The ongoing fighting in the Yarmouk Valley in southwest Deraa on the border with the Golan Heights between Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk (LSY) and Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya (HMI) on one side versus southern FSA factions and the southern Jaysh al-Fatah on the other is more or less at a stalemate. While the latter have succeeded in reversing the gains of LSY and HMI, pushing deeper into the Yarmouk Valley has proven more difficult but life has become increasingly difficult for Yarmouk Valley residents with rebel bombardment and price hikes through siege conditions. Until now, there has also been the question of why LSY and HMI have not formally united. A statement declaring a merger of HMI under LSY last month turned out to be fake. I myself have speculated that this may be because HMI has wanted to preserve an identity independent of LSY, which is clearly linked to the Islamic State (IS) and has undoubtedly tried to pull HMI into its orbit.
In my analysis on the infighting in Deraa province for Jihadology, I noted that although Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya (the Islamic Muthanna Movement- HMI) is actively at war with rebel factions in the western Deraa countryside and is cooperating with the Islamic State [IS]-linked Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk (Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade- LSY) in this regard, there have been no indications of infighting further east between the Deraa al-Balad (southern Deraa city) HMI contingent and rebel forces, as the contingent in the city pledged only to fight the regime. In addition, I speculated that perhaps we would see a fragmenting of HMI between the western and eastern halves.
This prediction has been vindicated in a new statement issued by the Deraa al-Balad contingent of HMI announcing its defection from HMI and the formation of a new Katibat al-Murabitun (Sentinels Battalion). Thus, the question now arises: what next for HMI, which is now confined to the west Deraa countryside? Speculation continues that the group is linked to IS, but HMI leader Abu Ayyub, speaking to al-Jazeera, has denied this claim:
Readers of this blog will be familiar by now with the outline of the story of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk (the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade) in the Yarmouk Valley/Basin in southwest Deraa province bordering the Golan Heights. An FSA-brand brigade that first emerged in the summer of 2012, the group maintained formal FSA affiliations into the summer of 2014, as it was a member of the Southern Front and signed onto a statement affirming democratic values. Subsequently, some changes emerged in the group's branding with the adoption of a more Islamic logo, but the brigade continued to coordinate with other factions.
Then in December 2014, Syrian al-Qa'ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra clashed with Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk, accusing the brigade of links to the Islamic State (IS). Since that time, outwardly, Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk has openly moved in orientation towards IS as part of a 'reform' program devised by then leader al-Khal, adopting a new logo including the same flag as that used by IS, setting up an administrative model imitating to an extent the IS system of Diwans (government departments) and engaging in IS-style rhetoric and talking points. Despite these overt signs of leanings towards IS, the group has always denied allegiance to IS and has insisted in its official discourse that it is independent. However, the latest leadership shuffle in Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk- involving the surprise appointment of a new Saudi amir who was sent and put in power by IS and is portrayed as being the true successor to al-Khal- clearly points to links between the group and IS.
The town of Azaz in north Aleppo countryside near the border of Turkey emerged to the forefront of attention to the Syrian civil war in the weeks preceding the 'truce'/reduction in hostilities as the Kurdish YPG-dominated 'Syrian Democratic Forces' (SDF) attempted to take the remainder of rebel-held north Aleppo countryside, taking advantage of the regime and its allies' cutting off Aleppo city from the border by breaking the sieges of the Shi'a villages of Nubl and Zahara'. The SDF seized Mennagh airbase and Tel Ref'at, but no other major advances occurred, despite widespread speculation that Azaz and Mare'a would fall too. Instead, at the present time, only occasional clashes occur on the peripheries of Azaz in particular.
After the assassination of its first leader al-Khal in mid-November 2015, the pro-Islamic State (IS) Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk (Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade) based in southwest Deraa province along the border with the Golan Heights appointed Abu Obeida Qahtan as new leader. Qahtan, of Palestinian Syrian origin, is a jihadi veteran and apparently among the founders of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk. His presence in the group is also rather exceptional in that he is originally from the Yarmouk camp in Damascus, not a native of the Yarmouk Valley/Basin (Wadi/Hawdh al-Yarmouk) where Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk is based and draws most of its manpower.
In this context, two important local clans are the landowning Baridis, from which al-Khal came, and the Ja'ounis, from which his deputy Abu Abdullah al-Ja'ouni (also killed in mid-November 2015 alongside al-Khal) came. According to a Ja'ouni from the Hawdh al-Yarmouk locality of Shajra that is controlled by Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk, the Ja'ounis are Palestinian in origin but have long been present in Shajra. As for foreign members (muhajireen), the only known case until now has been an Israeli Arab who paraglided into Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk territory from the Golan Heights in October 2015, clearly with a prior exceptional agreement from al-Khal, who otherwise rejected muhajireen.
Of all the places where the Islamic State (IS) has declared official affiliates outside of Iraq and Syria in the form of 'wilayas' ('provinces'), Yemen arguably represented one of the most attractive prospects for expansion: a chaotic environment, Sunni-Shi'a sectarian polarisation inflamed by the Houthi expansion from the north of the country that had captured the capital San'a, and the chance to undermine al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Though Yemen was officially declared as an IS province in the first wave of international expansion in November 2014, it was not until some three months later that real evidence of an IS presence on the ground began to emerge, with statements issued in the name of multiple IS Yemeni wilayas. It is clear that IS intended to make its mark through mass-casualty attacks targeting the Houthis, contrasting with AQAP's rejection of this approach on account of Zawahiri's Guidelines.
The intent to inflame sectarian tensions did not mean that IS took no interest in the Saudi-led coalition intervening in Yemen in support of de jure Yemeni president Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi and local forces working under him or cooperating out of expediency against a common enemy (the Houthis). Indeed, a number of IS operations have targeted the coalition. Earlier this month, for example, IS launched a suicide attack targeting the Ras Abbas training camp overseen by the Saudi-led coalition west of Aden, aiming to kill 'apostates' from the 'soldiers of Taghut'. In December 2015, IS claimed the assassination of the governor of Aden in a car bomb attack. In Hadhramaut province, IS fights the Hadi-aligned Yemeni army, primarily claiming to target it with mortar and rocket fire.
While IS has clear military capabilities and may be dispatching personnel from its centre in Iraq and Syria (or from elsewhere) to Yemen- see, for instance, the case of a suicide bomber in the Aden-Abyan province with a kunya suggesting origin from the Netherlands - its administrative capabilities on the ground and real control of territory remain very limited in contrast with AQAP. For instance, some propaganda has advertised IS-affiliated medical centres in Hadhramaut and Aden, but their size, exact location and extent of services are not clear. No hard evidence suggests they serve the local populations. Rather, it is more likely they are simply providing treatment for IS fighters, and with regards to Aden, it is claimed that the IS health centre may be located in al-Buraiqeh district. It is certainly true that IS has been trying to impose its vision of Islamic society in parts of Aden, distributing da'wa literature and publishing a statement in 2015 calling for Shari'a implementation in Aden University. However, all the activities above seem to be the limit of IS administration in Yemen- far less sophisticated than IS governance in Iraq, Syria or Libya.
In addition, IS in Yemen has been rocked in the past few months by internal dissent in the ranks with disapproval of the overall governor of the Yemeni affiliates (the wali of Yemen) appointed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. These disagreements have been leaked in a series of documents. Though they have been referred to elsewhere, I present all the documents that have come to light in this controversy with full translations. To summarize, the sequence of events, beginning in mid-December 2015, is as follows:
- Letter disavowing work with the wali of Yemen signed by dozens of IS officials and soldiers in various Yemeni provinces, while affirming continued allegiance to Baghdadi.
- Dissenters joined by other officials and soldiers.
- Dissenters rebuked by member of IS' Shura Council, who affirms that they must be loyal to the wali of Yemen, otherwise the conduct amounts to breaking allegiance with IS.
- Dissenters reject rebuke, while affirming they are still loyal to Baghdadi.
- Perceived ringleaders of the conspiracy against IS are formally expelled from the ranks.
- Problems persist, so a new set of expulsions is decreed.
The list of signatories among the dissenters indicate that some high-rank personnel were involved. The initial statement of expulsion, which revealed the existence of an IS bureaucratic department to manage distant international affiliates, identified 7 individuals in particular to be thrown out. The names do not exactly match but this likely reflects kunya variation among individuals. It is also not clear how many in total ended up being expelled by remaining in the ranks of the dissenters or returned to the ranks of IS. The episode is nonetheless important in showing that while IS partly aims to expand by exploiting fractures within other jihadi organizations- and has done so with a degree of success in the North Caucasus and Libya- its affiliates on the whole, being less sophisticated in organization than IS central and not having the same rigid security apparatuses to crack down on dissent, are also vulnerable to internal splits. This observation should help to provide a more nuanced analysis of IS expansion on the international stage.
Below are the documents in full, with translation.
As the war against the Islamic State [IS] continues, it is clear that the state project in Iraq and Syria is facing a number of challenges. Two of these challenges relate to military manpower and finance. In the realm of the former, this is evident from internal documents showing a month-long general amnesty issued in October 2015 for deserters from the frontlines, as well as unsuccessful mobilization efforts in Aleppo and Deir az-Zor to stop the breaking of the siege of Kweiris airbase and drive out the remnant regime presence respectively. In addition, IS has not been able to capitalize on rebel fighting with YPG-SDF forces in the Azaz area, finding itself distracted with fighting the regime instead. Even though IS is still capable of launching new offensives (e.g. the attempt to cut off the regime's supply route to Aleppo by targeting Khanaser), these are generally less impressive and powerful than before.
Financially also, IS is facing multiple strains from the end of the Iraqi government paying salaries to workers living in IS territory to coalition airstrikes targeting the oil industry and cash points. These measures are not fatal for IS so long as cash flow continues with the outside world, but there is increasing reliance on other methods of revenue generation (e.g. making students pay fees for printing textbooks in Mosul and manipulation of Iraqi dinar-U.S. dollar exchange rates), while benefits for fighters have been reduced, such as reducing electricity supply, as well as cutting salaries in Raqqa province by 50%. That said, it should be noted that economic circumstances are not necessarily the same for fighters everywhere. An IS fighter in the Damascus area, for example, recently told me that the starting salary per month is $50 for a fighter, raised to $100 if he is married, with an additional $35 per child except male children above the age of 15 and capable of bearing arms. He added that he had not heard of salary reductions, and pointed out that IS fighters in the north of Syria enjoy a better standard of living, principally on account of cheaper prices for goods. As for the claims of salaries at $400 per month, he said this would only be possible if one had a large family.
Introduction and Analysis
Though the regime offensives backed by Russian airpower and Iranian-backed militias to supplement the manpower on the ground initially seemed to make little headway territorially, it is apparent that they have triggered manpower problems within the ranks of the rebels, most notably as several prominent leaders in a number of formations have been taken out. Combined with gradual regime advances in Aleppo and Latakia, these developments have prompted a number of mobilization calls and appeals for help. For example, in December 2015, Kata'ib Ansar al-Sham- one of the factions that have lost leaders in the recent offensives- issued a call for help in light of the high attrition being suffered on the Sahel [coastal] front. Sure enough, that statement proved to foreshadow the recent string of advances for the regime in Latakia, such that the insurgency now risks losing all footholds in the province.
Abu al-Waleed al-Salafi, whose complete history of Jamaat Ansar al-Islam I have previously translated, has also written Twitter essays on Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and compiled lists of names of individuals who came to hold key positions within the ranks of the Islamic State and its leaders. I have also translated these essays. I do not necessarily vouch for all the information presented here and working out exact datings can be difficult. Nonetheless I have tried to summarize the most important information in a table below. Explanatory notes of my own occur in square brackets. If more data become available I will add them to this post as updates. Readers should pay particular attention to cases of overlap: that is, where an individual holds more than one leadership position in the organzation. Of interest also is the shift to the establishment of a military council during Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's tenure as overall leader.
The Guardian recently published a story based on documents captured by the Kurdish YPG forces after expelling the Islamic State (IS) from the town of Tel Abyad in northern Raqqa province on the border with Turkey. The documents concern issues of transportation and migration. Since I helped the newspaper to verify the documents and did some additional research, I believe it worthwhile to write an extended commentary on this matter, not only to shed light on how transportation and migration work in the IS administrative system, but also the controversial issue of the Turkey-IS relationship.
To begin with, it is worth producing the documents in full as per below.