On November 14, 2013, Abd al-Kader al-Saleh, commander of the powerful Tawhid Brigades, died. He was injured in an earlier airstrike that killed several of his group’s top leaders. In a matter of days, al-Tawhid Brigades—one of the armed wings of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria—descended into chaos. Its surviving leaders claimed that the Syrian army could not have carried out the deadly strike without inside help. They promised to avenge their leaders and purge the rebels of anti-revolution elements. At that moment, the seed of dissent among Islamist groups sprouted.
A week later, more rebels, previously affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), formed new alliances. A month later, two new entities were formally announced: al-Jabhah al-Islamiyyah (Islamic Front) and Jaysh al-Islam (the Army of Islam). Before the end of December, a third coalition, Jabhat al-Thuwwar (the Rebels’ Front), was born. The other two dominant groups in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusrah (Nusra) and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS; Da`ish), remained intact and separate. By this time, the FSA was in free fall.
The new rebel formations are a recast of old players in new roles dictated by political and diplomatic developments involving regional and global powers. The Islamic Front, for instance, was an alliance that brought together ideologically disparate groups: Ahrar al-Shaam (Jihadi Salafi inclination), Suqur al-Shaam and Liwa’ al-Tawhid (Muslim Brotherhood), Jaysh al-Islam (Salafi and former Muslim Brotherhood members with Saudi connections), and Liwa’ al-Haqq, to name a few.
Similarly, Jabhat al-Thuwwar consisted of former FSA fighters, secular groups, and local rebels groups, aimed to provide a counter-weight to Islamists.
Without doubt, the reshuffle among rebel groups was triggered in part by the prospect of the January 22 international meeting known as Geneva-2 proposed by the U.S. and Russia and sponsored by the UN. The meeting is intended to bring together representatives of the Syrian government and opposition as well as top diplomats from about thirty countries to develop a road map that could lead to a political solution to the bloody conflict in Syria. The majority of the powerful armed groups inside Syria refuse to authorize politicians from the Syrian opposition, the Syrian National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (the Syrian Coalition; Etilaf) and the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change (NCB), to represent them or even participate. In fact, leaders from Nusra and ISIS have declared anyone participating in Geneva-2 “a legitimate target.” This context explains the mass resignation from the Syrian Coalition and the failure of the remaining members to make any decision about attendance and composition of the negotiating team.
On January 3, the Islamic Front and several other rebel groups launched armed strikes against ISIS. As of this writing, according to even pro-rebel Arab media, about 340 rebels have been killed and the inter-rebel clashes have spread to central and southern Syria. The Syrian Coalition has declared its support for the Islamic Front, accusing ISIS of carrying out an agenda that serves the regime. Al-Nusra, the official representative of al-Qaeda in Syria, proposed a truce among the rebels and blamed ISIS for creating an untimely distraction from the fight against the “Shi`i and Nusayri infidels.”
ISIS spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani accused FSA and other Islamist fighters of conspiracy and collaboration with foreign intelligence. He specifically accused ISIS’s opponents of being “tools in the hands of the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Qatar to prevent the creation of the Islamic state in Syria.” He threatened to track and kill all those who oppose ISIS, calling such persons “apostates and infidels.” A day earlier, al-Nusra’s Abu Muhammad al-Joulani had accused ISIS of murder, kidnapping, and theft. In the days to come, more infighting will take place and each of the rebel groups will release images and videos depicting the brutality of their opponents, validating earlier findings of war crimes and human rights abuses.
This turn of events is a preview of what could happen on a larger scale should the Syrian military and government collapse before strong substitute institutions are in place. Rebel groups may be fighting one another, but they remain united in promoting a vision of exclusion and a path to power by cruel force. The infighting among Syrian rebels substantiates the absurdity of the idea that military interventions and armed rebellions can produce stable, representative governments. Once violence is legitimized as a tool for political change, the rule of law and civil discourse are the first, but not last, victims.
It has been only seven days since the start of the infighting among Syria’s rebels, but the number of reports of summary executions, murder, and abuse of civilians at the hands of rebel fighters is troublingly high. One can only expect more images of horror and brutality in the next few days and weeks. The use of religion to justify killing people who belong to the rebels’ own sect (in this case Sunnis) proves their unlimited willingness to make war on others and, fundamentally, the moral failing of sectarian actors. This infighting justifies the fear people belonging to other sects, religions, and ethnicities experience when faced with an entity that sees a religious imperative to eliminate another. It has become evident that many of the rebels are not fighting the Syrian regime because it is authoritarian and undemocratic, but because it is religiously different. A war on difference is a war on diversity, and a war on diversity is genocidal.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.