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Case Analysis 16 February, 2014

Confrontation with ISIS launched on the threshold of Geneva


The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 

Violent clashes between Syrian opposition factions and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) broke out in early January in different areas of northern Syria. The clashes followed ISIS’s preparations to storm the town of Atarib and the border crossing at Bab al-Hawa to Aleppo’s west, areas that have been under the opposition’s control for over a year, prompting factions within the Mujahedeen Army to attack ISIS bases on January 3 in these areas. The Syrian Revolutionaries Front joined shortly thereafter, storming most ISIS bases in Idlib’s countryside, as did factions of the Islamic Front, besieging the main headquarters of ISIS in Idlib province and clashing with ISIS fighters to the north and west of Aleppo and al-Raqqah. The Islamic State was thus forced to retreat to al-Raqqah where they regrouped and launched a counter-offensive using car and suicide bombings to regain control of the areas lost. On January 4, 2014, ISIS issued a statement giving the factions fighting it 24 hours to stop their attacks, lift the roadblocks restricting their movement, and release all its prisoners. If these requests went unheeded, ISIS threatened to escalate its attacks and withdraw from the front lines in Aleppo’s Sheikh Saeed and al-Naqqarin neighborhoods, where its fighters are battling the regime.

Delayed Conflict

When still in its phase of peaceful protests, Jihadi movements were not interested in the Syrian revolution, deeming the Arab revolutions’ underlying aim for democratic rule incompatible with jihadi thinking. Once the revolution became militarized, however, these movements were encouraged to join on religious grounds. The regime’s use of violence and militias, and the absence of any international measures to deter it, helped the jihadists pursue their own project, with only a single goal in common with the revolution—being an enemy of the regime. Most revolutionary factions turned a blind eye, leaving ISIS to rapidly turn from an unwanted participant to a welcome player in the fight against the regime.

The clash between the jihadists and opposition factions started in April 2013, when the “emir” of the Islamic State of Iraq group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced that his group and the al-Nusra Front were merging to form the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Most of the foreign fighters pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi as their emir, attacking and seizing the al-Nusra Front’s bases in Aleppo, Idlib, and al-Raqqah. Since then, ISIS has forcefully taken control of “liberated” areas, and obliged the smaller fighting units, tribes, and people in these areas to swear allegiance and live according to their system of Islamic courts and the education offered in their religious schools. The group carried out numerous killings and executions on a range of pretexts. Its fighters restricted civilian life, forced women to wear the headscarf and full veil, forbid men and women to mix, and closed down theaters and art exhibitions. It has attacked monasteries, and converted churches into bases; it has forbidden flying the revolution’s flag, and killed or imprisoned activists and media workers on the pretext that they were agents of the National Coalition, itself an “agent” of America.

With the recent lull on some of the fronts active in the fight against the regime, ISIS fighters found themselves almost completely free to fight opposition forces on the grounds that they were “infidels,” “apostates,” “Sahwat” (a reference to the tribal armed groups established by the US in Iraq to fight al-Qaeda), or collaborators with the US. They attacked many of their bases, and killed their commanders, ultimately increasing popular discontent with ISIS and prompting the Syrian Islamic associations and societies to issue a statement on December 22 that accused the ISIS of deliberately creating discontent with the opposition factions and called upon it to refrain from intervening in Syrian affairs and acting in a way that leads to strife (fitna) and evil.[1] On January 1, 2014, the opposition’s National Coalition released a statement describing ISIS as a “terrorist” group, and pointed out the organic connection between ISIS and the Syrian regime—“this group’s spilling of Syrian blood has removed any doubt as to its terrorist nature and hostility to the revolution.”[2]

Initially, the smaller fighting units most exposed to ISIS aggression were not prepared to fight  the group due to its superior tactics, such as car bombs and suicide attacks, and strength. Similarly, despite repeated attacks by ISIS, larger factions, such as the Islamic Front, rejected armed confrontation, preferring other methods to resolve differences, such as Islamic arbitration. Armed confrontation, however, became inevitable once ISIS planned to storm Atarib, the opposition’s only remaining supply line from Turkey via the Bab al-Hawa crossing. If ISIS were to take control of these two areas, it would have total control of all the supply lines to Aleppo’s west, north, and east, particularly as it already controls the town of Azaz on the Turkish border, a large number of the villages to the north, and the town of al-Bab to the east. The fighting units that were most at risk, including the Mujahedeen Army, therefore, raced to confront ISIS militarily in and around Atarib; the fighting rapidly spread to other areas.

Possible Outcomes

The confrontation with ISIS is no doubt a turning point in the course of Syria’s conflict. To date, ISIS has been dealt with as an enemy just like the regime, Hezbollah, and the other Iraqi and sectarian militias, with claims linking the organization to the Syrian revolution and its opposition factions strongly refuted. Although the current confrontation is a step toward kicking ISIS out of Syria, it is still too early to expect the group to be defeated and wiped out in the foreseeable future for a number of reasons:


1.      ISIS’s Strength: With their preferred method of car bombs and suicide bombings, combined with their members’ isolation, ISIS has no qualms about how to protect their caliphate and loyalty to their emir. Since the beginning of the clashes with opposition fighters, ISIS has carried out more than 16 such attacks and executed hundreds of prisoners in Aleppo, Idlib, and al-Raqqah. They executed 100 fighters from the Free Islamic Syrians Movement, who were then buried in a mass grave, and went as far as executing the leader of the al-Nusra Front in al-Raqqah, Abu Saad al-Hadrami, on the charge of apostasy.[3] Their viciousness prevents many of the smaller fighting units from confronting them, and causes most to adopt a neutral position. In addition, ISIS’s bases are widely dispersed geographically, from Abu Kamal in the east to the Lataqiah countryside in the west, giving the group the ability to reorganize its forces and take control of new villages in preparation for counterattacks in the areas it has lost.

 2.      Conflicting calculations among opposition factions. Calculations vary according to each party’s position, strength, and political and ideological orientation. The Tawhid Brigade and the Army of Islam within the Islamic Front are those most keen to take on ISIS due to their expansion into areas subject to their control. Other factions in the Front, particularly the Free Syrians Movement (one of the movements most harmed by ISIS), the Truth Brigade, and the Syrian Hawk Brigades have preferred not to be drawn into protracted, all-out confrontation with ISIS because they consider the fighting underway an internal conflict that only benefits al-Assad and his regime. These factions have a narrow perspective on the disagreements with ISIS and do not object to their presence or activities; they do, however, have reservations about their methods and behavior since it declares itself to be a “state” to which others should rally, pledging allegiance to its “emir” and adopting the courts of its legal system. Such behavior prompted one commander from the Islamic Front to initiate a mediation that stipulated a ceasefire, removal of checkpoints, release of prisoners, safe passage for foreign fighters, and the creation of independent sharia courts and judges.[4]

The al-Nusra Front views the current confrontation as a challenge to the ISIS’s continuing efforts to weaken it by attracting its members and eliminating its leaders. Their most significant advantage in a confrontation might be its ability to retake many of its bases lost to ISIS. On the other hand, it has not explicitly declared its participation in the fight against ISIS, fearing that the international al-Qaeda organization and its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri might withdraw its support, thereby causing the Front to lose its “protection” and “legitimacy,”[5] particularly given that many of the jihadist theoreticians joined al-Baghdadi following his declaration of the Islamic state.[6] At the same time, the al-Nusra Front views the “erroneous policy of the Islamic state” as having contributed to sparking and inflaming the conflict. This justifies its joining the efforts to weaken ISIS and halt its expansion, and perhaps even contributes to its withdrawal from Syria in implementing al-Zawahiri’s arbitration. The foreign fighters would then return to its ranks.[7] Alternatively, ISIS could remain as a military faction, but give up its demands for allegiance as a jihadi authority.

The Syrian Revolutionaries Front, formed in December 2013, became prominent as an organized military force able to match the major Islamic factions during the recent clashes, and has made fighting ISIS its mission, seeking to drive it out of most of the villages in the Idlib countryside and the northern Hama countryside. Controversy surrounds the fact that its fighters, formerly the Syrian Martyrs Brigades, who had a major role in fighting the regime in 2012, ceased to be active after the regime left their areas in the Idlib countryside despite the significant support they were receiving from abroad. This made other factions, particularly Islamic factions, suspicious of the Front’s commander Jamal Maarouf and his men, whom they believe are backed by Saudi Arabia and the West.

Despite the above controversies, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front has become one of the most important players in the north. Its leader has sought to “fight the regime and al-Qaeda” in an effort to demonstrate the organization’s ability to those who are apprehensive of the jihadists’ strength in northern Syria, and to fill the vacuum left by the exit of chief of staff Salim Idris after the headquarters in Bab al-Hawa was attacked by the Islamic Front in December 2013. The National Coalition, along with the interim government and its regional backers, quickly responded to this message. The Front’s commander Maarouf claimed that the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and its associated brigades “would be the nucleus for the formation of a free national army,” whose sole objective would be to “fight the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the fundamentalist groups”.[8]

The Mujahedeen Army was formed on January 2, 2014, one day before the start of the confrontation with ISIS.[9] Despite similarities in orientation and aims, and despite operating in the same geographical region and using the same operations room, the factions comprising the Mujahedeen Army have not joined the Islamic Front. This means it could be a parallel and rival Islamic body to the Front in the north, with a task defined as fighting ISIS. In this context, the Mujahedeen Army declared war on ISIS until “it dissolves itself or is absorbed into other military units”.[10] Mujahedeen Army fighters were able to force ISIS out of most of the villages in the western Idlib countryside and the western neighborhoods of Aleppo, including the Eye Hospital which was ISIS’s main headquarters in the city.

 3.      The regime’s stance on ISIS. The appearance of ISIS on the fringes of the revolution and its spread in the north and east of Syria at the expense of other opposition factions has strengthened the regime’s position, which, in the run up to the Geneva 2 conference, has been stressing that its battle is with extremist jihadi groups, most of which are made up of foreign fighters. Because ISIS’s presence and methods serve this narrative and the regime’s domestic and international positions, the regime has refrained from entering into any confrontation that might weaken ISIS. On the contrary, the regime has assisted it in the face of the opposition factions who united to fight it and kick it out of Syria, and at times paved the way for it, such as in the town of al-Bab. When it was under siege by ISIS, the government bombed those factions defending the town, and in doing so helped ISIS take the town. There is a belief that ISIS, despite its extreme, pathological, and fanatical mindset, might be the creation of the regime and its allies. As a result, whether ISIS intentionally serves the regime’s agenda or not, the regime requires its continued survival.


It would appear the battle with ISIS has indeed begun and will grow until the Syrian revolution restores itself. Even though it comes with its own challenges, this battle has revealed the limited military strength of ISIS, quite the opposite of what was being promoted by jihadist circles and western media. It has become clear that the group’s strength lies in its terrorist activities and society’s fear of it. Many Syrians also ideologically reject ISIS and its proposals for an Islamic state to be accompanied by the forceful imposition of Sharia law.

The clashes, however, have also revealed the extent to which the interests of ISIS coincide with those of the regime, particularly after the group maintained its threat and retreated from its frontline against the regime in Aleppo’s Naqqarin district. In addition, the extent of the confusion caused by the Syrian opposition factions uniting to force ISIS out is becoming clear. In this way, the regime has reaped the benefits of the jihadists’ influence since it strengthened its claim that the revolution is a “Salafist terrorist conspiracy” targeting the regime’s “secularism and tolerance,” and helped the regime restore itself internationally as a party in the “fight against terrorism.”

The coming together of the opposition factions, for the first time since the militarization of the revolution in their pursuit to fight ISIS, is an opportunity to build a unified military body that could form the nucleus of a national army that would represent the revolution and its aims. This force could embrace all armed factions once there is a clear and explicit position adopted against the groups that have harmed the revolution politically and militarily.

*This Assessment was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version published on January 19th, 2014 can be found here.


[1] “Islamic Organizations in Syria: The methods of ISIS are a call for strife and evil,” (in Arabic) Al-Arabiya Net, December 22, 2013, http://google/m9Ok4P. The organizations and associations that signed the statement include the Islamic Organization of Syria, the Association of Syrian Ulema, the Ulema and Preachers of the Revolution, The Sharia Society of Aleppo, The Association of Syrian Preachers, the Society of Kurdish Ulema in Syria, the Islamic Congress of Syria, and the Organization of Free Ulema.

[2] “The Coalition describes ISIS as terrorist following the killing of the director of a border crossing,” (in Arabic) Syria News, January 1, 2014, http://www.syria-news.com/readnews.php?sy_seq=166221.

[3] ISIS, “ISIS Statement image,” Twitter, https://twitter.com/raqqa98/status/422302662940319744/photo/1.

[4] Abdallah al-Muhesne, Twitter, January 6, 2014, https://twitter.com/mhesne.

[5] As a result of al-Zawahiri’s reluctance to comment on the fighting in Syria and his unwillingness to criticize the ISIS, al-Qaeda’s Abu Khaled al-Suri directed criticism at the al-Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri in an audio message on January 14, 2014, stating that what was happening in terms of “the killing of Muslims by the ISIS” had been caused by al-Zawahiri’s tardiness in condemning these acts and in distancing himself from them and their actions. He added that giving the group legitimacy “had been and continued to be bad for the jihad and the organization.” To hear Abu Khaled al-Suri’s remarks in Arabic, see: YouTube video, 13:50, posted by “Almostanear Day,” January 13, 2014, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zdqkb4iHHc0.  It is worth pointing out that al-Zawahiri had commissioned Abu Khaled al-Suri to arbitrate between al-Nusra and ISIS to break off the merger. See “Al-Zawahiri cancels the merger between the Syrian and Iraqi jihadists,” (in Arabic) Al Jazeera Net, June 9, 2013, http://www.aljazeera.net/news/pages/a5a7d33e-3c9f-4706-b070-e358b5e67236.

[6] Prominent supporters of the declaration of the Islamic state were Abu Saad al-Amili, Abu al-Hassan al-Azdi, Abu Hamam Bakr al-Athari, Abu Sufyan al-Silmi Turki al-Binali, Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti, Abu Mohammad al-Azdi, and Abu Yusuf al-Bashir. For more, see Hassan Abu Haniya, “The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham Rebels against al-Qaeda,” (in Arabic) Arabi 21, January 5, 2014, http://arabi21.com/a-2/a-299/717864-a.

[7] A few days after the clashes started, some ISIS fighters broke away and joined the al-Nusra Front. See “ISIS retreats in its military stronghold in al-Dana and a Sharia official splits for al-Nusra,” (in Arabic) Al-Hayat, January 10, 2014, http://alhayat.com/Details/591159.

[8] “Leader of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front: ‘We are the nucleus of the national army and half the opposition brigades will join us’,” (in Arabic) Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, January 12, 2014, http://www.aawsat.com/details.asp?section=4&article=757370&issueno=12829#.UtTo-56Swy4.

[9] The foundation of the Mujahedeen Army was announced on January 2, 2014, and joined by a group of active Islamic factions in and around Aleppo who had been damaged by the actions. These were the Islamic Nour al-Din al-Zinki Brigades, the Ansar Brigade, the Be Upright as You Have Been Commanded Group, the Islamic Freedom Brigade, the Glories of Islam Brigade (Unit 19), the Soldiers of the Two Holy Places Brigade, and the Islamic Light Movement.

[10] “The Mujahedeen Army in Syria declares war on ISIS,” (in Arabic) Elaph, January 4, 2013, http://www.elaph.com/Web/news/2014/1/864094.html.