Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Syria Update: June 25 - July 2, 2014

by Isabel Nassief and Jennifer Cafarella

Things to watch:

ISIS has seized the border town of Abu Kamal, following clashes with JN and other rebel groups. ISIS already controls the adjacent town of al-Qaim on the Iraqi side of the border. The Syrian regime has continued to conduct airstrikes against ISIS positions, particularly in eastern Syria. In the eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, clashes have also escalated between ISIS and opposition forces. 

The fight for Abu Kamal

Following the defection of a local brigade affiliated to Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) to ISIS in the border town of Abu Kamal on June 25, JN sent reinforcements to bolster remaining rebel forces and prevent the town from falling to ISIS. In cooperation with rebel groups, the JN reinforcements set up roadblocks, demanded that ISIS hand over its weapons and leave the city, and imposed a curfew on the city’s residents. Clashes between rebels and ISIS escalated on June 28, with an SVEST targeting an ISIS headquarters in the city, killing 3 and wounding 18. A subsequent regime airstrike on the city targeted a building that had been taken by JN and rebel fighters during the fighting. Contrary to reports circulating in western media, the JN-led Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC) in Deir ez-Zour Province denied that ISIS is in control of the city on June 29. ISIS is reported to have sent reinforcements from the T2 oil station and from al-Qa’im on the Iraqi side of the border. With these new forces ISIS was able to seize control of a neighborhood at the northeast entrance to the town.

As of July 2, ISIS appears to be in control of most of Abu Kamal. In pictures posted to social media, ISIS Wilayat Homs claimed to have seized a number of military vehicles from defeated rebel forces in the town. ISIS forces within the city have begun to assert their control by making arrests and conducting raids on people’s homes, likely targeting activists within the city. However, it is likely that rebel forces will continue to challenge ISIS’s control of the city. The Authenticity and Development Front released a statement on July 2 calling on the SNC/SMC to end ongoing infighting and unite to protect Syria’s East, and warning of what will befall of the residents of the city if ISIS remains in control.

Elsewhere in the province, ISIS released a statement on June 26 in which it called for the repentance of rebels in the JN stronghold of al-Mayadin. However, some members of the MSC rejected any agreement with ISIS and deployed a large military convoy to reinforce al-Shahil, a town strategically located between the contested town of al-Basira and JN’s stronghold in al-Mayadin. No further evidence of defections within the province has emerged.

ISIS in eastern Damascus

Over the last few weeks ISIS has had a more visible presence in Damascus, particularly as a result of rising tensions between ISIS and opposition groups in Damascus. ISIS initiated its first announced operation in Damascus in September 2013 when a suicide car bomb detonated in the town of Nabek on the Homs-Damascus highway near Qalamoun. ISIS has traditionally had a limited presence in Damascus Province.

Some signs of increased ISIS activity in eastern Ghouta:

  • June 24: According to Jaysh al-Islam, two ISIS fighters with bombs strapped on their bodies were caught giving out pro-ISIS pamphlets in Souk al-Hal in the north-eastern suburb of Damascus. Civilians reportedly disarmed the fighters and handed them over Jaysh al-Islam.
  • June 24: A prominent ISIS leader and media activist in eastern Ghouta named Abdul Majid al-Otaibi was assassinated by unknown gunmen from a moving car. The assassination was later claimed by Jaysh al-Islam on its Twitter account, in which it also pledged to target and kill all leaders of ISIS.
  • June 25: In an attempt to arbitrate these disputes, 17 rebel groups, including the Islamic Front, signed an agreement establishing the Judicial Council in eastern Ghouta.
  • June 27: The Judicial Council issued a statement announcing the Council’s refusal to recognize ISIS as a state and demanding that ISIS “issue a statement of dissolution of the state.” ISIS responded with a statement saying that the dissolution of the state is “impossible.”
  • June 27-30: Clashes occurred between Jaysh al-Islam and ISIS near the Hammoreyya and Medaa neighborhoods in eastern Ghouta as Jaysh al-Islam and other opposition groups continue to fight regime forces near Mleiha. On June 30, ISIS reportedly captured 25 Jaysh al-Islam fighters in eastern Ghouta and executed an “undisclosed number of those captured,” including Bassam al-Rayes, a well-known media photographer in the area.
  • July 1: Jaysh al-Islam reportedly expelled ISIS from the neighborhood of Medaa in eastern Ghouta. According to some conflicting reports, ISIS withdrew from the area.

Rebel response to ISIS “Islamic Caliphate” announcement

On June 29, 2014, ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani declared an “Islamic Caliphate” in a bid for leadership of the global jihadist movement. This announcement can be seen as a “political offensive” to match its military presence which currently spans from Aleppo to Diyala. A couple of responses from rebel groups in Syria have surfaced as of July 1:

  • The Islamic Front Sharia Council and other provincial Sharia councils released a statement saying:
·         That they rejected the caliphate announcement and that conditions are not right at this moment for an Islamic state.
·         That ISIS declaration of the state is not for the good of the Muslim community [Ummah].
·         The creation of the Islamic state merged battlefronts that should remain independent.
·      Muslims and Islamic groups need to continue their struggle for the nation and to protect it from imposters.

  • Sheikh Abu Abdullah al-Shami, a member of the JN Shura Council released a response:
·        According to al-Sham the Qur’an portrays a collaborative Islamic community and implored ISIS not to drive a wedge between foreign fighters [muhajireen] and local Syrian fighters (ansaar), indicating that JN sees the ISIS statement as divisive for the global jihadist movement.
·       The statement also said that portraying ISIS’s and JN’s mission as separate and distinct from other rebel groups in Syria is “greatly mistaken.”
·   Al-Shami praises the military performance of JN in Syria in comparison to the ISIS limited operations against the regime in Syria which he described as “an attack or two here and there.”