While both Raqqah and Aleppo offer ample evidence for an Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) presence, there is nothing of the sort for Deraa. In fact, a search in Arabic on Twitter for ISIS and Deraa turns up one result: namely, a query I had sent to another user about whether he knew of any ISIS fighters operating in Deraa.
That question went unanswered. Youtube, Facebook and jihadi forums likewise turn up no results. Instead, one only finds evidence for fighters operating under the banner of Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), which continues to play an important role in rebel offensives in Deraa.
Indeed, while the disagreement that arose in April between Sheikh al-Baghdadi and Sheikh al-Jowlani on the merging of JAN with Islamic State of Iraq remained unresolved by a verdict from Sheikh Aymenn al-Zawahiri, not only did numerous reports via rebel media outlets continue to appear of JAN activities in Deraa, but there also emerged a 'Jabhat al-Nusra: Wilaya of Deraa' council that put out statements for distribution in jihadi media circles.
Deraa itself is perhaps the best example of how, despite Jowlani's pledge of allegiance to Zawahiri, other rebel battalions of different ideological inclinations have still been willing to cooperate with JAN in operations against Assad regime forces.
This was most apparent at the beginning of May when a video emerged of JAN's takeover of the eastern front in Deraa, with the cooperation of other battalions like Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham al-Islamiya.[i] Later that month, a video was posted explaining JAN's seizing control of a sample area in Deraa with the cooperation of those identifying by the label of the 'Free Army.' Here was another video where 'Free Army' rebels acknowledged cooperation with JAN in Deraa, though it has since been removed from Youtube.
This testimony of cooperation between JAN and those calling themselves the 'Free Army' is corroborated by an earlier Omawi News interview with a Jabhat al-Nusra field commander in Deraa on operations conducted against the Syrian army with the cooperation of 'our brothers in the Free Army' (eastern region).
Towards the end of May and into the beginning of June, more overt evidence of JAN's presence in the rebel offensives in Deraa emerged. For example, here is a collection of photos released at the start of June of JAN fighters in Buṣra ash-Sham[ii]. Note the distinctive flag and the use of a distinct 'Deraa' logo with a JAN flag as a media outlet for JAN in the area.
In a similar vein, here is a video of a JAN tank operating in Deraa. Here is another video of the JAN tank released via the channel al-Maysar. Further, here is a video of Jabhat al-Nusra, 'with the participation of a number of battalions,' in the battle for Wadi al-Yarmouk in west Deraa.
JAN's Deraa Media Outlet and Military Council
The Deraa media channel for JAN bears further consideration. Here is a video released by the outlet at the end of May of a JAN training camps in Deraa, introduced by the nasheed 'Madin Kas-Sayf' by Abu Ali (see translation here). Deemed 'camps of martyrs', the fighters wear sophisticated military uniforms and the JAN flag features prominently throughout, with a banner at around 3:50 reading 'An Ummah whose leader is Mohammed (sall Allahu alayhi wa salam) will not bow down [in submission]'.
Here likewise is a JAN Deraa video from the beginning of June denouncing Assad, Iran and Hezbollah, with admiration for figures like Osama bin Laden and Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi also made clear.
In the meantime, some statements have been released on jihadi forums and elsewhere from the 'Military Council in Jabhat al-Nusra (Province of Deraa).' They were not put out in the name of JAN's official media channel al-Manarah al-Bayḍā, suggesting a degree of autonomy for JAN in Deraa.
For example, corroborating the video and photographic evidence of JAN operations in Buṣra ash-Sham, the council released a statement at the end of May, indicating that it had undertaken operations in the 'battle to liberate Buṣra ash-Sham' in cooperation with 'Liwa al-Haramain affiliated with Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham al-Islamiya, Liwa al-Qādisiya al-Islami, Liwa al-Yarmouk, Liwa al-Fallujah, Liwa Mohammed bin Abdullah, Liwa Hāfiẓ Meqdad, Katiba Usud as-Sunnah, and Katiba Muṣ'ab bin Umair al-Islamiya.'
Apart from Liwa al-Haramain, which by virtue of its affiliation is part of the Salafist Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), and Liwa al-Qādisiya al-Islami with its espousal of global jihad, most of what can be ascertained about the other battalions is that they are what is considered 'mainstream' in the overall Syrian insurgency. That is, combining some sort of Islamic motif(s) with notions of the Free Syrian Army.
For instance, see this Facebook page of Liwa Mohammed bin Abdullah, which features the banner of jihad and the FSA flag, though the page has been inactive since being taken over by pro-Assad hackers. In a similar vein, here is the Facebook page of a detachment affiliated with Liwa Hāfiz Meqdad (also called Katība Shaheed Hāfiz Meqdad).
For further evidence, here is a video from the end of January in Buṣra ash-Sham of a dead Shabiha militant called Jawad Jafar, killed by Liwa Hāfiẓ Meqdad. Note the nasheed playing in the background but also the claimed affiliation with the 'Free Army.'
All of these data only reinforce my earlier point about JAN's ability to work with a variety of rebel battalions even after the pledge of allegiance to Zawahiri that many commentators characterized as a turning-point for the worse in JAN's fortunes.
JAN and Minorities in Deraa
Another statement from the Deraa military council for JAN concerns its position vis-à-vis the Druze community. While some media reports conveyed the impression of a shift in allegiances among the Druze towards the rebels a few months back, the reality is that the majority of Druze have not taken up arms and among those that have done so, the tendency is to side with the regime.
In fact, in response to a video at the start of May that purportedly showed JAN fighters on the march to Deraa as reinforcements (NB just before the announcement of JAN's takeover of the eastern rebel front in Deraa), some pro-Assad Druze from Suweida released a video purporting to show resolute Druze support for the regime.
The JAN Deraa council probably had that in mind, along with the Battle of Qusayr, when it released a statement warning the Druze in Suweida in particular and other communities that they would face the consequences at the hands of the mujahideen for any support lent to the Shabiha or Hezbollah, said by the council to be fighting in Buṣra ash-Sham. Key to this message is the notion of, 'Leave us alone, and we will leave you alone' (i.e. a defensive jihad), with citation of the example set by Christian villages and by villages inhabited by minority sects in Idlib.[iii]
The Latest Offensive
The council further released a statement on 6 June announcing the beginning of a new offensive to liberate the checkpoints of al-Banayyat and al-Khazan in Deraa, in cooperation with Liwa al-Haramain, Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islami and Harakat al-Mothana al-Islamiya.[iv] This statement is corroborated by the earlier videos of the JAN tank from June mentioned above, illustrating operations to take over al-Banayyat. See also this video from 10 June of a tank with the banner of Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham in al-Banayyat, together with a video of a JAN tank from the same day in the same area.
JAN in Deraa and Jordanian Jihadis
A couple of analysts like my friend Shami Witness speculated that the apparent autonomy of the JAN military council in Deraa might be due to the presence of Jordanian jihadis in the group. While Jordanians certainly do fight for JAN in Deraa (e.g. see this video of a recent Jordanian martyr for JAN in Deraa by the laqab of Abu Mohammed), it is interesting to note that on 1 June, some Arabic media outlets printed a story by UPS Arabic whereby an anonymous JAN commander in Deraa in an interview said the following:
'Jabhat al-Nusra issued an internally circulated statement today asking the Jordanian Salafist movement not to send fighters to the city of Deraa in the south of Syria except after consultation of Jabhat al-Nusra.'
The commander went on to explain that a large number of Jordanian Salafis had been arriving in Deraa to aid JAN but then got up and left very quickly to return to Jordan, citing a figure of 15-20 fighters in the past two days, even as he indicated a Jordanian martyr for the group by the name of Yassin Oujat from southern Jordan.
The interview is corroborated by a private statement released by JAN's Deraa Council, which stipulated the following: 'We ask our brothers in Jordan who are sending us young men so that they may help us and our jihad out of piety towards God not to send to us anyone who wants to go out to fight jihad such that one of them arrives in the land of jihad...and stays there for a number of days and returns, causing trouble for his brothers of the mujahideen.'
Earlier the statement notes that JAN has heard that people in Jordan are gathering financial support to send to JAN but none of this has been received. This statement, along with the commander's testimony, suggests that Jordanians do not quite play such an important role in JAN in Deraa as commonly thought.
Conclusion: JAN-ISIS Relations
I should note that I obtained a copy of this statement via the jihadi Youtube channel Asad Sunnah, which is also pro-ISIS. Ever since the JAN-ISIS controversy, the Deraa region has stood out as a place where the name of JAN has remained with no attempt by pro-ISIS activists to claim JAN in Deraa under their name and banner.
Indeed, it is telling that the Deraa council's statements appeared on officially approved jihadi forums like Shamukh Islam, indicating a widespread respect of its apparent autonomy in issuing statements, even among pro-ISIS circles.
My own theory as to why JAN in Deraa has never shown any sign of changing its name or banner to that of ISIS is because of personal loyalty by JAN's Deraa commanders and fighters to Sheikh Jowlani, who, if his name indicates any origin, comes from the Golan region in close proximity to Deraa.
At the same time, it does not follow that those identifying with ISIS are hostile to JAN in Deraa, in the same way that one should not mistake the disagreement between Sheikh Jowlani and Sheikh Baghdadi for outright enmity, but simply tension with acknowledgment of financial support, cooperation and common enemies.
The case of JAN in Deraa also illustrates that on the ground, nothing much has really changed for JAN in terms of willingness of other rebels to cooperate with the group should circumstances so require. This status-quo is likely to endure for some time to come, even as the ISIS name and banner have encroached further south into the Damascus area.
[i] Hereafter abbreviated in this analysis to Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham.
[ii] A town in Deraa Governorate.
[iii] Also note as ever the singling out of 'Rafidites' (i.e. the Shi'a), typical of JAN's discourse and the language of a growing number of Sunni clerics in the region who weigh in on the conflict. It does appear though that the Druze, unlike the Alawites, are not regarded by JAN as inextricably bound with Shi'ism.
[iv] See Harakat al-Mothana al-Islamiya's Facebook page here, where it features a statement put out by the battalion, emphasizing to non-Muslims that 'Islam is the religion of the state, and is the main and sole source of legislation.' There is nothing to indicate a claimed affiliation with the 'Free Army.' The overall suggested orientation is Salafist. On the other hand, there are videos of rebels claiming the 'Free Army' label in the offensives against al-Banayyat and al-Khazan, with no mention of JAN or the other battalions in JAN's statement. This might suggest two separate rebel fronts (not necessarily at odds with each other) in the current initiative.