Dr Farhan Zahid & Mohammad Salman
Dr Farhan Zahid (Pakistan), Ph D, is a Counter Terrorism specialist
Mohammad Salman (Syria) is a Doctoral Candidate at Vrije University Brussels.
Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis the key violent non-state actors involved in the war are : the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Nusrah Front (Jahbatul Nusra) and theFree Syrian Army (FSA). Though apparently secular in character the FSA is also composed of Islamist extremist elements, whereas the ISIS and Nusrah Front are overtly Islamist (belonging to Wahabi/Salafi school of thought) and aim to bring down the Syrian regime and establish an Islamic state. If so many things are in common then why do they fight each other?
Before answering this question, we must have a bird's eye view of the main armed factions in the ranks of the Syrian opposition.
The first armed opposition group which revolted against the Syrian regime is the Free Syrian Army. Formed in July 2011 by a group of military officers after their split from the Syrian Army, it is dominated by Islamist cadre of officers. Most of the Islamist officers now have defected to other Islamist armed groups, thinning the ranks of FSA, which is now considered to be a weak player in the Syrian civil war.
The Nusrah Front (Victory front) is an Islamist insurgent group formed in January 2012. It was established by Abu Mohammad Joulani, a Salafist-Jihadist, with the blessings of Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, making it official Al-Qaeda affiliate Syria. Though a late comer in the Syrian civil war, the group now holds vast swaths of territory in Syria.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) - also known as Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS) - appeared in the Syrian civil war as an extension of the organization of Islamic State of Iraq, which was formed in October 2006. It is led by Mohammad al Baghdadi (aka Abu Du'a). The organization is also linked to Al-Qaeda in Iraq, but all attempts by Al-Qaeda leadership to coordinate its activities in Syria have so far yielded no results.
Assumptions that the dispute between the ISIL and Nusrah are because of ideological differences are baseless and untrue. In fact, both seek to establish an Islamic caliphate in Syria, ; another argument that composition of these groups come from different parts of the world is also not true. In fact both the groups are composed of Foreigners, Arabs and Syrians.
In fact there are three major reasons of disagreement between these Islamist factions.
First, the dispute is a personality clash between Abu Mohammad Joulani and Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi. Both leaders consider themselves to be the true representative of jihad movement in Syria. On April 9 2013, Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi announced "the solution" by declaring the merger of the two, without consulting Joulani. A furious Joulani denounced next day the decision of al-Baghdadi and said it was without his consultation, asking al-Baghdadi to first take the consent and the oath of allegiance of Ayman al-Zawahiri. To resolve the dispute, al-Zawahiri issued a statement that admonished the parties and decided to return to the situation what it was before the announcement of al-Baghdadi. The integration of the two organizations is difficult because of the estimates that indicate about 90 per cent of the Islamist fighters are not Syrians (foreign fighters) and fighting by the side of ISIL, making it the strongest Al-Qaeda-linked group in Syria.
Second, because of its strength and consecutive victories, the ISIL has become the most influential opposition group in Syria. Many of the battalions of the FSA and some of Nusrah have defected to ISIL. To counter the growing influence of ISIL the Nusrah Front has also made an alliance of many different Islamist factions under its banner, calling the conglomerate the "Islamic Front in Syria." One of the reasons of the newly formed Islamic Front was to reclaim territories lost to Nusrah Front in the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo.
Thirdly, the contrasts amongst the interests of regional and international powers involved in the crisis have led to the escalation of tension between the armed factions. The direction of each of them supports one of the parties involved in the conflict, in order to achieve their own vested agendas in the region . For example, the US, Turkey and West Europeans tend to support the Free Syrian Army, whereas the financing of Nusrah comes mainly from Saudi Arabia, and Gulf countries through the networks of sympathetic princes and businessmen, Islamic associations and charity organizations .
The growing presence and strength of radical Islamist fighters in Syria has seriously disturbed and generated fears in across the globe, in Western countries in particular. A large number of foreign jihadists fighting in Syria are westerners. Their acquisition of weapons, training and involvement in the armed struggle under the banner of Takfiri organizations raise eyebrows in the West. The ability of foreign jihadist to carry out terrorist attacks might endanger western interests abroad as well as at home.