JN had been consulted on or had sought the announcement of Baghdadi’s merger, while admitting that the beginnings of JN lay in ISI, as indicated by the following remark: “We accompanied the jihad in Iraq as military escorts from its beginning until our return [to Syria] after the Syrian revolution.”
Jawlani further stated, “We learnt lessons from our experience there [in Iraq] concerning what is the secret of the hearts of the believers in the land of al-Sham under the banner of Jabhat al-Nusra… I did not want to leave Iraq before seeing the banners of Islam flying on high over the land of the two rivers but the speed of events in ash-Sham interfered between us and what we wanted.” Jawlani also spoke of “our brothers in jihad in Iraq” and respectfully addressed ISI’s leader as “Sheikh Baghdadi, may God protect him.” He then concluded by reaffirming JN’s pledge of allegiance to al-Qa’ida’s central leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, affirming that the “banner of Jabhat al-Nusra will remain.”
The controversy over whether ISI and JN should be merged remained unaddressed until June 2013. During that time, both JN and ISI’s media arms stopped releasing official content. In addition, tracking the activities of JN and those going by the name of ISIS required reliance on unofficial media, most notably YouTube videos.Zawahiri then issued a letter in early June 2013 urging for the separation of ISI and JN, while stressing that the two organizations should cooperate. Yet Baghdadi rejected the ruling of separation in a speech entitled “Remaining [Steadfast] in Iraq and al-Sham,” wherein he insisted that Zawahiri’s letter had problems of legitimacy and methodology, hinting at a cast of doubt of authenticity on the letter.
Then another audio recording was released by al-Furqan Media, featuring a speech by Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani al-Shami, a Syrian jihadi believed to be from Idliband identified by al-Furqan Media as the official spokesman for ISIS. Adnani reaffirmed Baghdadi’s rejection of Zawahiri’s ruling in more forceful terms, insisting on “one front, one leadership,” and that “the borders will not separate between the two [i.e., the jihad fronts in Iraq and Syria].” Adnani also vowed that ISIS would target the “Rafidites” (Shi’a) with bombs “from Diyala to Beirut.” On multiple occasions, Adnani references the “defection” (inshiqaq) that has hurt the ranks of the mujahidin in Syria–a not-so-subtle attack on Jawlani’s refusal to accept a merger with ISI to form ISIS.
As of the writing of this article, no further directives have been issued from Zawahiri in an attempt to resolve the dispute. Indeed, Baghdadi’s rejection of his ruling essentially amounts to a humiliation of Zawahiri. In Iraq itself, written statements are no longer put out in the name of ISI, but ISIS. Further, while officially approved jihadi forums such as Shamukh Islam were initially deleting posts put out in ISIS’ name after Zawahiri’s ruling, this is no longer the case. Nonetheless, al-Furqan Media, which now puts out videos on ISIS activities in both Iraq and Syria, still explicitly avoids describing itself as the media arm of ISIS, but instead keeps a silence on the naming controversy in its videos.
Besides al-Furqan Media, some unofficial pro-ISIS outlets have come to the forefront, such as al-Sham media (which put out a string of purported ISIS videos in May 2013, and is based in Raqqa) and Baqiyya Media (named after Baghdadi’s speech that rejected Zawahiri’s ruling). In any event, Baghdadi has successfully challenged Zawahiri in that in practice ISIS is now accepted as a reality on the ground alongside JN.
As a final prefatory note, the Baghdadi-Jawlani fitna aside, it should be emphasized that as al-Qa’ida affiliates, both ISIS and JN are ultimately committed ideologically to a transnational project for a caliphate that should first span the Muslim world and then dominate the entire world. However, it is undoubtedly true that ISIS in Syria is much more open about these goals than JN. The question now arises of how ISIS’ relationship with other groups plays out on the ground.
ISIS AND OTHER REBELS: RELATIONS AND OPERATIONS
JN AND ISIS
In light of the quarrels at the leadership level between Baghdad and Jawlani, the immediate issue that comes to mind is ISIS’ relationship with JN on the ground. A common paradigm of analysis in this case is to posit a polarized dichotomy whereby ISIS is an entity composed of foreign fighters as opposed to a native Syrian JN. This view is primarily based on some media reports that estimate that 80 percent of muhajirin (foreign fighters) in Syria have joined the ranks of ISIS.
In this author’s view, the estimate is likely to bear a good degree of resemblance to the reality on the ground, but it would be erroneous to conclude from it that ISIS is primarily a group of foreign fighters. To be sure, from the current author’s own documentation of claimed martyrs for ISIS up to the beginning of July 2013, as well as examination of subsequent records on this issue, it can be shown that at the minimum, foreign fighters are disproportionately represented in its ranks and constitute the most experienced and effective fighting force within ISIS, while perhaps playing a key role in leadership in various localities. Yet in Raqqa province, one anti-ISIS activist identified as Ahmed al-Asmeh told the news site Syria Deeply that only “30 percent of their [ISIS’] members are muhajiroun [foreigners].” Likewise, a reporter who visited the northern ISIS stronghold of Jarabulus in the Aleppo governorate along the border with Turkey found that most of ISIS’ members in the town are native Syrians.
In short, therefore, the strict dichotomy of ISIS as a group of foreign fighters versus a native Syrian JN is not accurate. As far as relations on the ground go, the relationship defies a simple polarity reflecting the tensions at the leadership level. The current author has already documented the ISIS-JN relationship in a number of governorates: notably Aleppo, Raqqa, Deir al-Zor, and Dar’a. Details of the relationship by governorate need not be repeated at length, but to summarize: In Aleppo and the city of Deir al-Zor, the entities of JN and ISIS are clearly separate. In Dar’a, only a JN presence is to be found. In the Raqqa governorate and areas of the east outside Deir al-Zor, the boundaries between JN and ISIS are more blurred, such that in many parts the two names and their symbols can be considered interchangeable.
That said, since having documented the JN-ISIS relationship in the Raqqa province, it should be noted that in mid-July 2013, reports emerged among activist circles that the ISIS commander in the city of Raqqa itself–known as Abu Sa’ad al-Hadrami–had decided to renounce his position in ISIS and reaffirm the banner and name of JN as a separate identity and the only legitimate one, withdrawing from the city in the process with a number of mujahidin under his stead. Hadrami, who had previously been identified as JN’s amir in Raqqa prior to the announcement of ISIS, was said to have defected from ISIS on account of his dissatisfaction with ISIS’ conduct in the city, specifically in relation to detaining rebels from rival battalions (e.g. Farouq), which had sparked some demonstrations in the city against ISIS and Ahrar al-Sham.
Hadrami was also said to be unhappy with the fact that continuing the name of ISIS amounted to disrespectful disobedience of Zawahiri’s orders. At the start of July 2013, signs of a split in the Shari’a committee in Raqqa between JN and ISIS supporters were reported by purported local sources to the pro-Asad Arabic news site al-Hadath News. The contingent reaffirming a separate JN identity under Hadrami apparently took refuge in the city of town of Tabqa (also known as al-Thawra). Confirmation of the JN-ISIS split within Raqqa province was recently confirmed by a statement from JN announcing a return to the city of Raqqa, yet it remains unclear whether this split applies across the whole governorate.
In terms of ongoing major operations, it remains to consider the two governorates of Damascus and Hasakah as regards the JN-ISIS relationship, the latter of which will be discussed on the subject of conflict with Kurdish forces. In the Damascus area, it is quite clear that JN and ISIS are separate entities. This is most apparent as the two groups launched their own “revenge” operations in response to the alleged chemical weapons attacks by the regime in the East Ghouta area. JN’s initiative–as announced by Jawlani in a statement through al-Manara al-Bayda–is called “An Eye for an Eye” and has entailed operations not only in the Damascus area but elsewhere in the country, such as the Aleppo governorate.
The ISIS-led revenge initiative goes by the name of “Volcano of Revenge.” It has entailed firing a number of mortar rounds and Katyusha rockets at regime-held areas of Damascus, including parts identified as inhabited by Alawites, and even struck the vicinities of the Russian embassy and the Four Seasons hotel, where UN weapons inspectors were staying. The operation was coordinated with a variety of battalions operating in the Damascus area, including Ahrar al-Sham, the Jesus Son of Mary Battalions, the Furqan Brigades, and the Brigades and Battalions of the Beloved Mustafa.Of these groups, Ahrar ash-Sham can be identified as part of the Salafi Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), while the Furqan Brigades are known for an Islamist but nationalist outlook under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). However, the other two can be identified as independent formations but ideologically sympathetic to ISIS.
Thus, the Jesus Son of Mary Battalions’ logo features ISIS imagery, most notably in its use of the central white logo with the inscription “Allah, Prophet Muhammad” (see the Appendix, Figure 1). On Facebook pages set up for various battalions and news networks, ideological affinity is often indicated by banners featured at the top of the page. For example, a pro-Asad page will normally feature the current flag of Syria. In the case of factions sympathetic to ISIS’ project of a transnational Islamic state, alignment will be shown by featuring the ISIS banner, known as the “Banner of Tawhid” in jihadi circles, with the first half of the Islamic shahada underneath: “There is no deity but God.” This is the case for the Jesus Son of Mary Battalions (see Appendix, Figure 2). As for the Brigades and Battalions of the Beloved Mustafa, sympathy for the ISIS project is indicated by a statement released in June 2013 urging “our brothers and our sons to join immediately and enter the arenas of jihad.” The statement featured an image of Syria under the ISIS banner (Appendix, Figure 3).
Despite the ISIS-alignment, the two groups have also coordinated with JN and more mainstream groupings like Liwa al-Islam as part of a new series of revenge operations entitled “Ayyam al-Qadisiyya” in the Damascus area. However, elsewhere in the Damascus region, multiple reports have emerged from jihadi sources of joint JN-ISIS operations. The most notable case is that of the Sayyida Zaynab area, where both groups are said to be fighting the Iranian proxy Shi’i militia group known as Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas [LAFA]. For example, on August 17, 2013, a local outlet for ISIS in the southern Damascus region reported a joint JN-ISIS-Liwa al-Islam operation in the Sayyida Zaynab area, claiming a death toll of more than 250 Shi’i militiamen. However, there is nothing to corroborate anything resembling these figures from LAFA sources.
On the other hand, the same ISIS outlet has featured photos of LAFA militiamen that ISIS has purportedly killed in the Sayyida Zaynab area in this period, and it would seem that pro-LAFA sources do corroborate the individual cases to an extent, such as one LAFA fighter called Abu Hadi Hassan (Appendix, Figure 4). Yet given that the operations against LAFA in mid-August 2013 were reported as joint ISIS-JN-Liwa al-Islam, it is possible that Abu Hadi could have been killed by a fighter from either of the latter two battalions, or perhaps in a joint operation by all three groups.
On August 30, 2013, the local ISIS outlet also released a video showing the carrying out of a joint JN-ISIS car bomb operation against LAFA in Sayyida Zaynab. Besides displaying the car used to trigger the explosion, scenes were also shown from the Sayyida Zaynab area of gunfire. In short, one might accept the idea of JN-ISIS collaboration (perhaps with other battalions) in the Sayyida Zaynab area, with the caveat that local sources affiliated with ISIS are prone to exaggerate the scale of operations against LAFA and the death tolls therein.
Another notable area of JN-ISIS cooperation comes in the Qalamoun area of rural Damascus. Here, this cooperation has come in the form of working with another battalion called “The Green Battalion.” This group is an independent militia led by Saudi muhajirin and ideologically aligned with ISIS (Appendix, Figure 5). It is thus a similar formation to the western rural Homs battalion Jama’at Jund al-Sham, which was founded by Lebanese muhajirin sharing ISIS’ ideology but independent from ISIS (Appendix, Figure 6, cf. Figure 7).
These two groups can thus be distinguished from the prominent group of foreign fighters known as Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa Ansaruhu [JMWA], which has been a front group for ISIS under the direction of ISIS’ amir for Aleppo, northern Idlib, Raqqa, and Latakia–Abu Umar al-Shishani. In any case, the joint JN-ISIS operation in Qalamoun with the Green Battalion was first reported by the latter group in a Facebook posting on August 7, 2013: “Jabhat al-Nusra and the Green Battalion undertook with the help of the Islamic State… in the assault on the storehouses of Danha in rural Damascus.”
To sum up, the relationship between JN and ISIS in Damascus can be described as comprising separate entities that are clearly capable of cooperating with each other and working with other battalions. More generally, there is nothing to suggest as of yet signs of overt conflict emerging between JN and ISIS, where the two are clearly separate entities–regardless of how unhappy many JN members may feel about Baghdadi’s April announcement of a merger.
ISIS and FSA
As regards ISIS’ relations with battalions under the banner of the FSA, this article is primarily concerned with how they have played out in the Raqqa and Aleppo governorates, where vast amounts of territory are under rebel control. Previously, the current author has documented the expansion of ISIS into rural areas of Aleppo and Idlib, particularly in the border areas. This has entailed clashes with battalions under the banner of the FSA, such as the “Family of Jadir” in Jarabulus, from whom ISIS seized power in mid-June 2013, and FSA groupings in al-Dana.
Elsewhere, ISIS clashed in August 2013 with the Raqqa branch of a group of brigades under the banner of FSA known as Ahfad al-Rasul (“Descendants of the Prophet,” AAR). The ISIS presence has also sparked civilian protests against the group in a number of localities, including al-Dana, Manbij, and Azaz.
It would appear that the clashes began after AAR tried to ride the wave of discontent in the form of sit-ins and rallies against both Ahrar al-Sham and ISIS on account of the long-standing issue of detention of rival rebels. AAR’s sympathies were shown by the fact that its Facebook page for Raqqa shared a video of these demonstrations in early August 2013. Clashes were reported by the Lebanese news site to have begun on August 8, 2013, with some ten people killed on both sides.
A video was then circulated in pro-ISIS circles purporting to show the confession of an officer in AAR’s ranks admitting to having received support from France, in particular to fight the ISIS. From this alleged confession (which was quite clearly made under duress), pro-ISIS circles began to refer to AAR as “Ahfad Faransa” (“descendants of France”), and eventually denounced them as “apostates.” They also accused AAR of trying to form a Sahwa (“Awakening”) movement, supposedly equivalent to the anti-al-Qa’ida trend that took off in Iraq among Sunni militiamen from 2007 onwards.
ISIS supporters used similar terminology to denounce their FSA opponents in the Idlib town of al-Dana, but it should be noted that neither AAR in Raqqa nor the FSA fighters in al-Dana referred to themselves as a Sahwa movement. Indeed, considering the word’s connotations of working with Americans and the Iraqi government, the latter of which in Syria is widely viewed as an Iranian agent by virtue of its support for the Asad regime, it is hardly surprising that rebels deemed “mainstream” should want to avoid using this term to describe themselves.
By August 14, 2013, ISIS had killed a prominent AAR commander in the Raqqa area by the name of Fahad Husayn al-Kajwan, and had expelled AAR from its headquarters in the city of Raqqa. AAR, however, continued to fight with ISIS elsewhere in the province, attacking an ISIS checkpoint in the town of Tabqa.
By August 17, however, AAR announced that it would cease all operations against ISIS, “to preserve frontline unity.”An AAR commander who spoke with Swedish analyst Aron Lund also confirmed that the AAR-ISIS clashes were limited to the Raqqa area and that the two groups had cooperated elsewhere: most notably in the failed Latakia offensive into the Alawi heartland. One should further note in particular here the role of Ahrar al-Sham: as this author’s friend Shami Witness noticed, the group essentially stood aside and let ISIS do the “dirty work” of eliminating a common foe.
In some other parts of the Aleppo and Raqqa governorates, ISIS has maintained friendly relations with battalions under the FSA banner, most notably the then FSA Military Council in Aleppo, headed by one Colonel Oqaidi, who refused to denounce the ISIS and admitted that ISIS was the group that led the rebel takeover of the Mannagh airbase. It is of course true that the FSA-banner groups, such as the Northern Storm Brigade, had besieged the Mannagh airbase for quite some time. Nonetheless, the contributions of ISIS and its then front group JMWA proved decisive in the eventual fall of the airbase. Early on after the fall of the airbase, pro-ISIS outlets released photos attempting to demonstrate that the ISIS had led the takeover of Mannagh (Appendix, Figures 8 and 9).
Noteworthy also from the fall of the Mannagh airbase is a video released by the battalion Liwa al-Fatah, described by one writer as a “moderate Islamist” group. A quick glance at the video quickly demonstrates that in analysis, the term “moderate Islamist” in this context is quite meaningless. First, Abu Jandal al-Masri, the leader of the JMWA contingent–identified immediately by the speaker who filmed the video as synonymous with ISIS–is seen to be embracing a member of Liwa al-Fatah. Abu Jandal then proclaims, “I swear by God we will not leave a single Alawite alive in Syria… state of Islam, state of the Caliphate.” This is all proclaimed to the assent of “God is great” from the other fighters, including the Liwa al-Fatah member who filmed the video.
Another prominent FSA battalion in the Aleppo area with which ISIS generally maintains cordial relations is Liwa al-Tawhid, whose ideological orientation is in line with that of the Ikhwan. In July 2013, rumors began circulating–in origin from pro-Supreme Military Command circles (affiliated with General Salim Idriss)–that the rebel icon from Jarabulus, Abu Furat, had been killed by “Islamists” (i.e., JN/ISIS). However, Liwa al-Tawhid soon issued a statement denying that this was so, describing such rumors as an attempt by Western powers to stir up fitna (discord) in rebel ranks through the Arabic news channel al-Arabiya. More recently, an image was put out showing a member of Liwa al-Tawhid in Aleppo engaging in a friendly arm-wrestling match with an ISIS fighter (Appendix, Figure 10). Yet not all supporters of Liwa al-Tawhid view ISIS favorably. Some held a demonstration in the northern Aleppo town of Marea calling for the expulsion of ISIS from the town, under the slogan, “The people want Liwa al-Tawhid.”
In short, the foregoing data should demonstrate that there can be no sweeping answers to the question of ISIS-FSA relations, but rather point to a good deal of variation according to locality. Not all the potential conflicts that can arise are necessarily rooted in ideology, and by no means do all battalions under the banner of the FSA oppose ISIS simply because of their transnational vision. The issue of FSA-ISIS relations is also relevant to the question of conflicts with Kurdish forces, to which will be covered in the following section.
ISIS and the Kurds
Prior to the announcement of ISIS, clashes between jihadi fighters and Kurdish forces–most notably the People’s Protection Groups (YPG) affiliated with the PYD–had not been unknown. For example, clashes between JN allied with a battalion of muhajirin known as Ghuraba al-Sham and the PYD had erupted in the northeastern border town of Ras al-Ayn (Hasakah province) in November 2012. However, these clashes tended to be localized and never erupted into an overall wider conflict. To be sure, the conflict in Ras al-Ayn persisted for quite some time, but by the end of February 2013, a truce had been successfully negotiated, thanks to the efforts of Christian opposition activist Michel Kilo.
A dramatic shift occurred in July 2013 with the renewed outbreak of clashes in Ras al-Ayn between YPG forces and fighters deemed members of ISIS/JN. This culminated in the expulsion of the latter from the town, with rumors that YPG fighters, after taking over the ISIS/JN headquarters, had defiled the banner of jihad by trampling on it with their shoes. One should note the way in which this incident and subsequent events in al-Hasakah involving jihadi-YPG fighting have been reported. That is, the names of JN/ISIS are generally used interchangeably with frequent claims of joint operations. Based the current author’s own research on the JN-ISIS relationship in eastern Syria that looked at the town of al-Shaddadi in the Hasakah province, the apparent confusion and claims of joint operations in Hasakah appear to be the result of the fact that the boundaries between JN and ISIS are blurred, as is the case in the Deir al-Zor governorate outside the city of Deir al-Zor.
In any case, following the expulsion of JN/ISIS from Ras al-Ayn, fighting between JN/ISIS and YPG forces quickly expanded, not only throughout Hasakah province but also the Raqqa and Aleppo governorates, where YPG forces existed in various localities–albeit not with the connections that exist in the northeast Hasakah governorate. For example, prior to the clashes, ISIS had tolerated a limited PYD presence in its northern stronghold of Jarabulus, even after defeating the Family of Jadir. However, once the fighting in Ras al-Ayn erupted, ISIS rallied supporters in Jarabulus to denounce the PKK (seen in jihadi circles as synonymous with and identical to the PYD).In collaboration with local FSA groupings, ISIS proceeded to crack down on the PYD presence in the Jarabulus area, arresting numerous Kurds who were charged with being PKK/PYD activists. YPG forces proceeded to launch an offensive against ISIS in a village near the town of Jarabulus, but were ultimately unsuccessful.
Other battalions quickly joined in taking ISIS’ side against the PKK/PYD. Thus, on August 2, 2013, a group of battalions from an area stretching from Manbij to Jarabulus (where YPG forces have been most active in the Aleppo governorate) issued a joint statement against the PKK/PYD, saying that there is no doubt that the PKK was a “party affiliated with the idolatrous, criminal regime of Bashar al-Assad.” As a result, the coalition decided on a policy of “cleansing out the armies of the PKK present among our lines… considering the highway road between Manbij and al-Hasakah a military zone requiring liberation from PKK checkpoints… stopping all negotiations and political meetings between us and any front considered to be representing the PKK.” Signatories to this statement included the ISIS, Liwa al-Tawhid, Ahrar al-Sham, Liwa al-Yarmouk, and Suqur al-Sham.
As can be seen, battalions of a variety of ideological affiliations have taken ISIS’ side against the PKK/PYD. Dislike of the latter was further corroborated in Colonel Oqaidi’s interview with NOW Lebanon, where he likewise accused the PYD of being an agent for the Asad regime. It is this allegation that proves crucial to the rhetoric of ISIS and other rebel factions against the PYD in an attempt to show they are not against Kurds as a people. Thus the joint statement against the PKK/PYD also has the signatories emphasize that they have nothing against Kurds who are not connected with the PKK.
In a similar vein, this author’s own discussions with ISIS supporters and jihadi sources have shown a tendency among these circles to portray the PYD as a marginal communist apostate group with little popular support among Syrian Kurds. Likewise, conflict in the Raqqa governorate’s Turkish border town of Tel Abyad between PKK/PYD forces on one side versus ISIS/JN in alliance with Ahrar al-Sham and some FSA groupings–which culminated in the expulsion of the PKK/PYD from the town–saw repeated allegations against ISIS/JN, in particular of systematic looting and destruction of Kurdish property. In response to these repeated claims, ISIS released a statement indicating that its fighters were obliged to protect the property of Muslim brothers, whether Kurdish or Arab, but presumably excluding those affiliated with the PYD/PKK and thus deemed apostates.
As of the writing of this article, the overall picture in the conflict is that YPG forces have suffered serious setbacks in both the Aleppo and Raqqa governorates. Yet they are still holding their own in the Hasakah province. Nonetheless, there have been no major advances by either side, as JN/ISIS has been unable to retake Ras al-Ayn, despite repeated attempts at bombarding YPG positions in the town. Indeed, one ISIS source claimed that ISIS in alliance with FSA battalions had rooted out the PKK/PYD presence from more than 90 percent of the northern Raqqa countryside around the Tel Abyad area and vowed that the PKK/PYD would be eliminated entirely, including from the Hasakah governorate. Some new mujahidin umbrella groupings have been declared dedicated to achieving this objective as well, including in the northern Aleppo countrysideand Qamishli area in the Hasakah province.
On some occasions, truces have been announced between FSA-SIF groups and Kurdish forces on account of mediation from delegations claiming to be the “Kurdish Supreme Council” (KSC), but these delegations have never been more than small groups of local Kurds acting unilaterally, and so the truces have lacked real authority and quickly collapsed. Indeed, the coalition of Kurdish opposition groups called the Kurdish National Council (KNC) thus requested that all groups should stop using the KSC name unilaterally. In turn, the PYD, believing Turkey to be the main venue of financial and armed backing to JN/ISIS, has reached out to Ankara in the hope of achieving some sort of ceasefire, or at least a cessation of aid from Turkey to JN/ISIS.
At this stage, successful mediation and a long-lasting truce are unlikely. The conflict has escalated beyond localized clashes and has quite clearly taken on the form of an existential, ideological struggle, with JN/ISIS circles making it abundantly clear that they deem the PYD/PKK “apostates” who should be annihilated. Conversely, many Kurds–both pro- and anti-PYD–view this conflict as an ethnic Kurdish-Arab war. Meanwhile, battalions under the FSA or SIF banner remain convinced that the PYD in particular is an agent for the Asad regime. This is the case even though, from an analyst’s point of view, the fairest assessment is that the PYD is eager to maintain exclusive control over its strongholds and Kurdish areas more generally, and therefore is willing to cut deals with regime forces and rebel groups to achieve that goal–while being prepared to take on both should they encroach on PYD territory.
In the meantime, it is clear that the conflict has provoked the upsurge in Kurdish refugees to Iraq. Unsurprisingly, Turkish media outlets affiliated with the AKP government put the refugee surge down to alleged repression on the part of the PYD. While there may be some truth to the testimony cited in Turkish media, it seems more likely that the bulk of the upsurge has been due to JN/ISIS/FSA/SIF seizure of Kurdish areas in the Aleppo and Raqqa governorates in particular, as well as continued bombardment and attacks on Kurdish areas in the Hasakah governorate in particular.
The seizure of territory has provoked rumors from pro-PYD circles above all of large-scale massacres of Kurds and policies of forced Arabization. Regardless of the truth of these claims (and the stories of massacres are generally uncorroborated), there is a sufficient climate of fear created to prompt a flight of refugees into the safe haven of Iraqi Kurdistan, whose government is now contemplating closer security cooperation with Baghdad in light of the perceived common threat of al-Qa’ida. A further side effect of this conflict is that it has undoubtedly bolstered the PYD’s image in Syrian Kurdistan as the protector of the Kurds, as YPG forces are doing the bulk of the fighting against JN/ISIS and other groups. In short, it is a bleak situation, despite the KNC’s backtracking on its withdrawal from Syrian opposition frameworks in mid-August 2013 as well as the decision to join the Syrian opposition coalition in-exile on preconditions.
CONCLUSION: ISIS’ FUTURE
From the above, it should be apparent that ISIS’ relations with other rebel groups are by no means a case of “al-Qa’ida vs. everyone else.” Two general principles can be drawn. First, in the conflict with the PYD/PKK in particular, one cannot expect other rebel groups–whether under the banner of the FSA, SILF, SIF and the like–to side with the PYD/PKK against the ISIS. Second, SIF groups like Ahrar al-Sham, whose discourse blurs the national/transnational distinction over wider goals, will not openly side with ISIS’ opponents–Kurdish or FSA–in an event of conflict. This is even as some Ahrar al-Sham leaders harbor reservations about ISIS. Among those under the banner of FSA, the staunchest opponents of ISIS remain those with close ties to SMC leader Salim Idriss, who has accused ISIS of being agents for the Asad regime.
Compared with ISIS’ fortunes in Iraq, ISIS has been far more successful in Syria than the Iraqi branch could ever have hoped. The main factor behind this success is undoubtedly the good degree of continuity between JN and ISIS in terms of outreach to locals. Granted, where ISIS and JN are clearly separate entities, JN’s provision of services is more extensive than that of ISIS.
Nonetheless, it is clear that ISIS in Syria has learned from the mistakes of its predecessors and understands that “winning hearts and minds” is a key part of expanding its control. For instance, ISIS has provided toys and days of fun for children during and after Ramadan, along with iftar (evening meal that breaks the fast during Ramadan) dinners (Appendix, Figure 11) and food aid. ISIS has even introduced a rationing system of basic necessities in parts of Aleppo (Appendix, Figure 12), and it provides bus services and schools for children (Appendix, Figure 13).
Despite these advances for ISIS, the current author still maintains the assessment from back in March 2013 that such strongholds are only likely to exist in the north and east of Syria. The picture elsewhere in the country is still one of generalized chaos, and one must be wary of sensationalist claims that al-Qa’ida-aligned factions somehow dominate the armed opposition.
Could there be a Sahwa-style movement against ISIS eventually? One need not completely rule out the possibility, but the only plausible context in which such a development could arise is in a post-Asad order with an extensive foreign troop presence on the ground, perhaps needed for at least a decade in order to build up a viable post-Asad centralized security force. For now, however, it is implausible to suggest that other rebels will team up with either the PYD or regime forces to fight ISIS. This is even as intra-rebel rivalries, including between ISIS and other groups, are inevitable now and in the future, regardless of whether there is a Sahwa movement.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
 See more on this issue vis-à-vis ISIS in Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’s Messages and Self-Presentation in Syria and Iraq,” Jihadology, September, 9, 2013, http://jihadology.net/2013/09/09/musings-of-an-iraqi-brasenostril-on-jihad-the-islamic-state-of-iraq-and-ash-shams-messages-and-self-presentation-in-syria-and-iraq/ (accessed September 9, 2013).
 The official name of the al-Qa’ida branch in Iraq.
 This issue of presentation of jihad is discussed in Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “Jihad in Syria,” Syria Comment, March 22, 2013, http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/jihad-in-syria-by-aymenn-jawad-al-tamimi/. The issue of presentation is particularly relevant when one considers that JN’s full name, Jabhat al-Nusra li Ahl al-Sham, translates to “Protection/Victory Front for the People of al-Sham.”
 See, for example, Kelly McEvers, “Jihadi Fighters Win Hearts and Minds by Easing Syria’s Bread Crisis,” NPR Radio, January 17, 2013, http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/01/18/169516308/as-syrian-rebels-reopen-bakeries-bread-crisis-starts-to-ease.
 Himam News Agency, “Jabhat al-Nusra: Cleaning Services in the Town of Binnish – Idlib,” July 11, 2013, YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ut86JXg_R_I (accessed August 31, 2013). The outlet also published a video on JN’s making and provision of bread for fighters in East Ghouta. See “Jabhat al-Nusra: Making of Bread and Its Provision to the Mujahidin on the Fronts in East Ghouta, Rural Damascus,” July 23, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2J9q0oCvHlI (Accessed August 31, 2013).
 Jawad Al-Tamimi, “Jihad in Syria.”
 Al-Furqan Media, “Announcement of the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham: Speech by the Commander of the Believers Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, May God protect him,” YouTube, April 8, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2HPQxA3catY (accessed August 31, 2013).
 Al-Manarah al-Bayda, “Speech by Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani,” April 10, 2013, YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QXZ3YpzF4Mw (accessed August 31, 2013).
 Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham,” Brown Moses Blog, May 17, 2013, http://brown-moses.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/jabhat-al-nusra-and-islamic-state-of.html.
 For a full translation of Zawahiri’s letter, see Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “Sheikh Aymenn al-Zawahiri Annuls Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham,”
June 9, 2013, http://www.aymennjawad.org/2013/06/sheikh-aymenn-al-zawahiri-annuls-islamic-state (accessed August 31, 2013).
 Al-Furqan Media, “Remaining [Steadfast] in Iraq and al-Sham,” YouTube, June 14, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I7AvJvC8vfs (accessed 31 August, 2013).
 See, for example, National Iraqi News Agency, “Al-Baghdadi Appoints Adnani as Amir of Islamic State in Iraq and Levant,” August 18, 2013, http://www.ninanews.com/english/News_Details.asp?ar95_VQ=GJHIHH. It should be noted that the claim that Baghdadi appointed Adnani as ISIS amir was widely reported in Iraqi media, but there exists no evidence in jihadi circles to corroborate this claim.
 Al-Furqan Media, “Speech by Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, Spokesman in the Name of the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham: ‘Scatter Them and What They Believe’,” YouTube, June 20, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWZKnOzFXn4 (accessed August 31, 2013.
 It should be noted that the phrase “from Diyala to Beirut” was used recently in pro-ISIS circles (e.g., by ISIS Twitter user @reyadiraq) to celebrate the bombings that struck a Hizballah stronghold in southern Beirut on August 15, 2013. It appears that observers have not yet realized that the origin of this ISIS slogan goes back to Adnani’s speech in June 2013.
 For example, note an al-Furqan Media video released as part of a recent series entitled “Messages from Ard al-Melaham [Syria: literally “The Land of Epic Battles”].” It features an interview with a man who is supposedly ISIS’ eldest fighter. He is introduced as one of those who took part in the ISIS-led capture of Mannagh military airbase in the Aleppo governorate. He mentions that one of his children is imprisoned in Iraq. However, nowhere is an affiliation to a group named ISIS affirmed in the video. See “Messages from Arḍ al-Melaham 1: Shaykh al-Mujahid Abu Omar al-Ansari,” YouTube, August 20, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0QJOrQaMCg (accessed December 3, 2013).
 For a detailed discussion of this issue, see: Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “The Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham’s Messages and Self-Presentation in Syria and Iraq,” Jihadology, September 9, 2013, http://jihadology.net/2013/09/09/musings-of-an-iraqi-brasenostril-on-jihad-the-islamic-state-of-iraq-and-ash-shams-messages-and-self-presentation-in-syria-and-iraq/.
 See, for example, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, “Syria’s al-Nusra Front–Ruthless, Organized and Taking Control,” The Guardian, July 10, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/10/syria-al-nusra-front-jihadi.
 Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “The ISIS Cavalcade: Round-Up of Some Claimed Martyrs for the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham,” Jihadology, July 1, 2013, http://jihadology.net/2013/07/01/musings-of-an-iraqi-brasenostril-on-jihad-the-isis-cavalcade-round-up-of-some-claimed-martyrs-for-the-islamic-state-of-iraq-and-ash-sham/.
 That said, a trickle of reported native Syrian martyrs for ISIS has begun to appear. For example, the pro-ISIS outlet al-Saqeel Media reported on August 13, 2013, the martyrdom of one Abu Muhammad al-Hamawi, whose name clearly implies origins from Hama, where he was in fact martyred. See https://www.facebook.com/Alsaqeel/posts/367168850078405. Cf. the case of Hamid al-Sayyid from the Idlib town of Binnish, reported by ISIS source @zhoof21 on August 17, 2013, to have been killed in ISIS’ clashes with rival rebel battalion Liwa Ahfad al-Rasul in Raqqa: https://twitter.com/zhoof21/status/368494016444125184/photo/1.
 Alison Tahmizian Meuse, “In Raqqa, Islamist Rebels Form a New Regime,” Syria Deeply, August 16, 2013, http://beta.syriadeeply.org/2013/08/raqqa-islamist-rebels-form-regime/#.UiKKBmakUu8.
 Youssef Shaikho, “Jarablos: From Syrian City to Islamic Emirate,” The Damascus Bureau, July 12, 2013, http://www.damascusbureau.org/?p=5569.
 See Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “Musings of an Iraqi Brasenostril on Jihad,” Jihadology, http://jihadology.net/musings-of-an-iraqi-brasenostril-on-jihad/.
 Kata’ib Junud al-Haq in Abu Kamal–likely behind the recent clashes with Abu Kamal’s local Ahfad al-Rasul affiliate, Liwa Allahu Akbar–has been a good example of JN-ISIS crossover in the eastern border areas (on paper, the group previously claimed JN affiliation prior to Baghdadi’s April 2013 statement, then declared itself a part of ISIS, and finally switched back to JN affiliation in name after Zawahiri’s statement, while preserving ISIS banners and imagery).
Yet it should be noted that recently the group has reaffirmed an exclusive JN identity by dropping all traces of ISIS imagery from its emblem and indicating the JN affiliation explicitly. Contrast these three logos, the one on the far left a logo from February 2013; the one in the middle introduced in April 2013, after Baghdadi’s announcement of an ISI-JN merger; and the final one a reworking of the one on the left. It has been used before April 2013, but was being used again as of September 2013 (see Figure 13 in the Appendix).
 “The Amir of Jabhat al-Nusra in Raqqa Abu Sa’ad al-Hadrami, May God Protect Himself,” Free Syrian Army Forum, April 1, 2013, http://syrianarmyfree.com/vb/showthread.php?t=39928.
 “Liberated Raqqa… Clashes Between Armed Battalion and Great Popular Protests and a Girl Holds a Sit-In Demonstration Alone in front of the State of Iraq and ash-Sham Headquarters,” Syria Frontline Blog, August 11, 2013, http://syria.frontline.left.over-blog.com/article-119493981.html.
 “In Raqqa… Jawlani vs. Baghdadi: Jabhat al-Nusra Defects and the Shari’a Committee Is Turning into a Wrestling Arena,” al-Hadath News, July 1, 2013, http://www.alhadathnews.net/archives/88058.
 Aleppo Islamic News Network, “Jabhat al-Nusra Statement on Its Return to the Province of Raqqa,” September 13, 2013, https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1400517533510327&set=a.1376419709253443.1073741831.1375938215968259&type=1&theater (accessed September 15, 2013).
 See, for example, al-Manarah al-Bayda, “376: Within the Series of Operations ‘Eye for an Eye’: Demolition of the Tu’ma Checkpoint on the Zamlaka-al-Qabun Road Connecting to Damascus,” August 26, 2013, http://justpaste.it/4lox.
 Ibid, “382: Within the Series of Operations ‘Eye for an Eye’: Assault and Cleansing of the Village of al-Himam in the Eastern Aleppo Countryside,” August 30, 2013, http://justpaste.it/5i6c.
Baqiyya Media, “Day One of Operation ‘Volcano of Revenge,'” https://ia801901.us.archive.org/19/items/VolcanoOperation/day1.jpg. The attack on the Four Seasons took place at 9:30 a.m. on August 27, 2013; while the attack on the Russian embassy took place at 10:15 a.m. No casualties appear to have occurred as a result of either strike.
 Baqiyya Media, List of Groups Participating in “Volcano of Revenge,” August 27, 2013, https://twitter.com/Baqiya_Media/status/372302620838211584/photo/1.
 “Urgent: Battle of Ayyam al-Qadisiyya,” August 31, 2013, https://www.facebook.com/YOUSUFDIAB/posts/426782150774822, (accessed September 3, 2013).
 Credit goes to the author’s colleague Phillip Smyth for coining this acronym. It should be noted that not all those who may use the ISIS banner in the Sayyida Zaynab area identify themselves as members of ISIS. On May 25, 2013, a statement was released by a spokesman for the battalion “Commandos of the Soldiers of God” [Maghawir] announcing joint operations with Ahfad al-Rasul and “other battalions” against LAFA in Sayyida Zaynab. See “Announcement of an Attack on the Headquarters of Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas in Sayyida Zaynab,” YouTube, May 25, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K4QXmbJ-zcU&feature=youtu.be (accessed September 1, 2013). While Maghawir use the FSA flag in their logo, their sympathies for ISIS are quite apparent with the appearance of the banner of Tawhid in the video. Further, in late June 2013, a video emerged on YouTube, showing Maghawir fighters raising the ISIS banner over a Damascus mosque. The group’s rhetoric has also repeatedly referred to Shi’a as “Rafidites.” See “Raising of the Banner of Jihad over the Mosque of the Companion Abu Obeida bin al-Jarrah After Its Liberation,” YouTube, June 23, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFp55-qMwBk (accessed September 1, 2013).
 “Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham: Damascus, Southern Region,” August 17, 2013, https://www.facebook.com/DwltAlaslamFyAlraqWalshamAlmntqtAljnwby/posts/621198794578679. Prior to the announcement of ISIS, there has been JN-Liwa al-Islam cooperation in the Sayyida Zaynab area. For example, see this discussion on the jihadi forum al-Platform Media from January 6, 2013, http://alplatformmedia.com/vb/showthread.php?t=17803.
 Cf. discussion with Phillip Smyth on this issue.
 Ibid, August 30, 2013, https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=627461047285787 (accessed September 1, 2013).
 Corroborated by discussion with ISIS sources.
 That JMWA is a front group for ISIS is shown by numerous lines of evidence. Besides the overlap of Abu Umar al-Shishani’s positions in ISIS and JMWA, jihadi sources always identify the two as synonymous. For instance, see this jihadi forum thread discussing JMWA/ISIS providing religious instruction to children in an Idlib village: “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham: Snapshots from Qur’an Memorization Circles in the Village of Salwa,” Yemen-Forum.net, July 17, 2013, http://www.ye1.org/vb/showthread.php?t=735092 (accessed September 1, 2013). As an epilogue note to this article, it should be pointed out that JMWA has subsequently split between those under Umar al-Shishani, who are now just under ISIS, and those following one Salah al-Din al-Shishani, who has retained the JMWA name and affirmed the group’s new independence from ISIS.
 The Green Battalion’s Facebook page, August 7, 2013, https://www.facebook.com/alkatebaalkhadraa/posts/1391729221053168 (accessed September 1, 2013).
 The contrast here is with what some commentators term “the southern front” (i.e., Damascus and Dar’a). To an extent, ISIS/JN relations with other battalions have been dealt with in the preceding section. With JN in particular, it is clear that the group can coordinate operations with a variety of battalions, as demonstrated in this author’s Jihadology post on their activities in Dar’a. The same is true to a lesser extent for ISIS. Yet the lack of substantial rebel holdings of territory in Damascus and Dar’a in comparison with the north, together with the fact that the ISIS’ presence is significantly smaller in the southern areas, means that FSA-ISIS relations in the south cannot be discussed in nearly the same depth as northern and eastern areas.
 Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “The Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham Expands into Rural Northern Syria,” Syria Comment, July 18, 2013, http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/the-islamic-state-of-iraq-and-ash-sham-expands-into-rural-northern-syria/.
 Ibid. The most recent gesture of dissatisfaction from these three towns comes from Manbij, where a group of rebels describing themselves as the Manbij military council urged ISIS to turn over its large headquarters in the town to the authority of the council. See Aleppo News Network, “Revolutionary Military Council in Manbij Considers the Islamic State a Faction Like the Other Military Factions,” Halab News, August 26, 2013, http://halabnews.com/news/34583. The statement likely reflects the council’s concerns about ISIS’ expanding power base in the town.
 See, for example, “Reporters Without Borders: Demonstration Against Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham al-Islamiya in the Town of Raqqa,” YouTube, August 10, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4pjPTyvF-8k. This demonstration of course took place after the ISIS-Ahfad al-Rasul clashes began, but the sentiment among opponents of ISIS is equally directed at Ahrar al-Sham, which is the main rebel group controlling the city.
 Ahfad al-Rasul Brigades in Raqqa, August 3, 2013, https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=201765266649519&id=149528001873246.
 “Ahfad al-Rasul and the Islamic State wrestle over Raqqa,” al-Mada News, August 8, 2013, http://www.almada.org/news/index/22468.
 “Admissions of a Security Officer of Brigade 201 of Ahfad al-Rasul and the Truth of Being Employed by France and Others for Waging War on Islam,” YouTube, August 9, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6k3W3gfRHp8&sns=tw.
 Raqqa News Network, August 13, 2013, https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=571579696218657&set=a.461964663846828.101588.461902453853049&type=1&theater.
 Tel Abyad News Network, August 14, 2013, https://www.facebook.com/tall.abyad.news/posts/492294847528277.
 “Ahfad al-Rasul Brigades Announce an End to Their Operations Against the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham,” Aks Alser, August 17, 2013, http://www.aksalser.com/?page=view_articles&id=34f248008e9def7744ca1759b91d5c4a&ar=843842874.
 “Col. Oqaidi on al-Qaeda, UN Inspectors, and Kurdish Militias,” NOW Lebanon, August 20, 2013, https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/interviews/col-oqaidi-on-al-qaeda-un-inspectors-and-kurdish-militias. Oqaidi subsequently resigned from his position, citing disunity among rebel ranks and warlordism.
 Joanna Paraszczuk, “Getting a Story Right–Free Syrian Army, ‘Jihadist Militants,’ and the Capture of Menagh Airbase,” EAWorldView, August 8, 2013, http://eaworldview.com/2013/08/syria-analysis-getting-a-story-right-free-syrian-army-jihadist-militants-capture-of-menagh-airbase/.
 Liwa al-Fatah- Aleppo, “Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa al-Ansar–the Mujahid Abu Jandal al-Masri in Mannagh Military Airport and a Message to Bashar,” YouTube, August 12, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtYqx9wqvLQ#at=140 (accessed September 2, 2013).
 Corroborated also from discussion with analyst Jonathan Spyer, who has met members of the battalion on the ground, including its deputy commander.
 “Important Statement,” Liwa al-Tawheed, July 20, 2013, http://lewaaltawheed.com/?p=4238.
 Aleppo and Idlib News Network, “Aleppo: Marea: Demonstration Demanding the Removal of the State of Iraq and ash-Sham,” YouTube, July 19, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NF7u5RdzaWw. The ISIS presence in the town can be traced as far back as June 2013, when a video was uploaded showing a demonstration in Marea in solidarity with Baniyas, featuring an ISIS flag in the background: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8k1mwPRdKk (accessed September 2, 2013).
 Justin Vela, “In Syria, Clashes Between Arab Rebels, Kurds,” The Washington Post, November 28, 2012, http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-11-28/world/35508209_1_pyd-rebels-and-kurdish-militants-al-nusra.
 Omar Hossino and Kinda Kanbar, “How Michel Kilo Negotiated a Tenuous Truce in Ras al-Ayn,” Syria Deeply, March 5, 2013, http://beta.syriadeeply.org/2013/03/michel-kilo-negotiated-tenuous-truce-ras-al-ayn/#.UiULjmakUu8.
 Al-Jewar, “Workers Party [PKK] Tramples with Its Shoes on the Banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham in Fierce Battles in Ras al-Ayn,” July 18, 2013, http://aljewar.org/news-45467.aspx.
 Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham: Deir ez-Zor and the Wider East of Syria,” Jihadology, June 27, 2013, http://jihadology.net/2013/06/27/musings-of-an-iraqi-brasenostril-on-jihad-jabhat-al-nusra-and-the-islamic-state-of-iraq-and-ash-sham-deir-ez-zor-and-the-wider-east-of-syria/.
 “Demonstration of the Free Men of Jarabulus Against Division, the PKK Party, and for Victory to the Islamists,” YouTube, July 18, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=govsVF4Mofk (accessed September 3, 2013). To make a more accurate distinction between PYD and PKK forces, it should be noted that the PKK has a front-group militia called Jabhat al-Akrad (“Kurds’ Front”), which declares affiliation with the FSA.
 “The Official Press Site of Abd al-Basit Ahmad al-Khalf,” August 1, 2013, https://www.facebook.com/A.A.Alkhalaf1/posts/385890114867610 (accessed September 3, 2013).
 Via ISIS source @zhoof21: “ISIS: Aleppo: Continuation of Clashes with YPG Apostates in the Village of Zor Maghar near Jarabulus,” August 6, 2013, https://twitter.com/zhoof21/status/364812498618179584/photo/1.
 Kata’ib al-Ahrar, “Important Statement from Battalions Fighting in Aleppo as Regards the PKK Militias,” August 2, 2013, https://www.facebook.com/KtaibAlahrar1/posts/508902399185411 (accessed September 3, 2013).
 A battalion formed in Manbij last year and with declared affiliation to the FSA Military Council in Aleppo. See this video of the statement of their formation: Omawi News, YouTube, September 24, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XJ-llFeKKb0 (accessed September 3, 2013).
 Affiliated with the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF), a coalition of rebel groups of which many have Ikhwani leanings, though Suqur al-Sham has a more Salafi orientation and consists of many Syrian jihadi veterans of the Iraq War.
 “Col. Oqaidi on al-Qaeda.”
 Kata’ib al-Ahrar, “Important Statement from Battalions Fighting in Aleppo.”
 Orient News, “Return of Ordinary Life to the Town of Tel Abyad After Violent Battles,” YouTube, August 19, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=YrXB_l9Adlw#at=37.
 See, for example, Tel Abyad News Network, August 19, 2013, https://www.facebook.com/tall.abyad.news/posts/494402173984211 (accessed September 3, 2013).
 Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, “Statement on Events in Tel Abyad,” Muslm.org, July 23, 2013, http://www.muslm.org/vb/showthread.php?516320.
 See, for example, @zhoof21, “ISIS: al-Hasakah: Striking the Headquarters of the YPG Apostates in the Town of Ras al-Ayn with Mortar Rounds and Artillery Shells,” August 20, 2013, https://twitter.com/zhoof21/status/369607326778818560.
 “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham: Damascus, Southern Region,” August 24, 2013, https://www.facebook.com/DwltAlaslamFyAlraqWalshamAlmntqtAljnwby/posts/624664640898761.
 Aleppo News Network, “Formation of an Operations Umbrella in the Northern Countryside to Challenge the PKK and PYD,” Halab News, August 14, 2013, http://halabnews.com/news/33413.
 Ugarit News, “Hasakah: Statement of the Qamishli Liberation Front,” YouTube, July 18, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0DWQ5KkmNvE (accessed September 3, 2013). The transnational jihadi outlook–likely the result of JN/ISIS crossover this author has noted in the Hasakah governorate (note the JN banner)–is made clear with the chanting at the end: “The Caliphate is the promise of God.”
 “Exclusive: KNC Decides to Withdraw from all Syrian Opposition Frameworks,” Welati.net, August 18, 2013, http://www.welati.info/nuce.php?ziman=ar&id=9381&niviskar=1&cure=5&kijan=.
 See, for example, Amberin Zaman, “PYD Leader to Turkey: Stop Arms to Jabhat al-Nusra,” al-Monitor, August 7, 2013, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/security/2013/08/turkey-still-allowing-weapons-to-jabhat-al-nusra.html.
 See, for example, “PYD Forces Syrians to Seek Refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan,” Today’s Zaman, August 25, 2013, http://www.todayszaman.com/news-324526-pyd-forces-syrians-to-seek-refuge-in-iraqi-kurdistan.html.
 See, for example, “No Kurdish Peshmerga Forces in Baghdad’s Green Zone,” Shafaaq News, August 6, 2013, http://www.ekurd.net/mismas/articles/misc2013/8/state7254.htm. No formal initiatives have been implemented yet, but plans for cooperation should the need be perceived to arise are on the table. Iraqi Shi’i political figures have also played up rumors of jihadi massacres of Kurds in Syria: e.g., Ali al-Dargham, “Sheikh Jalaluddin al-Saghir: The Approach of Jabhat al-Nusra which Is Killing Kurds Is Takfiri,” Buratha News, August 19, 2013, http://www.burathanews.com/news_article_207465.html.
 See, for example, “Kurds Council Joins Opposition Coalition with Preconditions,” ZAMAN ALWSL, August 29, 2013, http://www.zamanalwsl.net/en/readNews.php?id=1267.
 The group is a huge movement, as analyst Charles Lister notes, so some diversity of opinion about ISIS is hardly surprising.
 Associated Press, “In Syria, Infighting Between al-Qaida Groups and Mainstream Rebels Undermining Revolt,” Fox News, July 15, 2013, http://www.foxnews.com/world/2013/07/15/in-syria-infighting-between-al-qaida-groups-and-mainstream-rebels-undermining/.
 See, for example, Max Fisher, “Al-Qaeda Faction in Syria Hands Out Teletubbies and Spiderman Dolls,” The Washington Post, August 13, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/08/13/al-qaeda-faction-in-syria-hands-out-teletubbies-and-spiderman-dolls/, crediting this author for unearthing ISIS’ distribution of Teletubbies dolls to children.
 Jawad Al-Tamimi, “Jihad in Syria.”
Escaping IS: What Exiting an Armed Group Actually Takes
Authors: Dr Siobhan O’Neil and Dr Mara Revkin*
Although Islamic State’s territorial control of large swathes of Iraq and Syria came to an end in 2017, civilians, and particularly children, in these areas are still living with the long-term consequences of the group’s violence and exploitation. According to a new report by Human Rights Watch, this includes thousands of children abducted by Islamic State (IS) who remain unaccounted for today and thousands of children who cannot move on from conflict because they are viewed as threats and won’t be allowed to reintegrate back into society.
Last week, International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers was marked around the world to reflect on the policies and programmes that are most likely to protect rights, promote accountability, and enhance security of young people in armed conflict. In doing so, it is clear that many of the current approaches to those once associated with armed groups do not always strike the right balance. Children’s rights and best interests risk being trumped by short-sighted security considerations, which may ultimately put us all at greater risk.
One such child is “Amr”* – a juvenile detainee at a reformatory in Kurdish Iraq – who we met while undertaking research examining the recruitment and use of children by armed groups. After dropping out of elementary school at the age of 12, Amr worked at a steel factory. One year later, he would become employed as a cook by IS.
Amr was an unlikely recruit. For one, the group had murdered his father. But Amr needed the job in the IS kitchen. It paid better than the steel factory, and he was now responsible for helping support his mother and six siblings, so he felt that he had little choice. A few months after he started to work for IS, Amr was recruited by a family member to spy on the group for a state-sponsored militia. After he was caught taking photographs, Amr was thrown into an IS prison. He eventually managed to escape, only to be caught by security forces and imprisoned again for the crime of having joined a terrorist group.
In many ways, Amr’s story exemplifies the complexity of association with armed groups today. It is often assumed that anyone who becomes involved with such groups must have been brainwashed or be driven by deep-seated ideologically-motivated hate. Yet, involvement with armed groups – even those deemed “violent extremist” like IS or Boko Haram – is never as simple as this conventional narrative, nor is exiting their grasp.
For many like Amr, ideology played no role in motivating or facilitating his involvement with IS or the anti-IS militia. Indeed, our previous research in conflict areas found that young people associating with armed groups are usually influenced by a multitude of interrelated structural, social, individual, and historical factors, of which ideology was rarely the driving determinant. Rather, physical and food security, family and peer networks, financial incentives, coercion, and the pursuit of status and identity were more central for explaining the involvement of many young people with armed groups.
In many countries there is little differentiation made in how or why individuals were associated with such groups. As documented in related research, the use of indiscriminate “iron fist” approaches means that tens of thousands of people – not just those associated with military functions, but also tax-payers, cleaners or cooks like Amr – have been detained on terrorism charges, with thousands believed to have been sentenced to death. Thousands of children languishing in Syria have been barred or discouraged from returning to their home countries, despite the fact that many had no choice in living under IS. This sort of collective punishment could further encourage cycles of violence. We must find ways out for the vast majority of individuals who are associated with armed groups but who do not pose a risk to society.
To create a safer future, and to avoid denying one to the children who have lived under or been associated with armed groups, we need to better understand their experiences and needs for transitioning to a life oriented away from conflict. We need to rethink our assumptions about armed group association and neutrality in conflict, engage children and youth as partners in their own recovery, and support them in the long-term exit process from armed groups. Only then will young people like Amr have a real chance to escape the pull of violent conflict and give back as productive members of their communities.
* Name has been changed for safety reasons.
*Dr Mara Revkin was the lead researcher on the Syria and Iraq case study featured in Cradled by Conflict and the Iraq case study for The Limits of Punishment: Transitional Justice and Violent Extremism. She is a National Security Law Fellow at the Georgetown University Law Center.
Foreign fighters: ‘One of the most serious dimensions’ in global counter-terrorism struggle
Over the past few years, ISIL and Al-Qaida terrorist fighters have posed an “unprecedented threat to international peace and security”, the UN counter-terrorism chief said on Wednesday in Vienna, at the close of a joint UN- Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) regional conference on addressing challenges posed by terrorists who have gone to fight overseas.
Under-Secretary-General of the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, Vladimir Voronkov, recalled that last week he presented to the Security Council the Secretary-General’s report on the continuing threat posed by ISIL.
“ISIL is resurgent as a covert network in Iraq and Syria”, he said. “Thousands of foreign terrorist fighters remain at large, posing a threat to Iraq, Syria, and the countries they might return or relocate to”.
Mr. Voronkov stressed that all sessions of the conference underlined the need to further strengthen international, regional and bilateral counter-terrorism cooperation – with many participants highlighting the centrality of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy.
He highlighted that the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) for implementing the Strategy in Central Asia “could serve as a model for collaboration in other regions”.
“We are also working closely with the Arab Interior Ministers Council to strengthen Arab countries’ measures to effectively counter terrorism”, using JPOA as a model, he said.
According to the Counter-Terrorism chief, participants stressed the urgent need for gender and age-sensitive programmes to assist children linked with terrorist groups.
As thousands of children remain trapped in Syria and Iraq, facing a multitude of challenges, including rejection and life-long stigmatization, Mr. Voronkov stressed that Member States have “the primary responsibility to address the plight of their nationals, including children trapped in conflict zones”.
“Children should always be seen as victims and efforts to address their plight should be based on the best interest of the child”, he spelled out.
Disrupt terrorist travels
The need to prevent, detect and disrupt the travel of foreign terrorist fighters, in accordance with international law, was front and centre during discussions as well, drawing attention to the importance of enhancing Member States’ capacities to do so.
“Both the OSCE and the UN are helping countries adopt and use Advance Passenger Information and Passenger Name Record data systems”, he informed those gathered, calling the UN Countering Terrorist Travel Programme “a flagship demonstration” of how the UN system, together with international policing organization INTERPOL and others, are “working as one” to provide tailored, impactful assistance to Member States.
Noting that “the phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters is one of the most serious dimensions of the terrorist threat”, Mr. Voronkov concluded by urging Member States to continue working together, through the UN and other platforms, “not only to protect people on their own territory, but extend solidarity and assistance beyond their borders”.
Global initiative launched to keep top sports events safe from terrorism
Representatives from international sporting federations and the private sector joined with ambassadors at UN Headquarters in New York on Monday to launch a global programme aimed at safeguarding major sporting events from terrorism-related threats.
The multi-year initiative looks to harness the positive values that sports promote to help crackdown on the spread of violent extremism, particularly among young people.
“Sport pushes people to be better, to aim higher and further. It promotes tolerance and gender equality. It strengthens communities, builds resilience and channels natural competitive instincts in a harmonious way”, said Vladimir Voronkov, head of the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT).
“Sport is a fundamental and true human value: a strong vaccine against any kind of criminal disease. We have a moral obligation to protect and promote sport.”
Sharing best practices and information
Despite being a unifying force, sporting events have been marred by deadly terrorist attacks.
The 1972 and 1996 Olympic Games, and, more recently, marathons in Sri Lanka and the United States, are some of the tragic examples.
The global programme will develop guidelines to enhance international cooperation, and public-private partnerships, to make sporting events safer for athletes and the public. The launch will be followed by a two-day expert meeting. Another meeting focusing on youth will be held in April.
Participants attending the launch included representatives from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), various national Olympic committees, the international football association, FIFA, and private companies.
“Protecting major sporting events entails multilevel cooperation and coordination, as well as complex security and policy arrangements. including securing locations, cyber security, crisis planning and management, (and) strategic communications” said Mr. Voronkov.
“Through our joint programme, we will focus on the exchange of information and best practices, and on sharing resources and facilitating partnerships.”
It is essential to advance the consolidation of sport in development and peace strategies , according to the official at the helm of a UN platform which fosters intercultural dialogue, understanding and cooperation.
“Indeed, sports unites and heals,” Miguel Moratinos, High Representative of the UN Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC), told the gathering.
“It is also a universal language that both, fans and players understand. So, let’s all capitalize on the full potential of sport , with youth in its heart, as a driver for peace and social change .”
Key support from Qatar
Qatar, host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, is a key supporter of the initiative, alongside China and the Republic of Korea.
The country and the UN counter-terrorism office signed an agreement last year to establish the world’s first hub for studying the behavioural roots of violent extremism conducive to terrorism.
Qatar is taking measures at the local and global level to ensure security at “the region’s first sporting mega event”, according to the Secretary-Genera of the World Cup preparatory committee.
“We are working hand-in-hand with our allies and partners around the world on exchanging best practice, information sharing, personnel sharing, and in assisting in maintaining the security of Qatar ahead of and during 2022”, Hassan al-Thawadi said in a video message.
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