The northern border town of Azaz in Aleppo Governorate recently came to the forefront of media attention in light of clashes in the town between the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) and the local FSA-banner battalion called Northern Storm. So what is the full story behind this conflict?
The ISIS presence in the town can be observed as far back as the beginning of July, when I detailed ISIS' expansion into rural northern Syria with particular focus on border areas. At the time, the entry of ISIS members with an apparent intention to establish headquarters in Azaz provoked both protests and counter-protests.
Local activists in Azaz and/or those connected to such people have set up a number of Facebook pages, including two by the name of 'Shabab Halab_Azaz' (SHA: one which has always been against the ISIS presence in Azaz and has been deleted; another whose stance is more ambiguous), 'Ahrar Azaz' and 'Azaz Media Center.'
The latter two groups originally hosted the ISIS banner on their pages but have recently removed them following multiple denunciations of ISIS. In an interview with those behind the anti-ISIS SHA, I asked about the presence of ISIS banners on Ahrar Azaz and Azaz Media Center's pages and whether this meant that they were originally sympathetic to ISIS. They denied that this was the case, affirming that "at least 90% [of people] don't know the meaning of the banner."
While I doubt the claim that neither Ahrar Azaz nor the Azaz Media Center was aware of the meaning of the banner, one can accept the idea that they were not pro-ISIS but at the same time not initially against the group's entry into Azaz.
Indeed, on 31 July, Ahrar Azaz shared a statement put out by the Azaz Media Center, indicating that 'we- the Azaz Media Center- are not affiliated with any brigade or battalion.' In short, one can say that Azaz on the whole had mixed feelings about ISIS when it first came to the town in July, similar to the situation in other Aleppo towns like al-Bab and Manbij.
Originally, so the activists behind the anti-ISIS SHA explain to me, ISIS did not have a "military presence" in Azaz. Rather, Azaz had a services office where responsibilities for providing shelter and medical treatment were entrusted to ISIS members, who also used the office as a means to engage in da'wah outreach to the local population.
That ISIS was able to establish itself in Azaz initially through provision of services comes as no surprise. As I have documented elsewhere, the group wields significantly greater financial clout than other rebel factions and can thus more readily provide aid to locals, even as the extent of social services do not quite match that of the other al-Qa'ida affiliate in Syria Jabhat al-Nusra.
The strategy of building support through da'wah, it should be noted, is a standard tactic of ISIS. Below, for example, are two scenes of recent da'wah outreach by ISIS, one from the Aleppo town of Manbij, and another from Raqqa. During Ramaḍān, ISIS in Azaz offered contests in Qur'an and Sunnah recitation. In late August, a photo emerged of ISIS outreach to locals in their da'wah office in Azaz, again on the basis of Qur'an recitation (Figure 3).
|Figure 1: ISIS da'wah meeting in Manbij from late September|
|Figure 2: Screenshot of an ISIS da'wah meeting beside a bouncy castle in Raqqa, from a video released by Al-'Itiṣām Media, which is one of two official ISIS media outlets (the other being al-Furqān Media)|
Figure 3: ISIS da'wah outreach in late August in Azaz
It thus appears that so long as ISIS was trying to build its presence in Azaz through da'wah, there were no major problems in daily relations in Azaz between ISIS and Northern Storm, who had cooperated in the takeover of Mannagh airbase that was ultimately led by ISIS. ISIS' military presence, my activist sources inform me, only came about through reinforcements sent to Azaz when "the problem happened": namely, the dispute in mid-September between Northern Storm and ISIS over a doctor of German citizenship working in Azaz.
According to ISIS supporters, the man was actually working as a spy and taking photos of ISIS' headquarters in Azaz. Northern Storm fighters not only allegedly helped this man take photos and escape but also killed two members of ISIS when ISIS tried to arrest him.
It should be noted though that the local hospital in Azaz released a statement after the clashes broke out, denying that he had been taking photos of ISIS' headquarters. Rather, his photography was solely concerned with taking photos of the sick being treated in the hospital.
Further, the statement describes how ISIS gunmen entered the hospital demanding that the German doctor be handed over, and when the "workers and doctors refused to have him arrested, they opened live fire on the doctors and the people, striking terror in them. So one of the civilian sick came to them and said: 'How can you open fire on us when we and you are Muslims?' They said: 'You are infidel dogs.' And they fired at his chest, and there were not two meters between the killer and the one slain."
In any event, ISIS proceeded on 18 September to send in military reinforcements, and then besiege and storm Northern Storm's HQ, taking dozens of prisoners in the process. At the same time, the head of Northern Storm's Azaz press office was assassinated by ISIS (Hazim Azizi), and Azaz Media Center's crew members in the town were taken prisoner. On the other side, Northern Storm received reinforcements from its own rank-and-file elsewhere, as well as from low rank fighters in some other FSA-banner brigades, most notably Liwa al-Tawheed (LAT), whose leadership entered Azaz in order to negotiate a compromise between ISIS and Northern Storm.
In general, the LAT leadership in Aleppo governorate has enjoyed good relations with ISIS. In August, both ISIS and LAT in the Jarabulus area were signatories to a joint statement denouncing the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)- seen as synonymous with the main Kurdish political party in Syria (the PYD)- as an agent of the Assad regime, and called for the necessity of cleansing the highway between Manbij and Hasakah of the PKK checkpoints. In a similar vein, below is a snapshot of a friendly arm wrestling match between an ISIS muhajir and an LAT fighter as part of a family day of fun organized by ISIS in Aleppo.
|Figure 4: The arm wrestling match in Aleppo between ISIS and LAT|
Though local activists reported that negotiations between LAT commanders and ISIS were breaking down at around 5:00 p.m. local time on 19 September, LAT eventually brokered a compromise between ISIS and Northern Storm, whereby ISIS was supposed to withdraw from Northern Storm's headquarters within 48 hours, and both sides should exchange all prisoners within 24 hours. Further, all disputes should be referred to the Shari'a committee (in Aleppo) and LAT was to enforce the ceasefire agreement by setting up a checkpoint in Azaz to prevent further clashes in the town.
As per the agreement, ISIS released nine prisoners in its custody, but on 22 September, Northern Storm issued a statement accusing ISIS of not adhering fully to the terms of the agreement, stating that the group had not released all its prisoners, among them an activist for the Azaz Media Center by the name of Mohammed Nour, an accusation also affirmed by Ahrar Azaz, which noted that ISIS had not released all detainees despite a time lapse of more than 60 hours.
In response, ISIS released a statement on 23 September with a number of accusations against Northern Storm, including helping members of regime forces to escape Mannagh airbase, supporting the ideology of democracy, collaboration with security firm Blackwater, American intelligence and Senator John McCain, defending a German spy, and banditry. One should also note that the statement refers to the town as their 'emirate'- a term ISIS also applies to its northern border stronghold of Jarabulus.
Evidently, ISIS had no intention any longer of a power-sharing agreement or compromise with Northern Storm. Indeed, no mention had been made of ISIS' returning of Northern Storm's headquarters as per the ceasefire agreement. Further, it is clear that ISIS had begun to reinforce its positions in Azaz with rooftop snipers, as local activists reported the assassination of one Mustafa Ali Rajoob by sniper-fire on 22 September.
The situation continued to deteriorate as some FSA-banner battalions of unspecified affiliation announced in the early hours of 24 September a 'Battle of Nahrawan' against ISIS- named after the fourth rightly-guided Caliph Ali's battle with takfiri Kharijites in modern-day Iraq. This initiative was quickly dropped in fear of ISIS' military capabilities.
Meanwhile, even as photos were released of locals still in ISIS custody despite the ceasefire agreement, ISIS carried out a series of raids on homes of suspected anti-ISIS activists in Azaz, arresting three detainees whose names can be ascertained: Mohammed Janad, Mohammed Rajoob, and Yasir Salbiya.
On 26 September, ISIS released a new statement giving a 48-hour deadline for remaining Northern Storm members to 'repent' and hand over their arms, with the deadline beginning from 8:00 p.m. local time on 26 September. On the same day, gunfire was heard in the town, indicating a renewal of conflict as ISIS sources claimed the 'repentance' of a number of Northern Storm fighters.
It should be highlighted that this call for 'repentance' was issued by ISIS under the 'region of Azaz,' and thus applies not only to the town itself but also the surrounding countryside where some Northern Storm remnants had taken refuge. 'Repentance' (tawbah in Arabic) is a recurring theme in ISIS discourse, and was similarly used to refer to the defection of PKK members in Tel Abyaḍ following the PKK's expulsion from the town by a coalition of FSA-Ahrar ash-Sham-ISIS.
It would appear that activists then tried to mediate between the two groups without success, while on 29 September, a statement appeared from ISIS announcing an extension of the deadline for 'repentance' by another 48 hours. Even so, evidence emerged from ISIS sources of additional military reinforcements (see images below), intending to deal a decisive blow to remnants of Northern Storm still refusing to surrender.
|Figure 5: Part of an additional ISIS military convoy heading to the Azaz area. Note the tanks. Photo first appeared 29 September|
|Figure 6: ISIS military convoy at the entrance to Azaz (1 October)|
By 2 October, ISIS sources announced that the deadline for 'repentance' was now over, and reports emerged of ISIS subjecting Northern Storm fighters who had still not surrendered to mortar and tank-fire bombardment in the surrounding countryside. Further, ISIS sources claimed that these Northern Storm fighters were now taking refuge with Kurdish YPG militias.
It would seem that this claim is corroborated by the fact that on 3 October, local activists asserted that the 'Free Army' had destroyed an ISIS tank in the village of Ma'areen in the Azaz area. However, this village is actually under the control of the YPG. The fighting continues until now, with a video released on 6 October purporting to show ISIS firing at the two YPG-controlled villages of Ma'areen and Qastal Jando.
Regardless of the truth of this allegation from Azaz Media Center, it is the case that both sides corroborate the subsequent arrest of a number of individuals in Azaz accused by ISIS of being Northern Storm supporters (and they are described as such in one of Azaz Media Center's video descriptions).
One striking question in light of events after the ceasefire agreement is where are LAT and other battalions to come to the aid of Northern Storm (or 'McCain Storm,' as ISIS sources now deride the group) in any meaningful way. Rather, there was merely a mellow statement released on 3 October calling for ISIS to withdraw to its original bases in Azaz and for both sides to respect the ceasefire and refer disputes to Aleppo's Shari'a committee. Indeed, as one activist posting put it, "Why has Liwa al-Tawheed abandoned Northern Storm?"
A number of the signatories of the 3 October statement are members of what has been termed the 'Islamic Coalition' in media in rejection of the opposition-in-exile and in favor of Shari'a as the main source of legislation in a future Syria. Pace the widespread narrative such as in this Washington Post article, it is not a formal coalition of any kind and is not led by Jabhat al-Nusra, which merely saw its local representative in Aleppo sign the statement to reaffirm long-standing positions of Jabhat al-Nusra.
The key to understanding the inaction lies in the decision of the Aleppo Shari'a committee, whose authority is taken seriously by 'Islamic Coalition' battalions like LAT, at the end of September to condemn Northern Storm as a criminal organization and bar it from bearing arms, on the grounds of spreading fitna (discord) between FSA-banner battalions and ISIS.
This condemnation was no doubt partly bolstered by Northern Storm's well-established reputation for banditry, similar to the image problem suffered by the Northern Farouq brigades, whose criminality facilitated their expulsion from northern localities like Manbij and Tel Abyaḍ.
To sum up, ISIS' seizure of control of the town of Azaz is a unilateral power grab similar to the group's takeover of Jarabulus in mid-June, aiming to strengthen ISIS' hold on inflow of aid and goods from Turkey. Paranoia over the activities of a man of Western citizenship may well have driven the actions of ISIS in Azaz, but the evidence more likely suggests that the dispute was a mere pretext.
Second, it should not be assumed that anti-ISIS sentiment in Azaz automatically translates to support for Northern Storm, even as supporters of the latter undoubtedly exist in Azaz. What is clear at this stage is that many residents simply feel disillusioned. In fact, as the anti-ISIS SHA activists made clear from the beginning, the solution to Azaz's problems is neither Northern Storm nor ISIS, but the withdrawal of all armed factions and reform of the local council.
Northern Storm's prior actions reflect a wider problem for FSA-banner battalions of generally non-ideological leaning in the north of the country: namely, a reputation for criminality contrasting with the outreach efforts of Islamist groups. Aware of the trends, these FSA-banner groups have tried to assert a more Islamic face, as when Northern Storm declared support for the 'Islamic Coalition' saying that Shari'a was its goal all along.
In a similar vein, Farouq incorporated the banner of Dar al-Islam (the white flag with black Shahada) into its emblem and in its dispute with ISIS in the town of al-Bab tried to emphasize it does not support anything contrary to Islam and Shari'a. However, these efforts to regain support through a more religious image have largely proven unsuccessful.
In terms of the future, it is unlikely that ISIS will be dislodged from Azaz anytime soon, at least so long as other militias beyond the YPG remain unwilling to help the Northern Storm remnants. Meanwhile, as elsewhere, ISIS understands very well that outreach to the younger generation in Azaz will be key to perpetuating ISIS' hold on the town as a border stronghold.
Thus did a video emerge showing children in Azaz holding the ISIS banner in front of the group's headquarters in the town and chanting the ISIS slogan "bāqīya" ("remaining"), which derives from ISIS leader Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's audio message in mid-June that rejected Sheikh Aymenn al-Ẓawahiri's insistence on separation but cooperation between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISI[S] in Syria and Iraq. Anti-ISIS activists in Azaz have parodied the slogan, releasing a photo of the town with the caption "Azaz remaining."
|Figure 7: Photo of Azaz parodying ISIS' slogan "bāqīya"|
In short, Azaz's fate is identical to that of Jarabulus, which saw the deposition of the local FSA-group- 'The Family of Jādir'- by ISIS in mid-June and has remained an ISIS stronghold ever since, with a crackdown on Kurdish PYD activists in July after the ISIS/Nusra-YPG clashes in Ras al-Ayn. There is no sign of a revolt against the group's rule in Jarabulus as it has proceeded to manage proto-state institutions such as schools for children. Expect photos and videos of such institutions as below to be released by ISIS from Azaz over the coming months.
|Figure 8: ISIS-run school in Jarabulus: "Martyrs of Jarabulus"|