The Battle between ISIS and Syria’s Rebel Militias

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For Syria Comment, January 4, 2014

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A major confrontation has broken out between the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Syria’s other rebel militias. It is being led by two newly organized coalitions, called Jaysh al Mujahidiin and the Front of Syrian Revolutionaries. But many other militias have also declared war on ISIS, insisting that it must abandon its attempt to establish a state and that its fighters must either integrate into Syria’s other militias or quit the country altogether. Fighting between Free Syria Army militias and ISIS has been widespread in the countryside of Aleppo and Idlib.


The reasons given for the current war on ISIS are numerous as are the reactions of different segments of Syrian society.

The Syrian opposition Coalition claims that ISIS is a regime inspired organization, designed to undermine the principles of the revolution and pervert the meaning of Islam. Chants of “Assad and D`ASH are one” have been repeated at many recent demonstrations against ISIS. (DA`ASH is the acronym in Arabic for ISIS or Dawla al-Islamiyya fi-l `Iraq wa Sham). The Coalition told AP that:

The Syrian National Coalition believes that ISIS is closely linked to the terrorist regime and serves the interests of the clique of President Bashar Al-Assad…. The murder of Syrians by this group leaves no doubt about the intentions behind their creation, their objectives, and the agendas they service, which is confirmed by the nature of their terrorist actions that are hostile to the Syrian revolution.


Hassan Aboud of the Islamic Front and head of its political bureau blamed ISIS for bringing this war on itself. Hassan Aboud explained in an interview with aljazerra:

All this fighting [between rebel forces] will only weaken the revolution and help the regime. We, in the Islamic Front,  did not take the decision to fight ISIS, but whoever did it had his reasons because of the way ISIS treats other groups. ISIS denies reality, refusing to recognize that it is simply  another group. It refuses to go to independent courts; it attacked many other groups, stole their weapons, occupied their headquarters, and arbitrarily apprehended numerous activists, journalists and rebels. It has been torturing its prisoners. These transgressions accumulated, and people got fed up with ISIS. Some of those people have attacked ISIS’s positions, but ISIS was first to attack in other places, bringing this on itself.

Regime supporters are naturally overjoyed at seeing their opponents fighting among themselves, underlined by this cartoon.


Regime soldier telephones for assistance. He replies to interlocultor: "No, not arms and ammo, send Metteh and sunflower seeds so we can watch the rebels fight among themselves."

Regime soldier telephones for assistance. He then replies to interlocutor: “No, not ammo, send metteh and sunflower seeds. We are watching the Free Syrian Army and Da`ash.”

A long series of ISIS attacks on competing rebel militias, preceded this war, but for the Islamic Front and Hassan Aboud in particular, the spark was the kidnapping and killing of Dr. Hussein al-Suleiman, a physician who was also a commander in the Ahrar al-Sham militia. Dr. Hussein was put in charge of the Bab al-Hawa border-crossing after Ahrar al-Sham troops, fighting under the name of the Islamic Front, took control of it in December 2013. Photos of his mutilated body, showing that an ear had been cut off, teeth knocked out, along with the top of his head shot off, went viral on twitter, provoking widespread horror and outrage.

ISIS had been trying to take control of the supply lines from Turkey to the rebel groups in Aleppo and the surrounding towns by capturing the towns between the Bab al-Hawa crossing and Aleppo. This effort came to a crescendo with the ISIS raid on the Supreme Millitary Command’s Head Quarters in Bab al-Hawa earlier this month, when Chief of Staff Suleiman Idriss was expelled from Syria. Islamic Front militias swept to the rescue, when they were called by Idriss to help. According to Free Syria Army officers who were at the headquarters, Ahrar al-Sham soldiers took the SMC HQ at Bab al-Hawa by force in the name of saving it from ISIS, plundering FSA weapons, cloths and personal belonging. The showdown at Bab al-Hawa, the strategic boarder-town with Turkey, set all parties on a collision course that exploded in the last couple of days, following the ISIS killing of I.F.’s Dr Hussein and Bab al-Hawa commander.

Hassan Aboud has been trying to moderate and limit the confrontation between rebel groups. During his al-Jazeera interview, he added:

We tell our brothers on the inside that this is not a fight against Islamists because Islamisms are on both sides. We ask that our muhajiriin brothers be treated well and not harmed. We tell our brethren the muhajiriin and ISIS to fear God when dealing with the people you came to liberate. Aren’t they the ones that liberated Maskana and Atarib and the western countryside of Aleppo? Don’t live in the illusion that all people against you are sahwa (reference to the Iraqi “Awakening” movement that was armed by the US government. Sunni tribes that defeated al-Qaida in Iraq.)

….The infighting serves no one; oppressing fellow rebels serves no one save the regime, thus we call on the groups on the ground to keep their unity and not to get bogged down in internal infighting especially before Geneva II. Because we see that the Syrian situation is being portrayed as a civil war that has no solution but a political one. This is a portrayal that serves the regime and takes us back to the situation that existed before the Syrian revolution broke out, but with a destroyed infrastructure and a population made homeless……

You are fighting the regime. So is ISIS. How will in-fighting effect the future of groups fighting the regime? We would like these [ISIS] brothers to join their brethren in the Syrian revolution. We see them as nothing but another group. They see themselves as a State. They need to drop this illusion that they have come to believe as an established fact. It causes them to treat allies as opponents. Nusra doesn’t differ in ideology and authority from ISIS, but they have been able to work hand in glove with the other militias because they have followed the rule that no objective has a higher priority then pushing back the enemy. So we call on ISIS to follow Nusra’s lead. In this way, we will save the blood of our fighters and bullets of our guns for the front lines.

Aboud makes clear that he views ISIS as a potential partner. He is careful to pave the way for its return to the fold. He explains that ISIS’s goal of an Islamic state is not substantially different than that of the Islamic Front or the many other militias fighting in Syria. Where it does differ is that it sees itself as the unique heir to the state and has begun setting up mini-states wherever it rules, pushing aside fellow militias and refusing to submit to the common Sharia court system that the Islamic Front militias and Nusra have constructed and administer together. He points out how Nusra has agreed to cooperate and defer questions of permanent state-building and ultimate governance until after Assad is defeated. This is a way of putting aside what may be fairly substantial ideological differences between militias despite their common goal of an Islamic state and perhaps more importantly, it defers any contest over ultimate executive power. The Emir of ISIS, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, hopes to assert himself as the Caliph and force the others to give him bay`a or allegiance.  He has also imposed rather draconian sharia punishments and forbidden smoking, music, and other simple pleasures that many find intolerable.  This underlines the great problems that remain for the militias in determining what form and style an eventual Islamic state will take, not to mention who among the militia leaders will ultimately rule.

Islamic Front leaders have been very skilful about finessing questions on governance. The standard answer they give to those who ask what kind of government they intend is that they will call on an assembly of Ulema to decide on the correct form of Islamic government when the time comes.



Map of ISIS controlled towns before January 3, 2014
Map of ISIS controlled towns before January 3, 2014


Map of ISIS controlled versus FSA controlled towns in Northern Syria following January 4, 2014
Map of ISIS controlled versus FSA controlled towns in Northern Syria following January 3, 2014


Timeline of the events of the month.

  • December 7, ISIS tries to attack the SMC HQ at Bab al Hawa, the SMC calls on the Islamic Front to help defend the HQ, after which Ahrar al Sham raided the SMC HQ itself and took control of it.
  • December 15, ISIS kidnaps Brigadier General Ahmad Birri, head of Hama military council in Saraqib, Idlib
  • December 9, ISIS storms and captures the liberated village of Haram in Idlib countryside, promising to punish criminals
  • December 10, ISIS raids and captures Maskana after a dispute with Ahrar al Sham, killing and arresting a number of Ahrar commanders including Bab al Hawa crossing supervisor Dr. Husayn al Sulayman, Abu Rayan.
  • December 15, After failed negotiations, it was made public that the ISIS kidnapped the leader of the Hanano brigade Mohamad Istanboli on his way back from the Homs frontline. Istanboli was on his way to his hometown of Salqin, Idlib
  • December 15, ISIS kidnaps Brigadier General Ahmad Birri, head of Hama military council in Saraqib, Idlib
  • December 18, Kidnapping of two Atareb FSA commanders
  • December 25, ISIS attacks Shada offices in Al Bustan neighborhood in Aleppo after Adnan Al Arour accused them of treason
  • December 27, ISIS emir in Bab al Hawa reaches deal with Islamic Front and SMS to leave the area
  • December 28, ISIS stormed Kafranbel and raided the local council, the local media office and the offices of local radio station, Radio Fresh. ISIS accuses the activists of Kafranbel of being agents of the west. Radio fresh had  interviewed US ambassador Robert Ford on November 28.
  • December 29, ISIS storms Sarmada and raises their flag declaring control of the village from the Islamic front and arresting its members. The Islamic front increases its checkpoint on the Sarmada-Bab al Hawa crossing to keep the ISIS from reaching it. ISIS also raided SMC headquarters near the town and confiscated US aid including helmets and Froot Loops
  • December 31, ISIS hands over the body of Ahrar commander Abu Rayan and the body shows marks of brutal torture and one of the ear was cut off. ISIS also stormed an Islamic Front checkpoint 4 KM away from Bab al Hawa crossing, arrested the IF fighters(Ahrar and Suqor) and start massing a big force at the checkpoint. The situation was resolved and ISIS withdrew from the checkpoint after an agreement betweem the two groups. The agreement was the result of negotiations lead by Saudi jihadi preacher Abdallah Al Muhysini, who has very close ties to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, runs the organisation Preachers of Jihad andhas a verified account on Twitter with 250,000 followers. ISIS also released the head of Hama military council, Brigadier general Ahmad Birri
  • January 2nd, Atareb FSA fight Ali Obeid found dead after he was kidnapped the previous day


Most interesting videos

Article in al-Mudun

“Syria: 2014 revolution against Daesh and Assad,” by Fady al Dahook, gives an overview of the situation in Idlib. He provides detail and a timeline for yesterday’s events making it worth translating at some length.

kafrenabel aliens
Kafranbel aliens

The people of Kafranbel did not hide their faces when they protested and drew posters against the Syrian president Bashar al Assad. But the weird irony is that today they raise their banners and posters against “Daesh”, the new tyranny that raided them few days ago, while covering their faces.

The Kafranbel paintings in the Friday of “Marty Abo Rayan, victim of treachery” was the most daring of all, when they named one of their posters after the sc-fi horror movie series “Aliens” and drew the monster with “Da`ash” as a caption to underline that they considered ISIS to be alien invaders.

Kafranbel story with the organisation of “al Dawla al Islamiya in al-Iraq w al-Sham” raised voices against the latter. So did the murder incident of doctor Hussain al Sulayman, who died in the prisons of the organisation, under torture. All of this provoked the activists to retaliate by giving the Friday protest an anti “al Dawla” name, which they succeeded in doing, by naming the Friday after Dr. Hussain al Sulayman. a.k.a. Abu Rayan…

Battles with “Daash” are on-going. The result of these clashes so far is that Free Army units in Hazano, a town in the Aleppo countryside, have killed ten ISIS members. 114 ISIS members have been seized following clashes with “Jaysh al Mujahedin” in al Atareb, Qubtan al-Jabal, Aljina, Ibin, Kafr Nuran – all towns of the Aleppo countryside. The ISIS Emir was arrested in al-Atareb. The Free army was also able to capture the villages of Hayan and Bayanun in the Aleppo countryside. The Islamic Front arrested 30 ISIS members in Aleppo’s northern countryside, the majority of whom are Chechen, Caucasian, Tunisian, Libyan and Iraqi. The IF has also besieged the city of al-Dana in the countryside of Idlib.

The battles in Aleppo started in al Atareb, when “Daesh” tried to storm the village after executing the leader of the “Shouhada al Atareb” brigade on Thursday, and it spread in the early hours of Friday after clashes between “al Dawla” and “Jaysh al Mojahidin” who declared its formation 24 hours prior in Aleppo, and its includes “Tajamu Fustaqm Kul Umrat, the 19th Division, Kataib Nour al-Din al-Zinki, Harakat al-Nour al-Islamiya
and other groups”

The battle front then expanded to include all the areas under opposition control in Aleppo and reached Idlib.

In the midst of these battles, “Daesh” didn’t stand cross handed, it arrested 20 Liwaa al Tawhid members at one of its checkpoint. According to “Orient TV”, members of the organization raided field hospitals and arrested a number of wounded in the city of Saraqeb in Idlib countryside, while protests spread across the areas of Idlib and Aleppo, chanting the slogan “Free Army forever stomping Daesh and Assad”

The general coordinator of the “Shuhadaa Badr” brigade, which is part of the Aleppo military council, Mohamad Rafei al Raya, said in an interview with “al Mudun” and he’s close to the battlefront with “Daash” in Aleppo, that the Free army was able to arrest 15 members of “al Dawla” in al Atareb and 7 in the village of Hayaa in Idlib countryside. He explained the reasons behidn grudge against “al Dawla”, saying that a cold war has been ongoing for the last 6 months between the Free Syrian Army groups in Aleppo and the organisation, but it wasn’t big enough to open a battle front with them, and he adds that they are currently fighting with the ISIS in the Castelo area after ISIS tried to break a protest that came out against them.

He adds “I swear by allah, Even if you were in Germany and I told you what they’ve been doing, you would have came here to fight them, they’re assaulting christians and Ismailis, they went to Latakia countryside and killed the people and kidnapped women and children….I carried arms and i rose up to fight the armed man that wants to kill me and my family, i did not rise up to kill children and innocent people and its like they’re scaring the world about this revolution so that the world forsakes it and sees it as a sectarian struggle.”

He continues “We’ve been under siege for two and a half months in the youth dormitories and Ashrafieh. They stole the flour. Any backup that is sent to us will be blocked from entering. Assad is in front of us and ISIS behind us.

In Idlib, explained Abu Iyad, a commander of one of the Kataib, in an interview with “al Mudun”, the situation is under the control of the Free army. And he adds “Daash headquarters in Jabal al Zawia are under control completely, and now the Kateb are preparing to seize the rest of the headquarters belonging to them(ISIS). Abu Iyad explains this step in Idlib as a precautionary measure to protect the Aleppo front and eliminate the possibility of any escalation from the organisation side in Idlib.

And in talking about extremist, we have to pass by Jabhat al Nusra, the arm of Al Qaeda in Syria. The general coordinator of the “Shohadaa Badr” brigade, which is part of the Aleppo military council says: “I speak the truth and I don’t cover up for anyone, we haven’t seen anything bad from the front, contrary to “Daash”, they’re facing the regime in front of everyone, but even with that, we still fear them because of their mystery and our ignorance of their goals”

And he swears, “I swear by Allah that I will kill anyone who comes close to tries to harm this revolution even if he be my father… I have six brothers who are all injured and haven’t left the battlefront for a single day, Daash didn’t do anything for us. It was working with the regime and against the revolution. Anyone that does what they have done will meet the same fate.

Statement of Front of Syrian Revolutionaries (Jamaal Maarouf)

In following the commands of God Almighty and our responsibilities toward the revolutionary jihadi work to overthrow the oppressive regime, we, the Front of Syrian Revolutionaries, care for the blood of the martyrs and rebel accomplishments. The leadership of the Syrian Revolutionary Front has convened its various militia groups in an effort to unite the revolutionary forces and face the criminal regime that strives to kill our people and families across this land. We will hasten the fall of the criminal regime and lift the oppression off of our people.

The organization known as al Dawlat al-Islamiya fi-l-Iraq w-al-Sham hasn’t stopped distracting the rebel mujahidin in side battles and clashes, the purpose of which is to drain our powers and to target the icons of the revolution and the activists and the officers, in a direct service to the regime.
And from their bad deeds against the revolution:
1- Raiding the rebels operation room in the vicinity of Brigade 93 in Ain Issa a short time before the storming of the brigade. And arresting the leaders of the operation and stealing the weapons and ammunition and 2 tanks that belonged to us.
2- Raiding headquarters that belonged to our front in the Haram area and imprisoning 30 mujahedin and stealing their weapons
3- Raiding the headquarters of division 13 in Kafr Nabl and stealing their weapons and ammunition
4- Raiding the media office in Kafranbel and arrested the journalists.
5- Attacking the rebels in Maskana city and stealing their weapons and ammunition and killing a number of them.
6- Arresting the middle man, the mujahid Dr. Abu Rayan and torturing him to death and handing his deformed body to his family.
7- Arresting the officers, brigadier general head of military council in Hama Ahmad Birri, and officer Ahmad Saoud leader of the 13th Division.
8- Raiding the headquarter of the Haya al Sharia and the revolutionary police station in Sarmada and arrested a number of members
9- Setting up checkpoints along the road leading to the Turkish border in the liberated areas, that attack the rebels and civilians and confiscated their weapons and cars
10- Refusing to use Allah Sharia to decide in conflicts with the other factions
11- And last, the seige of a number of villages in Aleppo western countryside and the liberated 46th Regiment which includes the 9th division and Liwaa Saq Qureish both of which belong to our front, in an attempt to raid it. These are only a few of the many violations that ISIS has committed against the revolution and the rebels.
We in the Syrian Revolutionary Front consider these acts to be an attack against us and the aims of the Syrian revolution. Thus we:
1- Ask the Syrian members of Daash to hand over their weapons to the nearest Syria Rebel Front headquarter and to declare themselves innocent of Daash.
2- We ask our Muhajirin brothers who are being fooled to join the Syria Rebel Front or any other group belonging to the Free Syrian Army. They should bring their weapons or hand them over to us and leave the country within 24 hours.

We in the Syrian Revolutionary Front stand firm and will strike with a hand of steal anybody that blocks the movement of the Syrian Revolution. (victories with Allah’s help)

The Syrian Revolutionary Front says it will turn their backs on Geneva II unless Bashar al-Asad leaves and Geneva I is applied.

The Jaysh al-Mujahidiin statement, translated by Dabbour on the syria civil war subreddit

(Jaysh al Mujahidiin is a coalition of 7 Islamist factions that announced its formation on January 2, 2014. It claims to be the biggest coalition in Aleppo. It includes: Kata’ib Nour el-Din al- Zinki al-Islamiya, Liwaa al Ansar, Tajamu Fastakim kama amrt, Liwaa al-Huriya al-Islami (idlib), Liwaa Amjad al-Islam. Liwaa Ansar al-Khilafa, Harakat al-Nour al-Islamiya, Liwaa Jund al-Haramin

As the honest Mujaheddin are fighting on the fronts of Syria against the Nusayri (Alawite) army which is supported by the militias of Iran and Hizbollah, ISIS is busy sewing corruption in the land and spreading fitna (civil strife). It threatens the security and stability of the freed areas and wastes the blood of the mujaheddin and pronounces them “infidels.” It kicks them and their families out of the areas that they paid dearly to free; it strips the factories of their contents, stops them from working, and expels families from their homes into the cold, cruel outdoors. They steal civilian cars and their property with dumb excuses and they abduct military and media leaders, kill them and torture them in their prisons. They refuse to abide by God’s law and the ways of his Prophet. They sought to break into the city of Alanareb with canon and tanks.

Abiding by God’s word in his verse: “Permission [to fight] has been given to those who are being fought, because they were wronged. And indeed, Allah is competent to give them victory.” (http://quran.com/22/39)

We, the army of Mujaheddin announce that in defense of ourselves, our honor, our money and our land, we declare war on ISIS so long as it refuses to obey God’s law until which time it dissolves and its members join other military groups or they leave their weapons and quite Syria.

These militias that belong to Jaysh al-Mujahidin also signed Statement #1 of the Islamic Bloc back in September along with other groups of the Islamic Front and Nusra

Kataeb Nour el Din Al Zinki al Islamiya
Liwaa al Ansar
Tajamo Fastakim kama amrt
Harakat Al Nour al Islamiya

The Islamic Front Statement, translated by Refikoglu on the Syria civil war

While the regime is continually attacking South and East of Aleppo and killing its inhabitants, ISIS came to fight some groups in the West of Aleppo in Brigade 46 area. And we direct this statement to ISIS to stop the fighting immediately and withdraw from that area and return all items taken wrongfully and to submit to the Law of Allah by allowing the Shariah Court to settle this conflict and we would like to remind them(ISIS) that they are fighting the people who liberated Atareb and Aleppo countryside. And we would like to remind our brothers who are at the front not to be distracted for whatever reason, because that will be the situation that the Regime wants.

a IF statement on ISIS

See Juan Cole’s “Iraq’s Sunni Civil War,” for excellent analysis of what is happening with ISIS in Anbar Provence

The attempt launched earlier this week by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) to take and hold city quarters in Falluja, Ramadi and Khalidiya in al-Anbar province has provoked an enormous political crisis in Iraq….

NYT: Qaeda-Linked Insurgents Clash With Other Rebels in Syria, as Schism Grows

The backlash in Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria came as the group’s fighters in neighboring Iraq were battling an alliance of Iraqi security forces and local tribal leaders in Anbar Province, which borders Syria and has been an incubator of Sunni extremism in both countries….

I think harakat al nour al islamia was part Ahrar al sham and if i recall correctly, the ahrar guy that was mistakenly beheaded by ISIS was wearing a harakat al nour shirt. And Liwaa Ansar al Khilafa later denied being part of this new coalition.


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Dr. Landis is the Director for the Center for Middle East Studies and Associate Professor at the University of Oklahoma's College of International Studies. He is also the President of the Syrian Studies Association. He speaks arabic and french fluently, and lived in the Middle East for 14 years.

This article originally appeared on Syria Comment, which is written and run by Dr. Landis.

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David Harris

David Harris is the editor in chief of Clarion Project.