Today is the activists’-sponsored “Day of Rage Against Daish [the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, al-Qaida’s Syrian arm] and Assad.” By equating ISIS with the maligned president, they signal that a dramatic shift has occurred at the start of the new year.
The Syrian opposition has gone from viewing jihadists as an asset who would fight Assad, to viewing them as a direct threat to the greater revolt.
Protests on the first Friday of 2014 commemorated “Martyr Abu Rayyan, Victim of Betrayal.”
Abu Rayyan is a nickname for Dr. Hussein al-Suleiman, the widely respected commander of the powerful rebel fighting group Ahrar al-Sham, a member of the new Islamic Front alliance. Rayyan was kidnapped by ISIS and tortured to death at the end of last year; the discovery of his mutilated body east of Aleppo city prompted outrage among rebels and activists.
In the wake of the killing, demonstrations exploded across opposition-held areas in Aleppo and Idlib province. Crowds chanted against ISIS, accusing it of duplicating the brutality of the Assad regime.
A sign lifted by demonstrators in Maarat al-Numaan, in Idlib province, read: “What is the difference between those who killed Dr. Abu Rayyan and those who murdered Dr. Abbas Khan?” (In December, ISIS killed Rayyan, while the British doctor Abbas Khan died in regime prison.)
Killing the Media
Over the past three months, the phenomenon of kidnapping media activists in opposition areas has steadily increased, the culprits usually described as anonymous masked men. Most media activists have fled the country.
There is high suspicion that the kidnappers are members of ISIS. On Wednesday, opposition forces overran Aleppo’s ISIS headquarters and discovered media activists and journalists imprisoned there.
ISIS has fought back against the accusations, saying the criticism of its tactics is a conspiracy and that it considers media activists its top enemy. Many of its media activist prisoners did not escape alive on Wednesday: dozens were found executed at headquarters.
Four bodies were identified as staff members of the Syrian opposition TV channel Shada al-Horriya. The Syrian Journalists Association said they had been taken in December.
From Protest to Armed Confrontation
The number of ISIS fighters is estimated at 5,000, and since it broke off from Jabhat al-Nusra [another, more moderate al-Qaida-aligned group], it has managed to gain traction in cities across the country, creating its own Islamic courts and imposing its conservative rule of law.
But the spark widely thought to have triggered this week’s infighting between ISIS and other rebel groups, and accompanying anti-extremist sentiment, was the brutal killing of Abu Rayyan.
The influential rebel fighting group Jaish Al-Mujahideen, composed of eight brigades and described as “moderate” Islamist, this week accused ISIS of taking advantage of liberated areas while other rebel factions do the heavier fighting against Assad forces.
Since fighting began one week ago, ISIS has been pushed out of most areas in the western rural regions of Aleppo. Jaysh Al-Mujahideen has also captured and is now holding at least 15 members of ISIS, including its local commander in Atarib–the Aleppo province town where Abu Rayyan’s body was handed over to the Islamic Front during a prisoner exchange between the two groups.
Drawing in the Islamists
In some areas, Jabhat al-Nusra has joined the fight against its onetime ally ISIS. This week, it worked with the Islamic Front to free 50 prisoners from ISIS’ headquarters in Raqqa.
Its leader, Abu Mohammad Al-Jolani, offered a veiled critique of the group in a speech posted to YouTube.
“The wrongful policies of ISIS have played a prominent role in fuelling the conflict,” he said, calling on all parties to stop fighting and form a common Sharia court in order to police each other.
“We were trying to avoid fighting with ISIS because they claimed to be fighting Assad, but obviously the violations they committed have pushed us to fight them,” said one FSA fighter.
“What makes me upset is that we are not using these ammunitions to fight Assad. What I fear the most is that the regime will take advantage of the situation to control the liberated areas while we are fighting ISIS. We don’t want this kind of state to rise in our land; it is offensive to Islam, which is the religion of mercy.”
This article was translated from Arabic by Mazen Madadeh. Alison Meuse contributed editing.