International attention has justifiably focused on the recent Islamic State [IS] attacks in Brussels, but at the same time within Syria the most intense round of infighting among rebel factions in the southern province of Deraa has broken out. This fighting is said to be tied to the existence of IS cells and affiliates in Deraa, though IS itself has not said anything about the events on its official media channels, and to date there is no wilayat Deraa(‘Deraa province’) declared in the area. So who are the groups involved? And how far are they connected to IS if at all?
The most prominent aspect of the infighting is a continuation of the war in the southwest corner of the province between Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk (Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade- LSY) and Syrian al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, which is a leading player along with Ahrar al-Sham in a southern Jaysh al-Fatah coalition in imitation of the successful rebel alliance that expelled the Assad regime from Idlib province in spring 2015. The war itself traces back to clashes between Jabhat al-Nusra and LSY in December 2014 on the grounds that the latter had links with IS.
Though there was widespread skepticism of that notion at the time, it is apparent from LSY’s own media output, discourse and actions since the initial clashes that it has open affinity with IS. Even so, LSY continues to deny in its own statements that it has links with IS, and on this basis many reports still characterize LSY as just pro-IS and/or a ‘wannabe.’ However, it is most likely that the LSY denials are encouraged by IS for fear of jeopardizing the project of building links and influence in Deraa. The reality is that LSY’s connections began around the summer of 2014, after the MOC operations command in Amman suspended support for LSY and IS announced its Caliphate. These first links were established online and through visits to IS territory.
A key figure in these initial interactions was the LSY Shari’i official Abu Muhammad al-Masalama, a veteran of the Afghan jihad who returned to southern Syria and eventually joined LSY. He was assassinated in November 2014. If one understands his role in establishing the connections between LSY and IS, it becomes clearer why Step News Agency described him in an obituary as “an important leader among the supporters of the Dawla organization in Deraa.”
More recently- and relevant to the latest developments- LSY announced thesurprise appointment of a Saudi as its new amir: Abu Abdullah al-Madani. The move was unusual because the Deraa environment is much less welcoming than the north of Syria for muhajireen, partly because of local hostility but also because of the watchful eye of Jordanian intelligence and tight border controls. In keeping with the public denial of an IS connection, LSY framed the appointment of Madani as the owing of allegiance to him. However, he was actually sent by IS on account of the poor administrative skills of Abu Obeida Qahtan: a Palestinian-Syrian veteran of the Afghan jihad who was among the founders of LSY and succeeded the original leader al-Khal following his assassination in November 2015. The reshuffling of the leadership can perhaps be tied to plans for the new offensive LSY has launched, capturing the localities of Tasil and Sahm al-Jowlan from Jabhat al-Nusra and the rebels.
A group cooperating with LSY in the latest round of fighting is Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya (Islamic Muthanna Movement- HMI). Whereas LSY, despiteal-Khal’s radical background, was initially founded as an FSA-brand group, HMI was founded from the outset in 2012 as a Salafi jihadi group, headed by former Sednaya detainee Aamer Ayyub al-Masalama. That said, aware of local sensitivities and wishing to build popular support, HMI has always maintained a policy of rejecting muhajireen.
HMI is suspected by many of having links with IS- and for this reason has been on the radar of Israeli intelligence- but one does not see the open display of affinity that comes out in LSY. What may be considered as relevant evidence does not necessarily point one way or another. For example, a statement was issued by HMI in spring 2015 on the subject of IS: while HMI made clear it does not accept IS’ Caliphate declaration, the group praised IS for having fought “the states of kufr [disbelief] and their aides from the apostates,” and took a stance of neutrality on the fighting between IS and other factions, praying for an end to fitna. In addition, critics of HMI see IS affinities in its tactics of assassinations of rivals and running of secret prisons, which culminated in open clashes with a number of FSA Southern Front factions in January 2016, contributing to the fall of Sheikh Maskeen to the regime. HMI also rejects the authority of the Dar al-‘Adl, which is the main judicial authority among southern rebels, and has not participated with Jabhat al-Nusra and southern Jaysh al-Fatah in the war on LSY.
On the other hand, the group issued an internal directive in 2015 warning against recklesstakfiri behaviour and was actually one of the first to clash with LSY in summer 2014 as LSY began establishing links with IS. Also, there is a degree of localization as regards HMI’s involvement in the latest fighting. For example, there are no signs of clashes between HMI and other rebels in Deraa al-Balad, the southern half of the provincial capital. The local outlet Naba’ media told me that this is because “members of al-Muthanna in the city have announced that they are only obligated to fight the regime.” As for the rejection of the Dar al-‘Adl, under which HMI initially worked but withdrew about a year ago, it should also be noted that Jabhat al-Nusra similarly rejects the body for its use of the Unified Arab Code, which combines civil and Shari’a law as opposed to jihadist groups’ vision of rule solely by God’s law.
Analytically, it is perhaps most appropriate to see a HMI as similar to Jund al-Aqsa, whose leadership rejects the IS Caliphate but insists one can only fight IS in strict self-defence, while some of its members sympathise with IS and have even defected. That said, the analogy is not exact because Jund al-Aqsa has foreign members in its ranks. Like Jund al-Aqsa, HMI’s approach as regards to dealing with rivals and implementing Shari’a should be seen as more hardline than that of Jabhat al-Nusra. A pro-LSY source from the Yarmouk Valley in southwest Deraa described to me the stance of HMI on IS in this way: “The amirs of Harakat al-Muthanna are totally removed from the manhaj of the Dawla [Islamic State]. But there are some members who support the Dawla and adopt its manhaj…the problem is in the current amirs and Shari’i officials for Harakat al-Muthanna.” Abu al-Waleed al-Baridi, whose allegiance is to IS but has served as LSY’s deputy Hisba amir, said that the cooperation with HMI in the current fighting is a new thing, and that some Shari’i officials within HMI had previously defected to IS and went to Raqqa and al-Sham (i.e. IS’ formal territories in Wilayat Dimashq). From my own interactions with HMI members, it is clear to me they support a Caliphate project- not necessarily that of IS- but maintain an anti-fitna stance with regards to IS.
On this reading, one can perhaps interpret the cooperation with LSY, which has most notably involved blowing up bridges to prevent Jabhat al-Nusra and the rebels from reinforcing lines, as local opportunism. Indeed, some days before the latest clashes, an unofficial Telegram account in HMI’s name announced theestablishment of a Shari’i court in the western region of Deraa province. Could one perhaps see a fragmenting of HMI along regional lines within Deraa in the near future? The possibility should not be discounted. In this context, it seems possible that LSY will try to absorb the western Deraa HMI into its ranks, just as it absorbed the remnants of the Jaysh al-Jihad coalition in Quneitra that was destroyed by rebels last year on accusations of links with IS.
In fact, fragmentation is precisely what has happened to another group suspected of IS loyalties: Jama’at Bayt al-Maqdis al-Islamiya (The Islamic Bayt al-Maqdis Group- JBMI). Contrary to common image, JBMI is not a Palestinian group (an idea based on the Bayt al-Maqdis reference- ‘Holy House/Jerusalem’), but primarily draws on Syrians from Deraa and Quneitra with some muhajireen from Jordan, while its leadership base is in the Deraa locality of Jasim. Suspicions of IS links have primarily pointed to the group’s use of a flag similar to that of IS (the design is identical, except for JBMI’s name inscribed on the bottom). This line of evidence by itself is insufficient to demonstrate an IS link. That said, the group undoubtedly had at least some IS sympathisers in its ranks, one of the reasons for its recent fragmentation. Besides not coming to the aid of LSY or HMI in the latest fighting,around a month ago JBMI joined an operations room with a number of FSA factions, including Jaysh al-Yarmouk, Fallujah Hawran Division and Farqat Usud al-Sunna. According to a defector from JBMI who joined LSY, “When they formed the room we in Quneitra gave them a deadline of days to disavow this, but they rejected because of the Shari’i official Abu Omar al-Shami’s involvement in the leadership. So after that we decided to disavow the group.” Most of the defectors, according to this source, did not join LSY but have chosen instead to “sit in their homes,” and now only 60-70 members remain in JBMI.
Finally, it is worth highlighting that one of the first incidents in the latest round of fighting took place in the Deraa town of Inkhil. This involved the dismantling of an IS cell that was outwardly a group called Ansar al-Aqsa (Supporters of al-Aqsa). According to a source from the al-Furqan institute (an educational group) in Inkhil, the group was “an Islamic formation, the majority of whom had left Nusra and were saying that they were independent, but in the end it was established that they were connected with the [IS] organization.” The reason for leaving Jabhat al-Nusra in the first place was apparently because they rejected fighting LSY. In any case, the source added that the main factions in the town- the FSA Hamza Division and Mujahideen of Hawran Brigades- acted with assistance from Jabhat al-Nusra against the group and expelled it from the town. As for HMI, the source said it only has a small presence in Inkhil not exceeding 15 members. Pointing towards a worsening situation, a pro-IS post in which the media director for LSY was tagged on Facebook portrayed the Inkhil events as just the beginning for the rebel forces.
Looking forward, more rebel factions are now getting involved in the fight against the groups deemed to be IS cells within Deraa, but it is questionable how far they will be able to reverse LSY’s recent gains. Two things are likely though. First, there are likely to be further prominent casualties on both sides, with LSY, HMI andJabhat al-Nusra each having lost at least one major military commander in the latest fighting. Second, IS itself will only officially announce a presence in Deraa/Quneitra if LSY can succeed in establishing a contiguous territorial connection with IS, and in that regard these southern holdings will likely be integrated into Wilayat Dimashq. In short, it is evident that IS is opening a much more active southern front against the rebels as it has otherwise failed to gain decisive ground in Syria for a many months now.