Heavy fighting erupted Wednesday in the Northern Syrian border town of Azaz, one of the busiest and most important entry points into Syria for humanitarian aid, weapons, journalists, and aid workers. The fighting began between jihadis of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and The Northern Storm Brigade, which is associated with the Free Syrian Army, in what appeared to be the most serious in a long string of clashes between the al-Qaeda linked ISIS and their more moderate FSA rivals and erstwhile allies. The recent persistent fighting between jihadi and non-jihadi rebels may mark the development of the two-and-a-half year old conflict into a three-sided war, with each side (the regime, jihadis, and the FSA) fighting the other two.
After several hours of pitched battle on Wednesday, ISIS had reportedlywrested control of Azaz from the Northern Storm Brigade, though the latter were still in control of the nearby Bab al-Salameh border crossing. Fighting continued into Thursday, but by evening, activists in the town reported on Facebook that a ceasefire had been reached with the moderate Islamist-leaning Tawhid Brigade of the FSA acting as a mediating force.
According to social media statements from activists in Azaz and mediareports, the clashes began Wednesday after fighters from ISIS attempted to arrest a German doctor working at a hospital under the protection of the Northern Storm Brigade. The Northern Storm fighters refused to allow the jihadis to take the man and gunfire was exchanged. The fighting then quickly escalated into an all-out battle for the town, with Northern Storm putting out a call to other FSA brigades for reinforcements.
The latest round of fighting threatened to spell the end of an uneasy alliance between moderate FSA groups and al-Qaeda-linked jihadis in northern Syria. "[ISIS] are not rebels anymore; from this point, they are terrorists now," FSA spokesman Louay Almoqdad told CNN.
Almoqdad's sentiments were echoed by others. In a Skype interview with NOW, Captain Wasel Ayoub, commander of the Nour al Haq battalion of the FSA, which operates in Aleppo and Idlib Provinces, said his men would reinforce the Northern Storm Brigade in Azaz if the fighting there escalated further. "The whole Free Army will share the fighting against ISIS," Ayoub said.
The latest fighting is the fiercest and most significant in a long series of skirmishes between the jihadis of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (another al-Qaeda-linked group) and their more moderate, nationalist rivals in the FSA. The infighting has grown in intensity and frequency since Aprilwhen the Farouk Brigade, one of the largest and most powerful FSA formations, shot it out with JAN for control of the northern town of Manbij. Further clashes followed with JAN and ISIS later slugged it out with Farouk for control of the border town of Tel Abyad in May. ISIS was also involved in skirmishing with a local FSA battalion called The Family of Jadir in the northern border town of Jarabulus in Aleppo Province inJune. July saw an even larger spate of clashes between jihadis and FSA groups from Raqqa to Ad Dana, including the assassination by ISIS of Kamal Hamami, a member of the Supreme Military Council of the FSA. In August, ISIS finally managed to drive the Ahfad al Rasoul Battalion (another formation of the FSA and a perennial enemy of ISIS and JAN) out of Raqqa after heavy fighting. As recently as last week, ISIS launched an operation to drive Farouk and another FSA group called The Nasr Battalion from the northern town of Al Bab, which has resulted in several days of fierce fighting.
These incidents appear to be motivated by a mixture of personal grudges, local disputes, and deeper ideological differences. The clashes do follow a pattern of behavior by ISIS according to Aleppo-based activist Abd Hakwati, who told NOW that bloody skirmishes have become routine. According to Hakwati, ISIS enters areas that are already liberated from the Assad regime and tries to take them over, which resulted in numerous clashes over the last month between ISIS and FSA groups, especially the Ahfad al Rasoul Battalion and The Farouk Brigade.
The latest fighting in Azaz seems to have turned at least some residents against the jihadis. Mahmoud Othman wrote on an Azaz activist's Facebook group on Thursday, "We did not revolt against the tyranny of the Nuṣayri [Assad] to exchange him for the tyranny of those who pretend to be Muslims." Many were particularly outraged by the killingby an ISIS sniper of the head of the Azaz Media Center, Hazem Azizi. The Media Center itself issued a statement condemning ISIS for kidnapping several of its staff. Rami Alrazouk, an activist in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, which has also seen clashes between jihadis and more moderate factions, told NOW, "When they [ISIS] followed the right path, we were with them, but now, they act like Bashar al-Assad. They kill innocent people and attack hospitals, so we have nothing to do with them." Alrazouk said he hopes the jihadis will go back to their own countries after the Assad regime falls, adding "We want normal Islam. We don't want their agenda."
Captain Ayoub of the FSA-affiliated Nour Al Haq Battalion predicted the fighting would continue between the FSA and ISIS after the fall of the Assad regime and blamed the jihadis for the discord, saying, "ISIS wants to impose their Salafi agenda on the liberated areas without even sharing in the fight against Bashar al Assad. We won't let them impose their agenda on Syria."
Aaron Zelin, a fellow at The Washington Institute, who specializes in Salafi politics, the study of jihadi groups, and who runs the popular blogJihadology.net, cautioned against drawing premature conclusions from the events in Azaz. "All of these incidents are highly localized and the situation in Azaz is still fluid," he said.
Nonetheless, the series of open conflicts between jihadi and non-jihadi rebel factions will likely serve to intensify the debate in Western capitals about whether and to what extent America and NATO should be arming and supporting the FSA. Western opponents of intervention have routinely cautioned against helping the rebels for fear that many of them were al-Qaeda affiliates. That the FSA is now openly fighting al-Qaeda's franchises across northern Syria will no doubt be seen as rhetorical ammunition by those in the West in favor of providing arms and training to the mainstream armed opposition. It may also change the calculus of Western policy-makers.
Aymenn al-Tamimi contributed translation and research.