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Did IS Refuse Truce With Syrian Islamist Factions?


A video grab from an amateur video shows Syrian rebels sitting on the ground before their public execution by IS militants.

A video grab from an amateur video shows Syrian rebels sitting on the ground before their public execution by IS militants.

Over the past 24 hours, a strange story has emerged regarding the Islamic State group's apparent refusal to agree to a temporary cease-fire with the major Syrian Islamist rebel factions with which it has been battling for months.

The cease-fire attempt involved a meeting in Raqqa between IS leaders -- likely Umar Shishani -- and the leader of Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, the major Chechen-led faction in Aleppo and the Caucasus Emirate's semiofficial Syrian affiliate. The facts of the incident and the way it was reported by both sides provides some interesting insights into IS's ideology and world view, particularly in the wake of U.S.-led air strikes against both it and two major Syrian Islamist factions, Al-Qaeda's Syria affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham.

Infighting between IS and Syrian rebel factions

The confrontation between IS (then Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham) and Syrian rebel factions broke out in early January.

Involved in the infighting are Jabhat al-Nusra, the Free Syrian Army, and the Islamic Front, a powerful coalition of Islamist rebels that includes Ahrar al-Sham.

Hassan Aboud, then the head of the Islamic Front's media bureau and the former leader of the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham faction (Aboud was killed in a suicide bombing in September), told Al-Jazeera in January that IS had brought the infighting on itself:

"ISIS [the previous name for IS] 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," Aboud told Al-Jazeera.

Since the fighting between IS and Syrian rebel groups began, there have been a number of unsuccessful attempts to reconcile the factions.

The story of this latest -- and similarly unsuccessful -- attempt first emerged on the Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar's official website, Akhbar Sham, late on November 12. The website announced that the leader of Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, a Chechen from the Pankisi Gorge known as Salakhuddin Shishani (real name Feyzullah Margoshvili), had paid a visit to IS's de facto capital, Raqqa. Salakhuddin had been on a mission, sent by the leaders of "the Islamic jamaats," or factions, to ask IS to agree to a truce.

The proffering of an olive branch to IS by Syrian Islamist factions appears to have been sparked by recent U.S. air strikes against Jabhat al-Nusra and the hard-line Islamist faction Ahrar al-Sham.

According to Akhbar Sham, the reason for Salakhuddin's mission to Raqqa was "to end the bloodshed between the Mujahideen [militants] in the face of aggression by the international kuffar ["infidels," the term used by IS and Islamist groups to refer to non-Muslims and in particular the United States and the West] against the Muslims."

Akhbar Sham provides a brief summary of the mission's failure:

"However, the conversation with the IS leadership turned out to be short. In response to the proposal of [Salakhuddin] to end the war with the Mujahideen of the Islamic jamaats, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and others, the leadership of IS announced that they would not end the war, because the 'Emirs [commanders] of all these factions are hypocrites and infidels.'"

Akhbar Sham gives no indication of whom exactly of the IS leadership Salakhuddin met in Raqqa, but there are two major clues that point to IS military commander Umar Shishani being involved.

The first clue is that Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar as-Sham chose a Chechen militant, Salakhuddin, as their emissary, instead of a Syrian faction. Salakhuddin, who like Umar Shishani is an ethnic Chechen from the Pankisi Gorge, fought alongside Umar in Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, when Umar led that group last year. It is reasonable to assume that Salakhuddin would be deemed best able to appeal to and reason with Umar.

The second clue that Salakhuddin met Umar Shishani in Raqqa is that Islamic State presented its rather detailed side of the story solely via a group of Chechen Islamic State militants who run the ShamToday media wing. The group has historically been linked to the Islamic State's Chechen Al Aqsa brigade, which is close to Umar Shishani.

Why are Islamist factions asking for a cease-fire now?

The U.S. air strikes against Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra in Aleppo provided a convenient reason -- the United States and its allies are now a shared enemy -- to ask IS for a truce. Beyond the symbolism of these events, there is another reason why the Syrian Islamist groups may have used this to approach IS now: The rebels are under a great deal of pressure in Aleppo from Syrian government and loyalist forces, who are threatening to cut off the rebels' supply line into Aleppo. A cease-fire with IS would allow the Islamist factions to concentrate their efforts on fighting Bashar al-Assad's forces, rather than being stretched by having to also contend with IS.

Islamic State's response: a window into its ideology

IS's response, as reported by ShamToday, to the proffered cease-fire provides some important insights into IS's ideology, or at least that of its Chechen element.

While the Islamist factions were asking IS to agree to a truce to unite their forces in the wake of a very real threat that the Syrian military could cut off rebel supply lines and besiege rebels inside Aleppo, the response of the ultra-extremist Sunni faction was to express opposition to the fact that the Islamist factions in Aleppo are fighting alongside the Western-backed Free Syrian Army.

"We the Islamic State are fighting: the infidels, the Taghuts [a term used by IS to refer to Muslim rulers who do not impose their version of Sharia law], the democratic factions [the term used by IS to refer to moderate rebel groups who are pro-democracy], and the apostates who joined the democratic factions, the polytheists, the hypocrites and all the others who want something or other instead of the law of Allah," the response, distributed via pro-IS social media accounts, said.

The response continued by emphasizing IS's problem with the relationship of the Islamist factions with moderate groups: "We will not make a cease fire with those who first of all united with obvious democrats and fought the Islamic State, and now you are clearly not expressing your position with regard to those democrats, you want to make a truce with cunning words!"

The only way for IS to accept a truce, according to the report by ShamToday, is if Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham pledge allegiance to IS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

That, of course, is hardly likely to happen.

While IS has fought Syrian government forces, its primary aim in doing so has been to gain valuable territory, resources, and weapons.

Ahrar al-Sham, which professes a strict Islamist ideology, has said that its goal is to overthrow Syrian President Assad. According to Syria analyst Aron Lund, Ahrar al-Sham has been "open to collaboration with rebels on all sides of the political spectrum" in order to achieve that goal.

In a recent interview with Lund, Ahrar al-Sham co-founder Mohammad Talal Bazerbashi said that while his faction considers the U.S.-led coalition against IS "a transgression against the will of the people and an attempt to impose an American vision on the Syrian people," the faction's main enemy remained "Bashar al-Assad and his criminal regime."

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

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