In a post for Jihadology a few weeks back, I identified how the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) was playing an important role in the fighting on the outskirts of the city of Aleppo and in the surrounding countryside. Since that time, it has become apparent that the group has been seeking to expand outwards and to consolidate control over outlying towns in both the Aleppo and Idlib regions, particularly those of strategic importance along or near the border with Turkey.
This initiative has already served to foster division. For example, in the town of Azaz, which is in close proximity to the Turkish border, a protest ocurred on July 1 against ISIS' entry into the town and its attempt to establish headquarters there. Yet on July 5, Azaz saw a counter-rally in favor of ISIS featuring a slogan common for such demonstrations—'Labbayka ya Allah' ('I am at your service, God')—accompanied by conspicuous numbers of ISIS flags.
It should be noted that this pattern of division—between those members of Syrian society who support ISIS vs. those who do not—is also observed in the city of Aleppo itself, where ISIS supporters have generally held separate rallies from those of other demonstrators. (I have found one notable exception: a rally on June 4 for the then-besieged city of Qusayr in the area of al-Firdus, featuring both ISIS and Free Syrian Army [FSA] flags).
Resentment over the ISIS presence in Azaz grows. One notable outlet for this disapproving sentiment is a youth activist Facebook page called 'The Youth of Aleppo—Azaz' which posted the following status: 'We ask the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham to establish their state from Iraq [meaning 'in Iraq'?] since the system of prostitution [there] has not yet fallen.'
The group has also circulated an alleged statement from a local council in the town of Tel Abyaḍ in Raqqah Governorate claiming that the ISIS has confiscated internationally-donated generators intended to provide drinking water for the residents of the town.
On the other hand, ISIS is attempting some outreach to the locals of Azaz, offering Qur'an and Sunnah recitation competitions—among other religious activities—for the population during Ramaḍān.
As for other towns, here is a photo of the ISIS headquarters in the northern border town of Jarabulus. The banner reads: 'The Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham: Province of Aleppo. Emirate of Jarabulus.'
Another photo shows the flag of ISIS flying over Jarabulus:
One activist page on Facebook called 'Jabhat al-Nusra does not represent me' claims the following to give context to the first photo: 'Photo from Jarabulus following the seizure of it by al-Qa'ida after battles with the FSA. It is said that ISIS then killed scores of civilians, among them children, during al-Qa'ida's attempt to occupy the town.'
In a similar vein, on June 15, the Arabic news outlet al-Waie News claimed to cite a local source in Jarabulus on clashes between ISIS and a rebel battalion known as the 'Family of Jādir,' which uses the FSA flag.
The source claimed that the clashes started after a member of ISIS was wounded during a round of celebratory gunfire that followed a concord reached between the two groups, giving rise to a renewed violent battle between ISIS and the Family of Jādir for fifteen hours, resulting in ISIS' seizure of the town, as well as the killing of one ISIS fighter and several from the Family of Jādir.
On 13 June, the leader of the Family of Jādir—Yusuf al-Jādir—released video testimony in which he claimed that ISIS launched an attack on the home of Ahmad al-Jādir and then began shooting at dozens of innocent civilians, resulting in the deaths of several children: among them, Mahmoud Kerkaz, Sheikho Shawish, Ibrahim al-Ahmad, and a young Kurdish girl. He continues by documenting other alleged acts of ISIS aggression in the town.
It thus appears that ISIS seized control of Jarabulus by force. One thing that is important to note from the opposing testimony is the issue of naming. The source for al-Waie News from Jarabulus merely sees ISIS as a new name for Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) in the town, and Yusuf al-Jādir likewise deems the two names interchangeable.
Thus, even if my formulation for the city of Aleppo itself—that ISIS and JN are two separate entities—applies here, the perception of at least some residents of the town nevertheless differs. As in Raqqah, the two may well be interchangeable in Jarabulus.
The concept of interchangeability could make sense here in light of the fact that JN has had an active presence in the northern Turkish border areas in the past (cf. clashes with Farouq Battalions in April on the border in Raqqah Governorate). Certainly, Jarabulus has been known for a JN presence in the past: here is a video of a JN-led rally in Jarabulus from December 14, 2012, featuring the chant of 'We are Anṣar Allah.'
In this context, one should also note a revealing report from the Damascus Bureau, which actually visited Jarabulus. The reporter, Youssef Shaikho, explains that Jabhat al-Nusra in Jarabulus supported the announcement of ISIS, and most of its fighters in the town are native Syrians, providing a notable exception to the media narrative of ISIS as a group solely composed of foreign fighters.
Further blurring the lines of group-alignment and public sentiment, not all those who, like al-Jādir, use the FSA flag in Jarabulus are necessarily opposed to ISIS' ideological vision. For example, here is a Facebook activist page from Jarabulus that uses the FSA flag. Yet it has put up a status that laments the loss of the Khilafa (Caliphate) and denounces the UN and its decision-making as a mere front for occupation.
In any event, ISIS is now said to be operating an active Shari'a court in Jarabulus, which has allegedly executed three young men recently on charges of rape and murder. ISIS is also accused of detaining the son of a prominent martyr from the Family of Jādir known as Abu Furāt.
In terms of the reasons behind the Jādir-ISIS clashes, one should be cautious about presenting them as a simple ideological battle. It rather seems to have been a power struggle for control of an important border area. The Kurdish PYD, as the Damascus Bureau notes, also has a small activist presence in Jarabulus, yet it has been left untouched and tolerated by ISIS.
At the same time, ISIS is trying to counter the allegations put out about its conduct in Jarabulus by emphasizing local support in the town for the group, including children.
Another town in rural Aleppo where ISIS is establishing its presence is al-Bab. On July 5, the outlet Saḍa ash-Sham al-Islami put up a set of photos of a meeting for Dawah held by the ISIS in al-Bab. [Da'wa means "invitation" and often refers to proselytism—the inviting of others to join Islam. In this case, it refers to outreach to Muslims to strengthen their faith.]
In contrast to what appears to have been a more aggressive approach in Jarabulus, ISIS seems to be engaging in an active outreach effort to the population of al-Bab. Thus, the local outlet al-Bab Press reported that ISIS is running school bus services for children who have seen their education disrupted for many months by Assad regime bomb attacks. A local FB page in al-Bab also gave an account last month from an ISIS fighter of clashes between ISIS and Assad regime soldiers aided by Hezbollah fighters in the wider Aleppo area.
The town of Manbij offers a case contrasting with that of al-Bab. Recently, Manbij has seen a protest rally against ISIS. The demonstration was sparked by two grievances against ISIS: first, ISIS is accused by some local activists of destroying works of art in Manbij, and second, of kidnapping a local sheikh. Protests continued into Friday of last week, on which day ISIS had been holding a daw'ah meeting in Manbij featuring a number of locals in support of the group, as per the photo below.
Prior to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's announcement of the formation of ISIS in early April, Manbij had been known for an active JN presence in alliance with Ahrar ash-Sham, who together took on the Farouq Battalions in violent clashes in the town at the beginning of the month, resulting in the expulsion of the Farouq Battalions from Manbij.
The clashes began after Ahrar ash-Sham had arrested a certain Abu Khaldun, a friend of the leader of the Farouq Battalions in Manbij. Ahrar ash-Sham and its allies justified the arrest on the grounds that this man had been one of the leading criminal figures in Manbij and had to be put on trial by the Shari'a committee in Aleppo, while emphasizing that there was no fundamental conflict between them and those under the banner of the FSA.
Following the defeat of the Farouq Battalions, Ahrar ash-Sham held a victory rally in Manbij on 6 April with dozens of supporters and allies, featuring the al-Qa'ida flag and a banner reading 'The Ummah wants an Islamic Khilafa.' The person who uploaded the video described it as being held in celebration of the expulsion of 'gangs of thieves'- a common charge leveled against the Farouq Battalions in the north, which unlike the Ikhwaan-aligned Homs division lack ties to any major Islamist groups.
On a side note, the rally itself should illustrate that those who posit a strict dichotomy between supposedly 'nationalist' Salafists in Ahrar ash-Sham as opposed to transnational jihadists are mistaken. This rally in Manbij and Ahrar ash-Sham's statement on JN's pledge of allegiance to al-Qa'ida show that concepts of the transnational ummah that supersedes "artificial borders" and the nation-state of Syria are often blurred in Ahrar ash-Sham's ideological thought.
Of course, one also must not generalize in the opposite direction and portray all of Ahrar ash-Sham as bent on an international Khilafa. Yet whenever non-Islamists protest against groups like ISIS, as a rule Ahrar ash-Sham can be expected to side with the latter (cf. the case of Raqqah which I documented last month).
In the context of Manbij, therefore, one should not be surprised about a blurring of distinction between Ahrar ash-Sham's support base and what is now known as the ISIS presence. Indeed, it is also apparent that there is another virtual mirror front of ISIS active in Manbij: namely, Ansar al-Khilafa, which is composed of a mix of native Syrians and foreign fighters, though exact proportions are unclear.
Ansar al-Khilafa is most prominent in rural Aleppo and Latakia. In the April rally led by Ahrar ash-Sham, it is likely that there were Ansar al-Khilafa supporters among the crowd. Here is a recent mural put up in Manbij in support of the group:
The final case we come to on the subject of ISIS' expansion is that of ad-Dana in Idlib, near the border with Turkey. Here, a protest rally is said to have taken place against ISIS (though no video footage of it has emerged so far), sparking violent clashes. Yet it is the only case where we have a mainstream media outlet allowing ISIS to give its full side of the story thanks to an al-Jazeera English report (H/T: @khalidelmousoui) from the town. In the report, ISIS fighters claimed that those denouncing their presence were actually agents of the Assad regime.
However, it appears that this testimony is contradicted in an account given by pro-ISIS activists in Idlib, who denounced the clashes as 'the work of some of the apostates of the Free Army.' Meanwhile, a pro-ISIS Twitter user complained at the time of the clashes that the 'malicious Free Army' was besieging ISIS and expressed concerns about the beginnings of a 'Sahwa' movement against ISIS.
As of now, the al-Jazeera report says that ISIS is the only remaining armed group in the town. This is corroborated by local Idlib activist testimony that there are now no armed clashes in the town and reconciliation initiatives are underway. At the same time, claims that ISIS executed dozens of supporters of those identifying under the banner of the FSA—stemming chiefly from an ad-Dana rebel leader's testimony were denied.
That said, both the rebel leader whose testimony is given by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the al-Jazeera report corroborate each other on the ISIS fighters as being from outside Syria.
Now in control of the town, ISIS is running a school for the children, and the ISIS presence as reported by al-Jazeera is corroborated by a video that has now emerged of ISIS fighters manning the entrance into ad-Dana.
In short, these various cases illustrate ISIS' growing power in the north of Syria. ISIS is clearly not a force to be dismissed as marginal without any real support on the ground, even as its presence is undoubtedly sparking backlash in many areas. Above all, these recent developments as regards ISIS' expansion vindicate to an extent my prediction in March in a guest post for Syria Comment about the emergence and establishment of jihadist strongholds in the north and east of Syria.
In terms of the future, one needs to be skeptical of the narrative being put out by Supreme Military Command (SMC) supporters of a looming, grand-scale FSA effort to take on ISIS in the north of Syria in a fundamental clash of ideologies. Resentment at the ideological level is more to be expected from civilian protestors rather than armed rebels.
One should particularly note my distinction here between SMC supporters and those in general who go by the banner of the FSA. While SMC supporters would like to portray all of those under the banner of FSA as opposed to ISIS, the evidence speaks otherwise, exemplified in this recent statement by an FSA military council in Aleppo denying rumors of clashes between their 'brothers' in ISIS and JN.
SMC supporters are likely the source of at least some of the allegations against ISIS, including the recent claim that ISIS is planning to declare a wider northern state after Ramaḍān: plausible in light of ISIS' expansion in northern Syria but as of now uncorroborated in pro-ISIS circles.
Other rumors likely originating from pro-SMC sources include an alleged statement by JN distancing itself from ISIS (not released through JN's official channel al-Manārah al-Bayḍā, so therefore suspect) and claims that ISIS killed Abu Furāt of Jarabulus, when his funeral actually took place a few months before ISIS was announced.
In particular, the reports attempting to portray JN in open conflict with ISIS are building on a narrative stemming from a Reuters piece in which JN was portrayed as a group of native Syrians disillusioned with the machinations of the foreign fighters of ISIS, hinting at the possibility of JN teaming up with other rebels to take on ISIS.
The motivation for spreading rumors about ISIS is quite apparent: namely, the SMC's bid to secure Western arms, which will then be supposedly used to take on what Western nations like the UK perceive to be the number-one threat emanating from Syria.
In any case, the current PR war between SMC supporters and ISIS supporters will continue. Feeling the pressure, the latter have recently announced the formation of a new forum intended to counter purported media disinformation about the group. Thus can the exchange of claims and counter-claims be expected to intensify. Ascertaining the full truth short of getting on the ground will remain elusive.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University.