BEIRUT: Perhaps it was only fitting that militants from the Islamic State for Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) decapitated “Freedom Statue” in the eastern town of Raqqa this week, in yet another provocative move that signifies how the Al-Qaeda group remains at odds with the mainstream uprising in Syria.
Over the last few months, ISIS has been busy clashing with mainstream Free Syrian Army rebel units and Kurdish military forces, while managing to harass or do worse to women, teachers, secularists, opposition media workers and the public at large, mainly in rebel-held areas in the north and northeast.
Al-Jazeera television broadcast Friday what it said was an audio tape from the leader of Al-Qaeda, Ayman Zawahri, in which he abolishes ISIS altogether and orders it to limit its activities to Iraq. In the tape, Zawahri tasks the other Al-Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front, with sole responsibility for Syria.
Some reports maintain that the orders date from May, which if true, would signal that ISIS has not obeyed the instructions.
Most observers and activists note that the ranks of ISIS are mainly filled by non-Syrians, in contrast to the Nusra Front. While the Nusra Front has been accused of working against fellow opposition groups, the criticism of ISIS is growing steadily stronger, particularly after a range of controversial acts in recent weeks and months.
In cities such as Aleppo and Raqqa, and Aleppo villages and towns such as Azaz, Hreitan, Hayan and Al-Bab, ISIS has demanded compliance with severe Islamic social and other codes; it has told women to dress conservatively and made moves such as banning card-playing and smoking.
Its militants also raided opposition media outlets in Aleppo and Raqqa and are accused of arresting or murdering civilian, often secular activists.
In Raqqa, ISIS militants vandalized a church, provoking angry reactions from supporters of the opposition.
As for its relations with rebels from the mainstream Free Syrian Army, ISIS launched a full-scale campaign against the FSA’s Northern Storm Brigade in northern Aleppo province, followed by another campaign, against the Badr Brigade in Aleppo city.
On the one hand, ISIS exploited the poor reputation of the FSA units, whose members are often accused of preying on civilian populations. But on the other, ISIS only exposed its lack of concern with the military struggle against the regime.
The performance of ISIS and the Nusra Front was harshly criticized by politicians and on social media when the strategic town of Safira, southeast of Aleppo, fell to regime forces in late October, as the struggle between ISIS and the Badr Brigade was raging nearby.
And after all of the effort by ISIS, Northern Storm Brigade announced this week it had reopened the Bab al-Salameh border crossing near Azaz, suggesting the group had survived the campaign against it.
ISIS and its Nusra partner have also suffered significant military setbacks in Kurdish areas on the border with Turkey, and in the small town of Yaaroubieh on the border with Iraq.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that in recent weeks, Kurdish militias have wrested control of a few dozen villages from the hard-line jihadists, in the Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad regions.
The Kurdish militias did a better job dealing with local populations, according to Massoud Akko, a Kurdish journalist who was obliged to leave Syria for security reasons
“ISIS is not in an enviable position,” he told The Daily Star. “In the past there was Turkish support for [the jihadists], but it seems that the Turks understood that they can’t continue with this support,” he said.
He said the loss of Yaaroubieh, a majority-Arab town, to Kurdish fighters, was particularly significant.
The Kurdish PYD militia told residents that “we are only a military force, so you should form your own local council” to run the town’s affairs, Akko said.
“Some of the [Arab] tribes fought alongside the PYD against ISIS in the recent battles,” he continued.
“No Syrian wants ISIS to control things ... ISIS has broken down in Kurdish areas” of the country’s north and northeast, Akko concluded.
Over recent weeks, the FSA leadership and leading Islamist rebel militias have usually joined together to try to block ISIS from expanding its influence on the ground, while the umbrella opposition-in-exile group, the National Coalition, has repeatedly and harshly criticized ISIS.
Last week, a YouTube video circulated showing a jihadist smashing a statue of the Virgin Mary in rural Idlib, which only further damaged support for the rebel cause.
In response to the incident, the Coalition said that the “similarity between the behavior of ISIS and that of the regime demonstrates the unmistakable shared terrorist mindset of the two.”
While some view ISIS as an unstoppable force bent on hijacking the Syrian uprising, the group currently dominates in selected areas, such as Raqqa and a handful of small towns in northern Aleppo. Even in Raqqa, though, it shares power with the Ahrar al-Sham Salafist network.
Some go farther than to say ISIS is merely working at cross-purposes with the Syrian uprising; they accuse of seeking to defeat the armed opposition, whether through tacit or open collaboration with the Assad regime.
Whatever the case, instead of ISIS benefiting from a steady level of growth, October saw it claim “victories” against un-Islamic behavior while in military terms, most of its achievements have come in partnership with other militias, and it has chalked up key military losses, such as Safira, and Kurdish areas.
A robust propaganda war, meanwhile, usually works to exaggerate the role of groups such as ISIS.
A recent report circulating in opposition media circles maintained that ISIS was on the verge of emerging in strength in the deep south of the country, in Deraa province on the border with Jordan.
Commenting on the status of the group was Sheikh Ahmad Sayasineh, the imam of Deraa’s Omari Mosque and a prominent voice in the mainstream opposition.
Sayasineh strongly condemned the extremist ideology and practice of ISIS and argued that Iran was behind funding the organization, which he said was “out to make people hate Islam.”
He said ISIS had no right to issue fatwas in a time of chaos, and that Islam rejected extremism.
“We have a cause, to topple a regime,” he said, while stressing that a firm distinction should be made between the takfiri-type jihadists and the broader Salafist movement.
“[ISIS] doesn’t have the foundation in Deraa; it doesn’t have a place there,” he said to the opposition Orient TV.
A seemingly opposite view was put forward by Lebanese columnist Abdel-Wahab Baderkhan, who claimed that it was the Kurdish militants, and not ISIS, for example, that were helping carry out the regime’s objective of defeating the mainstream armed opposition in the northeast.
On the ground, the seemingly most significant area to watch will be the Turkish border, to monitor whether any change in Ankara’s actions has repercussions for the fighting ability of ISIS militants.
The west, for the most part, appears to be maintaining its policy on supporting the mainstream Syrian rebels based on the frustrating notion, for the opposition, that “we want you to defeat the jihadists but we can’t give you heavy weapons because we’re afraid they’ll fall into the hands of the jihadists.”
According to activist media reports this week, the ISIS militants in Raqqa wanted to destroy the Freedom Statue, but were unable to do so. In the end, they settled for cutting off its head and placing their black flag over the structure, a sign of how ISIS’ ambitious goals aren’t always easy to translate on the ground.