Ongoing clashes between rival groups within the armed opposition intensified in Syria’s Aleppo province this past week following protests against the heavy-handed tactics of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Infighting among rebels could spell trouble for an opposition movement seemingly on the wane, but it could also present an opportunity. If the moderate-leaning rebel groups can sever their symbiotic relationship with their al-Qaeda affiliates for good, they stand to get significantly more support from Western backers wary of inadvertently assisting old enemies. But it won’t be easy – even as the rivals battle for turf in Aleppo province, they have united to inflict a resounding defeat on government forces elsewhere in the country.
For the past several months rebel groups aligned with ISIS in Aleppo province have spent nearly as much energy battling factions serving under the umbrella of the Western-leaning Free Syrian Army (FSA) as they have fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. According to al-Quds al-Arabi, an Arabic-language newspaper published out of London, the media office of ISIS issued a statement on Sept. 12 saying it had launched a military campaign against FSA battalions in Aleppo province in response to a previous attack on the ISIS headquarters there. The most recent clashes, which took place in Bab, a district 25 km from the provincial capital, were sparked by an anti-ISIS rally. Enraged, members of the fundamentalist group shot into the crowd, injuring eight, says Abu Mohammad, an engineer who was at the scene.
Abu Mohammad, who spoke to TIME via Skype, estimates that over the past several months similar clashes have resulted in dozens of dead – and none of the victims were members of the Syrian government that the rebels are ostensibly seeking to overthrow. “People are fed up with their behavior. Anyone who disagrees with them is an infidel. Any moderate person is an infidel. Simply if you are not with them you are an infidel,” he says, asking to be identified only by his nickname, for his protection. The infidel accusation, according to ISIS’s draconian interpretation of Islamic law, can result in execution.
Abu Sohaib, an ISIS leader in the nearby town of Azaz, was not involved in the Bab conflict, but he defends the groups’ new campaign, telling TIME via Skype that ISIS is only fighting collaborators and war profiteers, not critics. He says most of the clashes started because members of the FSA were stealing money, humanitarian supplies and food aid destined for civilians. “People are fed up from the so-called FSA, because of their corruption and behavior. We launched the campaign to purify the revolution, and so far we have succeeded in eliminating most of those who profit from the revolution.”
Abdul Rahman Mattar, an Aleppo-based human-rights activist and writer, agrees that ISIS and its ideological sibling Jabhat al-Nusra, which is listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, were initially welcomed in the area for their superior fighting skills …read more