May 31, 2016

MERIA SPECIAL REPORT: NORTHERN STORM AND THE SITUATION IN AZAZ


EDITOR’S NOTE

This MERIA special report is the product of a reporting trip undertaken by its author to the town of Azaz between December 18-22, 2014.  Visits by researchers and journalists to northwest Syria have become rare in the past year because of the accompanying risks.  As a result, it has become difficult to gain a clear picture of the situation on the ground in the rebel-controlled areas.  This, in turn, has impoverished discussion among policymakers, specialists, and the public regarding the vital area of Syria policy.  This report is intended to contribute to the process of remedying this.

With Western air forces engaged over the skies of Iraq and Syria, and the war in those countries nowhere close to conclusion, good information and analysis, systematically acquired and well-presented, is of real importance.  As such, the Middle East Review of International Affairs is pleased and proud to offer this report to its readers.

Our center places a great emphasis on the importance of the combination of systematic field reporting and cogent analysis. Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi’s work here offers an example of this. The author uses his examination of the minutiae of life and of social and political arrangements in a single northern Syrian border town to cast light on broader, significant processes under way within the Syrian rebellion.  The logistical arrangements necessary for the production of such a report are by necessity complex.  The report amply justifies the efforts undertaken.

–Jonathan Spyer (Editor, MERIA).

 

 

 

This report examines the current status of the town of Azaz- particularly in relation to the main armed group present (the Northern Storm Brigade) as well as the military situation on fronts to the south and east. The report also surveys the history of Azaz since 2011, and assesses how Azaz pertains to the wider picture of the situation on the ground in Syria. This version is the revised second edition of the report as of January 26, 2015.

GENERAL OVERVIEW

Situated in the northern countryside of Aleppo province, the town of Azaz–the center of the Azaz district–is the nearest major settlement to the Bab al-Salama border crossing that leads into the southern Turkish city of Kilis. At the present time, Azaz town is controlled by the group Liwa Asifat al-Shamal (“The Northern Storm Brigade”), which is affiliated with the Islamic Front rebel coalition. Also present within Azaz town but lacking any governing authority is Syria’s al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. To the east of Azaz town lies the smaller settlement of Sawran, beyond which is a frontline, an area of no-man’s land of about 800 meters to a kilometer, and then the localities of Doudyan and Dabiq to the northeast and southeast, solely controlled by the Islamic State (IS). Northern Storm also solely controls the town of Sawran.

To the south of Azaz lie the other major north Aleppo localities of Tal Rif’at and Marea, under the authority of Islamic Front groups (Liwa al-Fatah and Liwa al-Tawhid respectively). South of Tal Rif’at is the important military front of Handarat contested between regime forces (including irregular paramilitaries such as the Muqawama Suriyya)[1] and a number of rebel groups. Northern Storm is among the participants on the Handarat front, alongside groups including Jabhat al-Nusra,[2] Jama’at Ansar al-Islam,[3] the independent jihadi coalition Jabhat Ansar al-Din,[4] and even the U.S.-backed Harakat Hazm.[5]

Together, Handarat and Sawran constitute the two military fronts on which Northern Storm fights besides maintaining control of Azaz town. That said, it should be noted that Northern Storm’s main military base, to which fighters and commanders regularly return for recuperation and rest, lies to the north outside the main town. Finally, of interest in this overview is the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD)’s autonomous canton of Afrin to the west of Azaz, guarded by its People’s Protection Units (YPG). No power sharing arrangements exist here with other rebel groups, but a state of neutrality exists at least between Northern Storm and the canton of Afrin.[6]

HISTORY OF AZAZ: NORTHERN STORM AND ITS TRIBULATIONS

Northern Storm was first founded in 2011 by a local called Ammar Dadikhi. The brand was an evolution from the more generic notions of an “Ahrar al-Shamal” (“Free Men of the North”) brand in the north Aleppo countryside–indeed, some very minor “Ahrar al-Shamal” remnant graffiti can still be found inside Azaz town. Being a very local brand, Northern Storm quickly became the main established group in the locality over the course of the latter half of 2011 and 2012, with the capture of the town from regime forces in a battle that ended in July 2012. The main rivalry Northern Storm had to contend with at that point was centered on an individual called Ahmad Obayd, who was of more Islamist leaning and left Northern Storm in 2012, forming his own Liwa Amru ibn al-Aas.[7]

In a bid to gain further influence, Obayd also teamed up with an Egyptian foreign fighter called Abu Obayda al-Masri (also known as Abu Obayda al-Muhajir), who is thought to have arrived in the Azaz area at an unknown date in 2012. Abu Obayda established a training camp to the north of Azaz town that would recruit new foreign fighter arrivals. The two men thus established the group Jaysh Muhammad (“Army of Muhammad”), which would gain a foothold inside Azaz town but never exercise any governing authority, though it is clear that Jaysh Muhammad sought a more comprehensive implementation of Shari’a (Islamic law) in Azaz and that issue became a constant point of contention between Northern Storm and Jaysh Muhammad. Although Jaysh Muhammad recruited many foreigners (muhajirin) who came to the Azaz area into its ranks, ex-members and locals in Azaz estimate a 50-50 division in the group’s composition between local Syrians and muhajirin.[8]

By the end of 2012, there reportedly arose a fitna (Arabic for “strife/discord”) between Obayd and Abu Obayda, culminating in a formal split. Each man now commanded his own contingent, and called it Jaysh Muhammad, though Obayd continued to include the name Liwa Amru ibn al-Aas in his formation’s logo.[9] Obayd left the Azaz area and eventually pledged allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra in the first half of 2014, while Abu Obayda’s group retained a presence inside Azaz and aimed to expand elsewhere in Aleppo province.[10]

Meanwhile, Northern Storm aimed to expand its clout by participating in the rebel siege of Mannagh airbase beginning in August 2012. The base would not fall for another year, and during the siege, Northern Storm’s founder was wounded, later dying in early 2013 from his wounds. Following Dadikhi’s death, another Azaz local- Samir Amouri, known to Northern Storm members as “Ustadh Samir”–became leader of Northern Storm.[11] It was during Amouri’s tenure that the main events that brought Northern Storm to the forefront of media attention took place: namely, the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)–first announced by leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in April 2013–and the subsequent battle for Azaz between the two groups. ISIS’ following had come about in many localities of Aleppo province on account of defections from Jabhat al-Nusra. For instance, further east of Azaz in the border town of Jarabulus, the local Jabhat al-Nusra group joined ISIS and proceeded to take over Jarabulus by force, subjugating the local Family of Jadir.[12]

Yet there was no Jabhat al-Nusra presence in Azaz at the time to defect to ISIS, and so the ISIS contingent that arrived in Azaz in July 2013 came from outside, immediately facing a degree of opposition in the form of a protest rally. As admitted by Amouri, the ISIS presence in Azaz was initially not of a military sort. Rather, ISIS used a building that had once been a Northern Storm base within the town (a services office) to establish a da’wa office to engage in outreach to locals, recruiting from those of the population who did not like Northern Storm.[13] At the same time, ISIS was participating in the siege of Mannagh, bolstered by what was then its front group Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa al-Ansar under the leadership of Abu Omar al-Shishani, who had been appointed “northern” amir of ISIS in Syria by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (i.e. with authority over Aleppo, northern Idlib, and Latakia provinces).
Though Northern Storm members assert that ISIS stole credit for the eventual downfall of Mannagh in August 2013, it is clear that ISIS led the takeover of the base using suicide kamikaze attacks and seized the bulk of the weaponry, some of which ISIS would later use against Northern Storm. At this point, ISIS and Northern Storm were still not full-fledged enemies, and it was in this context that the controversy came up in 2014 over allegations that in August 2013 Northern Storm sold out journalist Steven Sotloff to ISIS,[14] which–having become just the Islamic State (IS) following the Caliphate declaration on June 29, 2014–had Sotloff beheaded in an al-Furqan Media video released on September 2, 2014, in response to the beginning of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes against IS. While no evidence has turned up to show definitively how Sotloff ended up in ISIS’ hands when he entered the Azaz area, it is possible Northern Storm handed him over in a bid to curry favor with ISIS.

Regardless, it is clear that ISIS was aiming to build its influence in Azaz and garner enough strength to launch a takeover. In September 2013, ISIS in Azaz began to make claims that a German doctor who was working in one of Azaz’s private hospitals and was under the protection of Northern Storm was a spy, asserting that he had been taking photos of ISIS positions in the town.[15] At this stage, ISIS brought in a military presence and attempted to arrest the doctor, sparking clashes with Northern Storm. Though the powerful Aleppo rebel group Liwa al-Tawhid intervened and brokered a ceasefire between the parties, ISIS subsequently broke the ceasefire and completed a full-scale takeover of the town by the beginning of October.

Northern Storm had little in its favor to stop ISIS. Indeed, Amouri says that around half of Northern Storm’s fighters refused to take on ISIS on the grounds that they were fellow Muslims.[16] Besides that, ISIS already had a local manpower base within Azaz, Jaysh Muhammad–of similar ideological orientation to ISIS and a rival of Northern Storm–was hardly going to intervene to stop ISIS, and Liwa al-Tawhid, which was supposed to enforce the ceasefire, ultimately backed out.

Following ISIS’ takeover of the town, many Northern Storm members went into hiding either in Turkey, near the Bab al-Salama border crossing, or in the Afrin canton. ISIS appointed Abd al-Rahman al-Kuwaiti as amir,[17] who was forced to resign after a month, eventually turning up in early 2014 in a purported photo from Anbar in Iraq.[18] His replacement was one Abu A’isha al-Jazrawi (as his name suggests, a Saudi). ISIS also appointed a local 16-year-old, Murad Hallaq, as “security amir”–that is, head of intelligence–in the Azaz area.[19] One of his roles was to locate the whereabouts of wanted Northern Storm members. Another key figure for ISIS in the Azaz area was a man by the name of Abu Suhaib al-Iraqi, who had reportedly come to Syria (specifically Tal Rif’at) as a refugee from Iraq following the U.S. invasion in 2003.[20]

How people in Azaz regarded life under ISIS is partly influenced by the perspective on Northern Storm. Economically and in terms of quality of life, there is little evidence to suggest that residents were worse off under ISIS’ rule. One vegetable seller in the Azaz market, who expressed a dislike of Northern Storm and a personal preference for Jabhat al-Nusra, described business during ISIS rule as “excellent” and that there was no real difference in prices between now and the ISIS era.[21] Similarly, a local who works in a falafel shop in Azaz said that business continued as normal when ISIS controlled the town.[22] The failings in economy and quality of life for the current IS territories have been readily noted in media reports,[23] but that things were no worse in these measures for Azaz residents during ISIS’ rule is not much of a surprise. After all, in the pre-Syria-infighting era, ISIS’ holdings were not contiguous and isolated from the wider milieu of rebel-held Syria in the way they are now. Further, Azaz, unlike Mosul, which since falling out of Iraqi government control and into IS’ hands has seen itself cut off from the national grid of electricity, had already been pariah status for the Assad regime vis-à-vis provision of electricity since falling in 2012. Thus, Azaz residents had already been long accustomed to a lack of electricity from the regime, having to rely on private generators instead.

It is also readily agreed that there was some difference in the model of ISIS governance vis-à-vis enforcement of Islamic law during ISIS’ rule of Azaz and, say, ISIS control of Raqqa now. When ISIS seized Azaz, it had not yet built extensive contiguous territory to qualify as a real state, but rather had been spreading out as far as possible with only a few border strongholds. Also, ISIS was still in its early months: Accordingly the degree of enforcement was less strict.

To give an example of the contrast, smoking, though forbidden, was only rebuked by word, not by an active punishment like flogging. [24] Nor was wearing of the niqab made strictly mandatory, though it was encouraged via use of “da’wa vehicles.” Nonetheless, it does not follow that ISIS in Azaz was not prone to displays of public brutality or use of harsh punishments in other respects. For instance, one resident said he was imprisoned by ISIS in December 2013 for smuggling oil from Afrin, and was flogged during his time in prison.[25] Public displays of beatings and execution were not unknown either and have been documented in open source material.[26]

The beginning of the end of ISIS’ rule over Azaz would come about with the outbreak of widespread infighting between ISIS and other rebel groups across northern Syria in January 2014. Northern Storm began to recuperate under the new leadership of another Azaz local, Mahmoud Nadum, who only completed education up to the end of primary school.[27] Needing a wider network of allies and greater credibility to counter prior accusations of thuggishness and criminality, Northern Storm became part of the Islamic Front coalition, officially under the authority of Liwa al-Tawhid. Though ISIS held on to the town of Azaz in the face of attacks from rebels, who in the Azaz area were now coordinating with the YPG, Abu A’isha al-Jazrawi was killed fighting, reportedly in the Tal Rif’at area. By the end of February 2014, the lines of battle had been drawn such that the town of Azaz was isolated from the rest of ISIS’ territory, and so ISIS engaged in a strategic withdrawal, allowing for Northern Storm to return. Abu Obayda al-Masri’s Jaysh Muhammad remained despite ISIS’ withdrawal.

A remaining point of conflict was the issue of the Bab al-Salama border crossing, over which Northern Storm had influence in the days prior to ISIS rule. In the first couple of months following Northern Storm’s return to Azaz, there were reports of clashes with Liwa al-Tawhid near Bab al-Salama.[28] Yet it is now clear that this matter has been resolved, with the Islamic Front having full control of the crossing as a coalition body–an arrangement accepted by Northern Storm, which would also gain charge under the Islamic Front’s banner of the frontline to the east of the small town of Sawran that was also evacuated by ISIS.[29] Jaysh Muhammad under Abu Obayda al-Masri continued to push for stricter implementation of Shari’a, issuing a definite statement in July 2014 that Shari’a would be implemented to the totality, amid dissatisfaction with supposed lack of observance of fasting during Ramadan in Azaz.[30] This apparent statement of belligerence, coupled with formal distancing from Jabhat al-Nusra[31] and Jaysh Muhammad’s refusal to fight what had now become IS, prompted the Islamic Front to issue a three-day deadline in August 2014 to Jaysh Muhammad to withdraw from Azaz, an order with which it complied,[32] only to be replaced by a Jabhat al-Nusra presence in Azaz.

DAILY LIFE AND ADMINISTRATION IN AZAZ

The Azaz countryside has seen a significant increase in population in comparison with the period prior to 2011 on account of a number of refugee camps built to harbor internally displaced Syrians, but the town’s population and demographic composition largely remain unchanged. Azaz town’s population is almost entirely Sunni Arab, with the existence of some Arabized Kurdish families and a tiny Yazidi community (no more than 10 individuals), whose presence is tolerated by Northern Storm and the people of Azaz. Indeed, no evidence of animosity against Yazidis exists in Azaz. Rather, the bulk of religious and sectarian animosity–reflecting Syria’s hyper sectarian Sunni-Shi’a/Alawi divide–is directed against Alawites and Shi’a. The general consensus–among Northern Storm members and locals–is that neither Shi’a nor Alawites are Muslims. In this context, “Rawafidh” (“Rafidites”) and “Nusayriyya”–pejorative terms for Shi’a and Alawites respectively–are normative.

Illustrating the dislike of the Shi’a, locals at the Azaz Media Center, for example, expressed admiration for Saddam Hussein, partly on the grounds that “he fought the Shi’a” and partly because he stood up to the United States.[33] At the Northern Storm military base, several fighters declared Shi’a to be kuffar (disbelievers) and made jokes about shooting any found within their presence.

A slightly more subtle distinction was made by Amouri, who far from being a “wanted” figure by Northern Storm currently serves as a senior advisor for the group.[34] He explained, “The Rafidites are khawarij, like the Daw’aish [IS guys], even as they are still Muslims. But the Nusayriyya are kuffar.”[35]  At least one young Northern Storm fighter tried to make distinctions among the Alawites: “We can’t cleanse all the land of them… Many of them hate the regime.”[36] However, as with Sunnis and the issue of de-Ba’thification in Iraq, it is difficult to see on what criteria one will sort out Alawites deemed “against” the regime from the rest.

Aspects of administration and authority in Azaz are broadly divided two ways, between a Shari’a Committee (al-hay’at al-shara’iyya) and a local civil council (al-majlis al-madani). The Shari’a Committee is affiliated with the Islamic Front, and Northern Storm serves as its virtual police force. The Shari’a Committee is responsible for law and order, questions of public morality, family disputes, and use of property in relation to waqf endowments. In relation to these Shari’a Committee responsibilities, the prison directorate in Azaz is under Islamic Front authority.

As far as public morality and enforcement of Islamic law go, Azaz reflects the conservative nature of rural Syria. All women on the streets of the town could be seen to be wearing at least the hijab, with many wearing the niqab or burqa. The hijab is considered obligatory for women in public, and those who disagree are to be sent to the Shari’a Committee to explain themselves.[37] Possession and sale of drugs like hashish and alcohol are also banned, with those caught in possession of such substances to be sent to the Shari’a Committee, which determines the punishment.[38]

Yet some notable distinctions exist to contrast with IS rule. For example, smoking is not banned, even as the Shari’a Committee would ideally like to phase it out through gradualist education.[39] Second, while the crime of murder is punished by execution in accordance with the principle of qisas (retaliation), theft is not punished with a public display of cutting off the hand but rather a simple prison sentence.[40] The prison itself does not normally hold more than 20 prisoners at a time.[41] Accordingly, prison sentences are not of lengthy duration, but rather on a timescale of months.[42] At the present time, there are no known detainees of IS or regime affiliation in Azaz prison.

The Civil Council covers the field of public services, such as electricity, cleaning of the streets, management of water supplies, public health and education, and construction work.[43] It is therefore equivalent to IS’ “Islamic Committee for Public Services/Committee for the Service of Muslims,”[44] “Department of Health,”[45] and “Department of Education” combined.[46] Officially independent, at least one of the 20-member body has a familial connection to Northern Storm: namely, Amouri’s son. The council hopes for elections in the summer of 2015 and strives to be technocratic. However, its ability to function is severely impeded by a lack of revenue to fund provision of services. The council does not collect mandatory taxes, but rather receives funding from its members’ own incomes and charging locals for provision of services such as the cleaning of their streets. The council traces its beginnings to the downfall of the regime presence in Azaz, but ceased to exist during the period of ISIS control of the town, when its members were wanted by ISIS.

Education and religious life are served by a number of schools and mosques in the town. There are at least three functioning schools in Azaz, including a school for girls bearing the flags of the Islamic Front at its entrance. It is in the realm of education that the regime still exercises influence in Azaz, as the teachers still have their salaries paid by the regime, needing to go to regime-held areas of Aleppo to collect them on a monthly basis. Of the mosques, one shows the influence of the Jabhat al-Nusra presence in the town: namely, the Mus’ab ibn Umair mosque, whose preacher is a member of Jabhat al-Nusra. In a recent Friday sermon, this preacher attacked the status quo with the schools in Azaz, describing their teaching programs as “secularist-kafir.”[47] To counter what it sees as this pernicious influence, Jabhat al-Nusra has established a teaching institute for the Koran and Shari’a for children in Azaz, and the preacher called in his sermon for families to remove their children from the schools in Azaz and register them in the mosque.[48] The other mosques in Azaz, such as the important al-Maytam al-Islami mosque in the center, are officially “independent” in affiliation, but the aforementioned mosque shows clear Islamic Front influence. Namely, its preacher is a judge on Azaz’s Shari’a Committee. In any case, looking at education and religious life together points to a notable competition between Jabhat al-Nusra and Northern Storm (Islamic Front) for influence in the town, which has implications for a wider assessment of relations between the two groups.

NORTHERN STORM AS A MILITARY FORCE

Most of the estimates given by Northern Storm members as to their numbers put the figure at 500 fighters. These fighters, whose ages range from 16 or 17 to 55 years old, are overwhelmingly from the Azaz area. Two notable exceptions were one fighter claiming origin from Dayr al-Zur countryside (having fled to Azaz after IS’ seizure of most of Dayr al-Zur province by July 2014) and a fighter of Lebanese nationality who traced his parents’ origins to Azaz. Ethnically, like Azaz’s population, the brigade is almost entirely Sunni Arab, with only four fighters at most claiming Kurdish background.[49]

As mentioned above, Northern Storm as a fighting force is principally concerned with two fronts–the Sawran front and the Handarat front. In addition to fighting on these fronts, Northern Storm members also serve as a police force in Azaz that hands over wanted criminals to the Shari’a Committee and also guards various public sites in Azaz such as the hospitals. As far as numbers go, no more than two-dozen fighters could be observed manning the Sawran front on a visit to the frontline, and in a rally in Azaz for Northern Storm fighters to head out to the Handarat front a similar number could be observed.

While it may seem surprising how few Northern Storm fighters are manning the Sawran front, the reality is that very little fighting takes place here, as the Northern Storm fighters themselves assert that neither Northern Storm nor IS has advanced for months following IS’ seizure of Dabiq and other nearby localities in August 2014. Indeed, the most that takes place is occasional exchange of gunfire and firing of mortar rounds. It is thus apparent that militarily IS is focusing its efforts elsewhere, such as on the symbolic conquest of the city of Kobani in the face of intense coalition airstrikes and Iraqi Peshmerga intervention that only managed to dislodge IS from the city on January 26, 2015. Northern Storm’s role on the Sawran front can best be described by the Arabic word ribat, which can be summed up as “frontline duty.” That is, manning a point to prevent enemy advances. The dynamics may now change with the dislodging of IS from Kobani, as Northern Storm’s spokesman claimed a subsequent IS reinforcement of its positions in Dabiq and Ahtimilat (the latter a village immediately to the east of Sawran).[50]

Some critics of Northern Storm within Azaz complain that Northern Storm is not a real fighting force. The vegetable seller who prefers Jabhat al-Nusra, for example, characterized Northern Storm’s fighting as a “media war” partly on the basis that the fighters who had rallied on the afternoon of December 19, 2014, to head to Handarat apparently returned the same day.[51] Something that might corroborate this criticism is that nothing suggests Northern Storm has any significant heavy weaponry and vehicles–such as tanks–to assist rebel efforts. Indeed, despite U.S. Senator John McCain’s visit to Syria in May 2013 that included meeting some members of Northern Storm, there is no indication the group has received any of the U.S. TOW missiles that have been given to Harakat Hazm.

Being part of Northern Storm’s fighting ranks does not necessarily translate to active fighting or guard duty every day. Some fighters take days off in their homes in the Azaz area, while others recuperate in Northern Storm’s main military camp to the north of Azaz. That base for example serves as a recovery point after immediate treatment for Northern Storm fighters wounded on the frontlines, as a place where the leadership can meet to discuss tactics, and as a place where even fighters who are not wounded can take the day off.

CONCLUSION: WIDER ASSESSMENT

The story of Northern Storm’s rise, fall, and return to Azaz is in a way emblematic of the general trajectory of the Syrian Civil War in the north of the country. The years 2011-2012 seemed superficially to point to the broad rise and gains of a nationalist, non-Islamist “Free Syrian Army,” and it is in such a context that Northern Storm came to dominate Azaz. This was so in spite of the emergence of Jabhat al-Nusra, which at that time seemed to be a conciliatory jihadi force with which other rebels could work. The year 2013 then saw the rise of ISIS, which pursued a strategy of spreading as far as possible through rebel-held areas while seizing control of a few strongholds at the expense of some groups, Northern Storm being among those losers.

The beginning of 2014 seemed to offer a glimmer of hope in the face of wider infighting between rebels and ISIS, as it seemed as though the rebels had largely driven ISIS out of northwest Syria, ostensibly inflicting significant military defeats and allowing Northern Storm to return to Azaz. In reality, much of ISIS’ pullout was a case of strategic withdrawal to focus on building an actual state in terms of contiguous territory, with major urban strongholds centered on Raqqa province, eastern Aleppo province, and southern Hasakah province. That strategy proved successful in allowing ISIS to repel rebel attacks from Dayr al-Zur province on al-Markadah in southern Hasakah and launch a counter-offensive, subjugating all rebel forces in Dayr al-Zur by July 2014.

Though IS’ momentum in desiring continual expansion has somewhat slowed in Syria, more “moderate” rebels now face a new looming threat from the growing assertiveness of Jabhat al-Nusra, which, while having lost out to ISIS/IS in the east and Raqqa province, has been on the ascendancy in the northwest, routing the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF) and Harakat Hazm from Idlib province. This apparent reversal on a prior conciliatory and cooperative attitude is due to several factors. For example, IS’ success in acquisition of territory and “Caliphate” declaration has forced other jihadi groups in Syria to maintain their credibility with their own state projects to rival the self-proclaimed Caliphate–an analysis that also partly explains the formation of the independent jihadi coalition Jabhat Ansar al-Din in July 2014 and the behavior of Abu Obayda al-Masri’s Jaysh Muhammad in that same month. Further, Jabhat al-Nusra has perceived a particular threat in SRF and Harakat Hazm. These groups have been seen as backed by the West and the United States in particular, which has launched airstrikes on Jabhat al-Nusra positions ostensibly to target the so-called “Khorasan Group” al-Qa’ida cell, which is nothing more than al-Qa’ida veterans of the Afghanistan-Pakistan arena embedded with Jabhat al-Nusra.

Regardless of the reasons for Jabhat al-Nusra’s expansionism, the matter has not escaped the attention of Northern Storm, whose leader admitted relations with Jabhat al-Nusra were ambiguous at best.[52] Though there is a man who acts as an intermediary between the two groups, Nadum complained that Jabhat al-Nusra does not seek cooperation in the building and running of institutions for the population but rather seeks exclusive monopolies.[53] Such an account is corroborated by the earlier note here on the Jabhat al-Nusra mosque preacher’s attack on the running of schools in Azaz. In private, a good deal of pessimism exists about the overall course of events in Syria. Indeed, Abd al-Qadir Abu Yusuf, Northern Storm’s official spokesman, warned that the fight in Syria could eventually turn into just a three-way battle between IS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the regime.[54]

Wider rebel concerns about Jabhat al-Nusra in Aleppo province also likely explain in part the formation of the new al-Jabhat al-Shamiyya (Sham/Levant Front) coalition between Aleppo province’s “mainstream” Islamist factions: Islamic Front, Jaysh al-Mujahidin, the Nour al-Din al-Zinki Movement, the Authenticity and Development Front, and the “Remain on the Right Path as You Have Been Ordered” grouping.[55] The new coalition is in theory supposed to dissolve all separate group identities under one banner, though as of yet it remains unclear whether this initiative will be fully implemented.[56] One sign of hope on the part of the Levant Front to create a credible, alternative model of governance to that of Jabhat al-Nusra is the apparent plan to establish a “Dar al-Qaḍa” body, which will “rely on those competent in judiciary, law, Shari’a [and] civil matters as well.”[57]The name immediately conjures up Jabhat al-Nusra’s already existing Dar al-Qaḍa, which attempts to establish monopolies on judiciary for the group in areas where it has a presence.[58]

The Levant Front’s attempt to exclude Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadi groups is plainly apparent. In short, the outlook appears bleak, and a wider round of infighting between Jabhat al-Nusra and rebel groups in the north could soon be underway.

Appendix A: Approximate Prices of Some Commodities in Azaz[59]

                  Commodity                               Price
                   Potato (1kg)                               $0.75
                 Eggplant (1kg)                               $1.00
                  Tomato (1kg)                               $0.50
                  Banana (1kg)                               $2.00
                  Lettuce (1kg)                               $1.00
              Meat (1kg: Lamb)                               $7.00
                    Rice (1kg)                               $1.00
        Petrol (1 liter: Iraqi origin)                               $1.00
     Petrol (1 liter: ‘regime’ origin)                               $2.00
        Water (20 barrels: 200 liters)                               $7.00
           Bread (9 flatbreads)                               $0.50

 

APPENDIX B: PHOTOS FROM AZAZ

The Mus’ab ibn Umair Mosque in Azaz

The Mus’ab ibn Umair Mosque in Azaz

The al-Maytam al-Islami Mosque in Azaz

The al-Maytam al-Islami Mosque in Azaz

 

Remnant ISIS mural from outside a youth club in Azaz that was converted into an ISIS base once the group took control of the town.

Remnant ISIS mural from outside a youth club in Azaz that was converted into an ISIS base once the group took control of the town.



Daily life in Azaz

Daily life in Azaz

The market in Azaz

The market in Azaz

 


On right: Entrance to Azaz’s Shari’a Committee. Note the Islamic Front flags.

On right: Entrance to Azaz’s Shari’a Committee. Note the Islamic Front flags.


Purported photo of Murad Hallaq, the 16-year-old who was appointed “security amir” of Azaz by ISIS when it controlled the town.

Purported photo of Murad Hallaq, the 16-year-old who was appointed “security amir” of Azaz by ISIS when it controlled the town.


From left to right: Mahmoud Nadum, Samir Amouri and Abd al-Qadir Abu Yusuf of Northern Storm.

From left to right: Mahmoud Nadum, Samir Amouri and Abd al-Qadir Abu Yusuf of Northern Storm.


* Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a graduate from Brasenose College, Oxford University, with a degree in Classics and Oriental Studies. His research interests primarily concern Iraq and Syria, focusing on armed groups on all sides of the conflicts therein. He is also the Jihad-Intel Research Specialist at the Middle East Forum. His website is http://www.aymennjawad.org.
NOTES


[1] Notification of the deaths of seven Muqawama Suriyya fighters on the Handarat front, Muqawama Suriya, December 7, 2014, http://justpaste.it/muqawamasuriyahandarat.

[2] E.g. “Jabhat al-Nusra: Targeting of the Nusayri Army in the al-Malah Farmlands with Heavy Machinegun-Fire, Handarat, Aleppo,” Jabhat al-Nusra Aleppo Correspondent, December 14, 2014, https://twitter.com/JnHalab/status/544076068966400000.

[3] A jihadi group originating from Iraq, Jama’at Ansar al-Islam expanded into Syria in 2011, but conflict with its traditional rival IS meant the parent Iraqi branch has been subsumed by IS while the Syrian branch only survives in Aleppo and Idlib provinces. See Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “The Islamic State (IS) and Pledges of Allegiance: The Case of Jamaat Ansar al-Islam,” Syria Comment, November 28, 2014, http://www.aymennjawad.org/15740/the-islamic-state-is-and-pledges-of-allegiance. For the group’s participation on the Handarat front, see “Spreading of the Ansar al-Islam Heroes in the al-Malah Farmlands near Handarat to Resist the Nusayri soldiers,” Al-Ansar Media, December 14, 2014, http://justpaste.it/ifqk.

[4] “Jabhat Ansar al-Din: Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa al-Ansar: Shooting at the Bases of the Nusayri Army and the Rafidites with 23mm Machinegun-Fire on the Handarat Front,” Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa al-Ansar, December 15, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dd3FkvUFeBk&feature=youtu.be.

[5] “Harakat Hazm: Targeting of Regime Forces in the Surrounding of Handarat Camp with Hellfire Cannon Rounds,” Harakat Hazm, January 4, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EIZhYinTufg&feature=youtu.be.

[6] Considerable suspicion still exists about the YPG nonetheless. The brother of Northern Storm’s spokesman, for example, claimed that the YPG is aiding the pro-regime Shi’a villages of Nubl and Zahara in the face of rebel assaults. Conversation on December 19, 2014.

[7] Named after the Muslim conqueror of Egypt. The brigade’s announcement emerged in a video dated August 27, 2012. See “Aleppo: Azaz: Announcement of the Formation of Liwa Amru ibn al-Aas: 27-8-2012,” Abu Muhammad al-Azazi, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xo6Shs4JHSY.

[8] Interviews with the author conducted on December 19, 2014. According to current Northern Storm Leader Mahmoud Nadum, Jaysh Muhammad’s foreign contingent has featured a variety of nationalities, including Chechnya, Egypt, Uzbekistan, and Iraq.

[9] Thus in an interview with al-Jazeera Arabic dated June 24, 2013, Ahmad Obayd identifies himself as “leader of Jaysh Muhammad that includes Liwa Amru ibn al-Aas,”http://www.aljazeera.net/programs/revolutionrhetoric/2013/6/24/%D9%85%D8%A4%D8%AA%D9%85%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AF%D9%88%D8%AD%D8%A9-%D9%84%D8%A3%D8%B5%D8%AF%D9%82%D8%A7%D8%A1-%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%8C-%D9%85%D9%84%D9%8A%D9%88%D9%86%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%A5%D8%AE%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%85%D8%B5%D8%B1. Further, 2013 video releases from Jaysh Muhammad feature a logo with both “Jaysh Muhammad” and “Liwa Amru ibn al-Aas” inscribed on it. Thus, “Liwa Amru ibn al-Aas: Announcement of the Formation of the Ahmad ibn Hanbal Battalion: Lion of the Sunna,” Military Council, September 13, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6mplZAG6dGc. See also this statement signed by him as amir of Jaysh Muhammad denying rumors that he had pledged allegiance to ISIS, http://justpaste.it/ahmadobeidisisdenial. Source: Shari’a Office for Liwa Amru ibn al-Aas, February 17, 2014, https://www.facebook.com/jaesh.muhamad/photos/a.358863380916673.1073741828.355545847915093/415905498545794/?type=1&theater.

[10] Over the course of 2013, Abu Obayda al-Masri began engaging in some other ventures, such as participating with a contingent of his from Jaysh Muhammad in Abu Omar al-Shishani’s Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa al-Ansar “merger” in the spring of 2013 (“Visual Release: Liwa 80,” Abu Obayda al-Muhajir the Victorious Sect, April 12, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nFSDhTIszfg). However, he did not remain within Shishani’s fold as Shishani came under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s authority in May 2013, whereas Abu Obayda al-Masri has never pledged allegiance to Baghdadi. Over the summer of 2013, Abu Obayda al-Masri pushed the use of his own personal seal for Jaysh Muhammad, participating in the siege of Mannagh airbase (separate organizationally from Shishani’s Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa al-Ansar/ISIS) and issuing a video of “Caravans of Martyrs” for Jaysh Muhammad under his seal (August 12, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=penFu-FQYcs). By October 2013, he was also ostensibly commanding his own “Saryat al-Maslul” and issuing notices with his own distinct Jaysh Muhammad seal tied to his persona. See e.g. his group’s notification for a da’wa meeting in Haritan (Aleppo province) to be held on 7 and 8 Dhu Hijjah 1434 AH, corresponding to October 13 and 14, 2013,http://justpaste.it/jayshmodawahmeeting. Source: Facebook page for “Saryat al-Maslul in Jaysh Muhammad,” October 5, 2013,https://www.facebook.com/465854753528062/photos/ms.c.eJw9zssNwDAIA9CNKghf779YK1xyfLKD4xkdBbU4VZ6Pj7tprDM7Vdp~;Q8e1OYIOuoV54nruWa6dtt9fdfqyeYnCDXXN~;PYx77XX~;K~;u3uGe7t7hvaoXGv8xLA~-~-.bps.a.465857843527753.1073741826.465854753528062/465857916861079/?type=1&theater. The page itself was created on that date.

[11] A local businessman by profession.

[12] Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “The Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham Expands into Rural Northern Syria,” Syria Comment, July 18, 2013, http://www.aymennjawad.org/13562/rural-northern-syria.

[13] Conversation with Samir Amouri on December 19, 2014. Even now, locals and Northern Storm fighters say that “dozens” of people from Azaz remain within IS’ ranks.

[14] Josh Rogin, “Obama Administration and Sotloff Family Battle over Blame for Journalist’s Kidnapping,” The Daily Beast, September 22, 2014, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/09/22/obama-administration-and-sotloff-family-battle-over-blame-for-journalist-s-kidnapping.html.

[15] These events have already been documented in some detail by this author: Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “Analyzing Events in Azaz: A Detailed Look at ISIS’ Takeover,” October 10, 2013, http://www.aymennjawad.org/13884/analyzing-events-in-azaz.

[16] Conversation on December 19, 2014.

[17] Interestingly, Amouri claims to have had a rapport with Abd al-Rahman al-Kuwaiti prior to the infighting between ISIS and Northern Storm, recounting that the man would often come join him for prayers at the Bab al-Salama border crossing (over which Amouri had influence) before heading out to battle. Conversation on December 19, 2014.

[19] “He Has Not Exceeded 16 Years of Age: Abu al-Qaa’qaa’ al-Saghir: Security Amir of Azaz by Order of the Islamic State!” Aksalser, November 17, 2013, http://www.aksalser.com/?page=view_articles&id=fdad8d2f90449a05e0b97941fe244bda&ar=396591530. Corroborated by conversations with Northern Storm fighters and spokesman. They further assert that Hallaq left with ISIS after ISIS withdrew from Azaz, and now has no special position within the group.

[20] Conversations with Northern Storm fighters on December 20, 2014. Chris Looney (“The Northern Storm Brigade: Its History, Current Status and Why It Matters,” Syria Comment, March 18, 2014, http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/northern-storm-brigade-history-current-status-matters-chris-looney/) states that Abu Suhaib al-Iraqi had joined up with Ahmad Obayd and helped bring more men to Syria. This was not referenced by anyone interviewed during this author’s trip to Azaz, but it could well have been Abu Suhaib’s role prior to the arrival of ISIS. It will be noted that the overall account presented in this paper differs in some respects from Looney’s, particularly as regards Ahmad Obayd and Jaysh Muhammad. Looney’s article most notably makes no mention of Abu Obayda al-Masri.

[21] Conversation in the Azaz market on December 20, 2014

[22] Conversation in Azaz, December 19, 2014.

[23] E.g. Erika Solomon, “The Isis Economy: Meet the New Boss,” The Financial Times, January 5, 2015, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/b2c6b5ca-9427-11e4-82c7-00144feabdc0.html?siteedition=intl#axzz3O2jNml1Q.

[24] E.g. Conversation with falafel restaurant worker on December 19, 2014. In contrast, smoking is now punished in IS-controlled Raqqa by flogging–a regulation that appears to have been put in place once what was then ISIS had consolidated its hold on Raqqa and the surrounding area by February 2014. See e.g. Rami al-Ali, “Da’ish Applies Its Laws in ‘Its Province’ in Syria,” al-Hayat, February 6, 2014, http://alhayat.com/Details/600553.

[25] Conversation on December 21, 2014.

[26] E.g. “Azaz- 3-1-2013: Da’ish Flogs Three Youths on Accusation of Disbelief: 100 Lashes,” Azaz Media Center, January 3, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vKRCJr3NKZI.

[27] Conversation with Mahmoud Nadum, December 18, 2014.

[28] “Killed and Wounded During Clashes Between ‘Northern Storm’ and Liwa al-Tawhid in the Vicinity of the Bab al-Salama Border Crossing,” Aksalser, April 5, 2014, http://www.aksalser.com/index.php?page=view_articles&id=f670d00c12fb63049e48e59d1b656941.

[29] Graffiti bearing IS’ banner and Caliphate slogans can still be found in Sawran. Hizb-ut-Tahrir also once had a presence in Sawran as evinced by the presence of its graffiti, but that presence is no longer in evidence today.

[30] Conversation with ex-Jaysh Muhammad members on December 19, 2014. These former members affirmed they left the group following the split between Ahmad Obayd and Abu Obayda al-Masri.

[31] Whereas Ahmad Obayd had formally joined Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Obayda apparently sought to bolster his position in Azaz by pledging a bay’ah qitalia (“military allegiance”) to Jabhat al-Nusra but quickly fell out, as he claimed that Jabhat al-Nusra did not give him sufficient support in his efforts to seek stricter implementation of Shari’a. A mere bay’ah qitalia is to be distinguished from a “bay’ah on the neck,” which Jaysh Muhammad rightly noted it did not have to Jabhat al-Nusra in the first place. See Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “The History of Jaysh Muhammad in the Azaz Area: Updated Note,” January 9, 2015, http://www.aymennjawad.org/2015/01/the-history-of-jaysh-muhammad-in-the-azaz-area, and “Muhajireen Battalions in Syria: Part IV,” Syria Comment, August 19, 2014 http://www.aymennjawad.org/15207/muhajireen-battalions-in-syria-part-iv.

[32] Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “Extremist Groups in Syria,” Middle East Institute, September 8, 2014, http://www.aymennjawad.org/15320/extremist-groups-in-syria.

[33] Conversations at Azaz Media Center, December 21, 2014.

[34] Again, a divergence with Looney’s account.

[35] Conversation on December 19, 2014.

[36] Conversation with Suhaib, a 22-year old Northern Storm fighter from Azaz who claims Kurdish origin, December 20, 2014.

[37] Interview with Adib, an administration official in Azaz’s Shari’a Committee, December 20, 2014. Prior to his current role, he had been working in an unspecified role within the legal system under the Assad regime.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Interview with Azaz prison director (a member of the Islamic Front) on December 21, 2014.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Interview with Civil Council media office director, December 20, 2014. All information that follows on the council comes from this conversation as well.

[44] E.g. “Committee for the Service of Muslims Begins the Extension of the Electricity Network to the Villages of the Eastern Countryside,” ISIS Raqqa province, June 22, 2014, https://twitter.com/ajaltamimi/status/480746587724197888.

[45] E.g. IS’ “Department of Health” opening a medical college in Raqqa province, January 4, 2015, https://twitter.com/abo0khaled79/status/551724204437954561.

[46] E.g., Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “The Islamic State’s Educational Regulations in Raqqa Province,” August 28, 2014, http://www.aymennjawad.org/2014/08/the-islamic-state-educational-regulations-in.

[47] “From a Friday sermon today in Azaz: 26/12/2014,” Azaz, March 18, December 26, 2014, https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=574361126040892&id=470343379776001.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Conversations with fighters on Sawran front, December 19, 2014.

[50] Conversation with Abd al-Qadir Abu Yusuf, Northern Storm’s spokesman, January 26, 2015.

[51] Conversation in Azaz market on December 20, 2014.

[52] Conversation with Mahmoud Nadum, December 18, 2014.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Conversation on December 20, 2014.

[55] “Statement of formation of the Levant Front,” Ahmad al-Halapy, December 25, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9LXKK77JF74.

[56] The evidence as of writing remains ambiguous. Thus in a post written on January 25, 2015, and entitled, “Northern Storm Brigade Offers Its Leaders As Martyrs,” Abd al-Qadir Abu Yusuf features the logos of the Levant Front, the Islamic Front, and Northern Storm (http://justpaste.it/j2qo). Further, videos bearing the logo of the Islamic Front for Aleppo province are still released: e.g., “Islamic Front: Aleppo: Continuation of Targeting of Shaykh Yusuf Hill with a Downpour of Katyusha Rockets,” Islamic Front, Aleppo, January 26, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C0yziQVLR0g&feature=youtu.be. Note that the Bab al-Salama border crossing, which has featured Islamic Front insignia, issued a statement on January 23, 2015, bearing solely the Levant Front stamp under its director Mustafa Najjar, who, as @SCM_Syria notes, is the brother of Madar Najjar, a Liwa al-Tawhid commander (https://twitter.com/ajaltamimi/status/558756282492919808). Finally, in an interview with Abu Yazan al-Halabi (January 20, 2015), spokesman for “Ahfad al-Hamza for Special Operations”–an independent Aleppo-city-based rebel group claiming close relations with Jaysh al-Mujahidin–it was affirmed that the particular brands of Islamic Front and Levant Front were being used interchangeably.

[57] Conversation with Abd al-Qadir Abu Yusuf, January 10, 2015.

[58] Maxwell Martin, “Al-Qaeda’s Syrian Judiciary: Is It Really What al-Jolani Makes It Out to Be?” Syria Comment, November 9, 2014, http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/al-qaedas-syrian-judiciary-really-al-jolani-makes/.

[59] Prices courtesy of Abd al-Qadir Abu Yusuf, Northern Storm’s spokesman. Note that the average salary of an unmarried Northern Storm fighter is around $70 per month. With a wife and children, the provision should go up to at least $90 per month. Iraqi petrol is cheaper because of its inferior quality.