The fissures plaguing the Syrian opposition finally reached jihadi factions on Saturday. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), an al-Qaeda affiliate battling both regime and opposition in Syria, clashed with its sister organization, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), in the city of Shaddadi in the Hasakeh province. According to one witness account, the dispute was over the Jibsa oil field in eastern Syria, and resulted in ISIS members storming the city's JN headquarters and "seizing weapons and oil equipment." The clashes are, as of yet, the most tangible manifestation of ISIS-JN tensions, but may indicate more direct hostilities to come.
The original split between the two al-Qaeda factions began as a purely administrative disagreement over leadership. Jihadi units weredispatched to Syria by the Iraqi al-Qaeda affiliate Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in 2011. And, by early 2012, JN's existence was formally announced by its leader, Mohammad al-Jolani. When ISI head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced in April 2013 the merger of JN with ISI to form ISIS, Jolani rejected the announcement and, backed by al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, decided to maintain JN's independence from ISI. Increasingly, this largely administrative rift has widened to include differences over operations, areas of control, alliances, and internal make-up.
"There's no doubt about it, the overall trend has now become one of increasing separation," said Aymenn al-Tamimi, researcher and fellow at the Middle East Forum. One point of differentiation, Tamimi explained to NOW, is the areas of control that each organization has carved throughout Syria's provinces. In Aleppo, Idlib, and (since July) Raqqa, JN and ISIS are notably distinct. Further south in Daraa, JN has the privilege of being the sole al-Qaeda representative. In areas where two factions are identifiably separate, they often operate completely independently of each other. For example, each group launched their own revenge operations against the regime after the Ghouta chemical weapons attack. Other areas, like parts of Hasakeh, Latakia, and Damascus, demonstrate a working relationship between ISIS and JN, but the example of Raqqa might indicate future splits in those regions, as well. "The two entities had been completely interchangeable [in Raqqa] until July, but Nusra and ISIS are now separate bodies in the city," Tamimi told NOW.
Membership, and how it affects relationship with local populations, also differs. According to Tamimi, although the rank-and-file members of ISIS are Syrian, its elite fighters and commanders are "muhajireen," or immigrants. JN, on the other hand, boasts a majority-Syrian membership and leadership. These personnel differences have significant consequences on the ground, according to Mohammad al-Attar, a Syrian playwright and activist. When speaking to NOW, Al-Attar pointed to an article he had penned in Raqqa, where the local population had expressed fury toward ISIS for its kidnappings – most recently against Father Paolo. In liberated areas, Attar explained, the population is much more receptive to military formations comprised of local members, not the outsiders of ISIS factions.
Differences abound operationally as well. "Socially, there are differences in ISIS and JN's manner of rule," Tamimi told NOW. "Most notably, JN is able to provide more extensive public services than ISIS." JN operates trash collection services in Idlib's Binnish – going above the "average" service of food provision. Beyond social services, Tamimi and al-Attar both highlighted ISIS's markedly more brutal tactics, often ill-received by the local populace. Whereas ISIS regularly films "public executions of 'apostates' (e.g., regime soldiers), one does not see JN activists put out footage and photos like that anymore," Tamimi told NOW.
On the battlefield, the two Islamists' relationships with FSA-aligned groups are becoming increasingly distinct. "Broadly speaking, JN has a better relationship with FSA than ISIS does," Tamimi said. JN, by and large, has very few issues coordinating with other groups, which is not the case with ISIS. Last week's violence in Azaz serves as the most powerful example of FSA-ISIS tensions, with ISIS declaring war against the FSA in a document titled "Purification of Filth." On the contrary, three days after the fighting in Azaz erupted, hundreds of fighters from traditionally FSA-aligned brigades declared their allegiance to JN in Raqqa. Where the FSA-ISIS relationship is deteriorating markedly, JN continues to be able to operate with the FSA.
Neither JN nor ISIS are seeking to highlight the growing rift, however. "On jihadi social media pages, you won't really find denunciation of either group," Tamimi told NOW. "They cheer on both of them." Understandably, jihadi groups who boast the same end goal – the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate in Syria – have no desire to publicize fighting within the same movement. Importantly, though, the Shaddadi altercation may be the first case where al-Qaeda affiliates clash against each other.
Where friendly rivalry was the nature of the ISIS-JN relationship in the past, expect "direct and active competition," said Charles Lister, research analyst at HIS Jane's, in an email to NOW. "In effect, though limited to a localized level, ISIS behavior is beginning to isolate it from the wider Syrian insurgent movement," said Lister. This could allow JN to "re-assume the role of Syria's preeminent al-Qaeda group."
Tamimi agrees that hostilities are rising, but he set a limit to their manifestation: "one thing I don't foresee is Nusra (JN) teaming up with non-Islamists against ISIS," he told NOW.
It is nevertheless evident that the events in Shaddadi won't be the last intra-Islamist rupture in Syria. Al-Attar told NOW that he expects the case in Raqqa – anti-ISIS public sentiment and armed forces' allegiance to JN – will be repeated in other areas of Syria, like Idlib and Aleppo.
Lister told NOW that although the balance of power between JN and ISIS could be tipping toward the former, JN's ascendancy "will depend heavily on the concurrent reactions of hardline Salafists, particularly Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya."
Until Ahrar al-Sham gets profoundly involved, however, the rivalry between JN and ISIS will increasingly breed enmity between two organizations from the same al-Qaeda roots, said Lister.
"It's always been clear that in the long term, there was never going to be room in Syria for two self-declared Al-Qaeda affiliates."
*Note: The Shaddadi clashes may not have been the first time that the two jihadi organizations had reportedly butted heads. Unconfirmed reports from the city of Muhassan described the case of a JN commander who refused to pledge allegiance to ISIS and was subsequently executed alongside his men.