THE LEVANT EXCLUSIVE – By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi – The international coalition- led by the U.S.- against the Islamic State [IS], with additional American airstrikes targeting the ‘Khorasan’ al-Qa’ida group in Syria (in reality just al-Qa’ida veterans from the Afghanistan-Pakistan embedded with Syria’s al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra [JN])- has prompted media speculation of a wider truce, alliance or even merger between IS and JN. For example, on 28 September, Martin Chulov of The Guardian cited a “senior source” claiming “war planning meetings” held between JN and IS leaders.
More recently, a report in The Daily Beast cited “senior Syrian opposition sources” claiming merger talks between JN, IS and ‘Khorasan’, with further allegations, also claimed by the Syrian Observatory on Human Rights, that IS provided military assistance to JN in the recent JN moves against the Syrian Revolutionaries Front [SRF], Harakat Hazm and other perceived Western-backed rebel groups in Idlib province, noting that this development was supposedly the result of an agreement struck just west of Aleppo between IS and JN in a meeting overseen by ‘Khorasan’, attended also by the independent, anti-jihadi infighting group Jund al-Aqsa, and some members of Ahrar al-Sham. Finally, a report for the Associated Press has just come out, citing an ‘FSA’ commander in Aleppo province and an opposition official, claiming an agreement between IS and JN to end infighting and cooperate to destroy common enemies, including the Kurds and SRF. Present at the meeting, as in the Daily Beast report’s claims, were ‘Khorasan’, Jund al-Aqsa and some members of Ahrar al-Sham.
Are these reports credible? In a word: No. The following should be noted:
– The rift between JN and IS is too great to heal at this point beyond the highly localized alliance between IS and JN in Qalamoun that reflects an exceptional situation where neither group can hold territory alone and both contingents are geographically isolated from members of their groups elsewhere in Syria, in addition to being preoccupied with constant fighting with regime forces and Hezbollah. At the broader level, IS still believes that JN is guilty of “defection” (‘inshiqāq) from IS in refusing to be subsumed under what was then the Islamic State of Iraq [ISI] to form the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham [ISIS] back in April 2013. The zero-sum demands of IS have only solidified with the claimed Caliphate status since 29 June demanding the allegiance of all the world’s Muslims.
In turn, JN refuses even to recognize IS’ claim to be an actual state, let alone a Caliphate. This was made apparent in JN leader Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani’s recent official interview on the “White Minaret” in which he made constantly referred to IS as jamaat ad-dawla (“the group of the state”), which can only be interpreted as an insult by IS, even as Jowlani made clear he believes the international coalition is intending to destroy both JN and IS.
In this context, a careful distinction needs to be made between the situation on the ground and attempts by al-Qa’ida branches elsewhere to engage in some form of solidarity outreach to IS in the face of the international coalition as a supposed war on Islam. Thus, contrasting with Jowlani’s constant use of ‘jamaat ad-dawla’ to refer to IS, both al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb [AQIM] and al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP] simply refer to IS as IS refers to itself: ‘ad-dawla al-islamiya’ [‘The Islamic State’]. However, such attempts at jihadi solidarity are ultimately incoherent ideologically: will AQAP and AQIM actually be willing to extend recognition of the Caliphate if pressed on this issue? Indeed, in the very same areas where AQAP and AQIM are operating, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in his al-Furqan Media speechreleased yesterday rejoiced in new pledges of allegiance to IS in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sinai, Algeria and Libya, calling for the annulment of any separate group identities and the creation of new wilayāt [‘provinces’] of IS. Will AQAP and AQIM be willing to lose their names and merge with these wilayāt? Nothing suggests any development of this sort.
– The nature of the sourcing and content of the ‘JN-IS alliance’ reports is highly suspect. Chulov’s first report in particular is to be noted for its incoherence. While he has a source claiming war planning meetings between JN and IS, a “senior al-Nusra figure” is also mentioned as having told The Guardian that 73 members of JN had just defected to IS. What sense would there be in holding joint conferences to discuss war strategy if members of JN are at the same time leaving JN to join IS? As for the Daily Beast and Associated Press reports, the degree of overlap in the content of the two pieces- such as which groups are attending the supposed merger talks/alliance discussions- strongly suggests they are relying on the same sources. When one looks at these sources, linked as they are to the opposition-in-exile, it is clear they have an agenda to play on Western concerns about dangers of ‘Khorasan’ and the possibility, however remote, of some kind of unification between JN and IS in order to insist on the urgency of more Western support for ‘FSA’ groups to push back against jihadi forces.
On further examination, details of how this agreement between JN and IS is supposed to work come across as impractical, to put it mildly. For example, how would a joint front against Kurdish forces be opened? Would JN and IS participate in a joint offensive on Afrin? But IS is still not even in the vicinity of Afrin, and needs to retake its former border stronghold of Azaz to get there, or at least secure an access agreement through Azaz. Yet the local group that controls Azaz- Northern Storm- is currently affiliated with the Islamic Front, of which Ahrar al-Sham is still a part. Will members of Ahrar al-Sham now send a request Northern Storm to provide access to IS and cease working with other rebels to fight IS for control of Dabiq and other northern Aleppo localities? As for the other two main areas where there is a Kurdish military presence to fight- Kobani and north-east Hasakah province- there is no JN presence whatsoever, having disappeared in the vicinity of Kobani last year as members of JN in nearby towns such as Jarabulus defected to what was then ISIS, and having disappeared in Hasakah province after being subjugated under what was then ISIS at the start of this year.
On the subject of alleged JN-IS cooperation in Idlib province against SRF, there is no evidence whatsoever beyond hearsay to substantiate the claim, with any supposed photos of an IS presence in this case being the result ofphotoshop manipulation on social media. More importantly, the Dawn of Freedom Brigades– an ex-Liwa al-Tawheed/Islamic Front grouping primarily based in northern Aleppo province and Kobani but which also had an Idlib contingent– has denied to me the claims of IS military assistance to JN in Idlib, as IS withdrew from the province in the face of infighting with rebels at the start of this year. There might be IS sleeper cells intended to conduct sabotage operations against its rivals, but that does not satisfy the need for reliable evidence for active and open IS assistance to JN as is being claimed.
Interestingly, Dawn of Freedom had initially hoped to push back against JN for its moves against SRF and other Western-backed rebels in Idlib, originally intending to issue a 72-hour deadline for JN to withdraw from Jabal Zawiya or face war. However, realizing it was too weak to confront JN militarily, Dawn of Freedom has instead intended to focus its efforts on north Aleppo province, even as its members have now been targeted there too by JN on accusations of being Western-backed. Nonetheless, the group is not playing up any notions of a supposed new JN-IS alliance.
– In questioning the veracity of these reports, I do not intend to imply that there has been no outreach to IS by non-IS affiliated jihadis. As I have outlined previously with respect to the independent jihadi coalition Jabhat Ansar al-Din , ‘neither IS nor JN’ jihadis have generally tried to avoid fighting with IS as far as possible and have tried to avoid getting into any specifics of the JN-IS rift. It would not be surprising if members of these groups and coalitions might try- most likely on their own initiative or perhaps on an unofficial request from some members of other groups- to seek some outreach to and truce with IS on behalf of non-IS jihadis in Syria on the basis of working with IS on the grounds of common ideological end goal or enemies. However, all evidence shows that these initiatives have invariably failed (cf. Muheisseni’s failed ‘Ummah Initiative’ in January and the ‘And don’t separate’ joint jihadi offensive on Kweiris airbase that quickly collapsed), rooted in IS’ absolutism which seeks recognition of IS as the sole authority. This was so even when IS was just ISIS and ISI, which, as members of rival jihadi group Jamaat Ansar al-Islam have noted, consistently insisted on its status as a state and superior authority over others.
In short, the recent reports of supposed merger and alliance talks between JN and IS need to be taken with a pinch of salt as rebel disinformation. From JN’s perspective anyway, an alliance with IS would be strategically disastrous in the long-run, as IS will seek to subjugate it. That JN, Jabhat Ansar al-Din, al-Qa’ida branches and even more mainstream Islamists in general might see the international coalition as a war on Islam is only to be expected, and is certainly relevant to the question of whether the U.S. can build an effective local Sunni fighting force against IS in Iraq, for example. But this debate needs to be distinguished from sensationalist talk of IS-JN mergers and the like that fails to understand IS’ self-perception and how it relates to its interactions at the grand level with other groups.