When it comes to reporting on Syria, much is written about fighting on the frontlines but comparatively little exists on the nature of factions in towns long since freed of regime control, particularly in the eastern areas of the country. Here I consider the case of the town of Abu Kamal (also Al-Bukamal, which is the more accurate transliteration from Arabic) in Deir az-Zor governorate, along the Euphrates River and bordering Iraq.
It has been out of regime hands since last year, as regime forces- aware of the inability to hold out if spread too thinly- retreated from a number of northern and eastern localities to concentrate on defending provincial capitals. The question now arises of who exactly controls or is present in the town.
In my own research, I have identified a number of factions operating in the town of Abu Kamal and sharing power in the local revolutionary coordination committee: namely, Kata'ib Junud al-Haq, Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna, Kata'ib Allahu Akbar, Liwa Allahu Akbar, Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar, and Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya. So what is the nature of each of these groups?
Kata'ib Junud al-Haq
Translating to "Battalions of the Soldiers of Righteousness," this faction is the local Abu Kamal affiliate of Jabhat al-Nusra. However, it has not exclusively remained in the Abu Kamal area but has rather sent fighters as far afield as the town of ash-Shaddadi in al-Hasakah province to the north and Sakhna in the desert area of Homs governorate, besides the major front of the city of Deir az-Zor itself further up the Euphrates.
The group is of particular interest because of its shifts in allegiances on the question of the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham [ISIS]/Jabhat al-Nusra dispute. When Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the existence of ISIS in April, Kata'ib Junud al-Haq switched affiliation to ISIS, changing its emblem to reflect ISIS imagery, releasing a video in May of an ISIS training camp for Abu Kamal, and putting out a statement in the name of "ISIS- Deir az-Zor province" on a failed request to have Abu Kamal students in Deir az-Zor take their exams in their hometown. At the same time, the group's Facebook page continued to put up graphics and material in support of Jabhat al-Nusra.
Yet after Sheikh Aymenn al-Zawahiri announced that ISIS should be dissolved, Kata'ib Junud al-Haq reverted by late June to Jabhat al-Nusra affiliation, while retaining the new logo it had adopted after Sheikh Baghdadi's announcement of ISIS. However, by September, the group had reverted to a prior logo indicating explicitly affiliation with Jabhat al-Nusra. However, this reversal of affiliation does not necessarily mean hostility to ISIS, as Kata'ib Junud al-Haq's spokesman indicated to me in an interview: "We are all brothers." Further, when I asked him about whether Kata'ib Junud al-Haq supports ISIS' jihad in Iraq, he indicated in the affirmative.
Besides these shifts in affiliations, Kata'ib Junud al-Haq and Jabhat al-Nusra reinforcements from outside the town also notably clashed with Liwa Allahu Akbar in mid-September. In the wake of these clashes, Jabhat al-Nusra released a statement of apology to the people of Abu Kamal, relevant excerpts of which are featured below.
"To our people in Abu Kamal, we offer an apology for what happened last Saturday…and we call to witness God- Almighty and Exalted is He- to the fact that we are not responsible for this fitna…In truth, what happened is the result of the continued attempts by Liwa Allahu Akbar to attack people from the distinguished folk of the land and the members of Jabhat al-Nusra, to the point of launching an attack on the headquarters of Jabhat al-Nusra more than once with arms and attacking the members [of Jabhat al-Nusra], including a strike on the Shari'a committee with 23 mm cannon following on from protests against the Front [Jabhat al-Nusra].
And matters were made worse by what members of Liwa Allahu Akbar undertook last Friday in preventing members of the Front from praying in the mosques, so whenever a member of the Front entered, they prevented him from entering saying it was an order from Saddam [leader of Liwa Allahu Akbar]. An apology and treaties follow on their part from all these incidents of aggression, while we were not responsible for any acts of harassment and aggression during the course of these months against Liwa…but because we are a symbol for Islam, we want to offer an example of forgiveness for the people.
Where is Jabhat al-Nusra in all these happenings: a group in Deir az-Zor fighting and bringing forth martyrs, and a group in rural Homs attempting to the best of its ability to defend the honor of Muslims, and when the matter came to our attention regarding the preventing of us from praying in the mosques and the manifest aggression, it was thus that we summoned members from the fighting fronts to protect what remained of our members in Abu Kamal after we saw what Liwa Allahu Akbar was planning from acts of aggression in preparation to fight the Islamists and that is because its leadership is in Turkey, their alliances are well-known; and their ambition to rule Syria and establish a secular state is not concealed from anyone, and for the sake of this there has been established what is called the alliance of Ahfad al-Rasul."
After describing in-depth the alleged sequence of events on the Saturday whereby Liwa Allahu Akbar opened fire on Jabhat al-Nusra and the latter responded in defense of its members and headquarters in Abu Kamal, the statement documents the following post-clash conditions:
"1. Embracing a ceasefire on our part and an end to armed demonstrations on our part in defense of the souls of the innocent civilians in accordance with the demand of the wise and judicious of Abu Kamal.
2. Whoever attacks us, we will respond to him in kind or greater, as this is the path of God- the Almighty has said: 'For whosoever attacks you, attack him just as he attacked you.'
3. Entrusting a committee composed of the different battalions in Abu Kamal to investigate the disappearance of Khattab al-Rakheetah as per a request from Saddam.
In conclusion, we thank all those who stood by us from the different families and tribes of Abu Kamal and its countryside as well as its distinguished men not out of love for our members but out of love for our Islamic program- may God reward them. So we ask God- Almighty and Exalted is He- to guide the youth of Liwa who are misguided by their leadership…So we ask the families of the youth not to offer their sons and their pure blood for the sake of the glory of this person called Saddam, who will not benefit them in this world in preference to the Hereafter: a man who pushes them into battles and wars so that he can attain power, wealth and fame as they shout: 'With soul and blood, we defend you oh Saddam!'"
The relevant text of the ceasefire agreement between Liwa Allahu Akbar and Jabhat al-Nusra- signed on 13 September by most of the battalions I listed above- is as follows:
"-Withdrawal of members of Liwa [Allahu Akbar] and Jabhat al-Nusra to their headquarters, with no placing of checkpoints and the leaving of protection and checkpoints to Katiba Amniya [joint security committee with recruits drawn from all factions], Allahu Akbar and the other kata'ib.
- No entry of masked men from any front.
-No raid on any home except by the Shari'a Committee and Katiba Amniya.
-Every week or more the putting in place of a program for a meeting gathering the leadership of the battalions and the brigades with discussion of any incident and accounting for harm on any side.
- Withdrawal of the muhajireen since there is no fighting in Abu Kamal and no need for masked men and armed demonstrations."
Like most battalions, Kata'ib Junud al-Haq has its selection of martyrs, primarily pointing to local origins with names such as Amr al-Ishaq al-Dulaimi, Mohammed Abd al-Razzaq al-Farh, Karam al-Karkoush, Ahmad Aboud al-Hussein, Firas al-Jahjah, Ahmad Naji al-Quduri, and Mohammed Rabie al-Mousli.
Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna
The name of this group translates to "Banners of the Sunna Battalion." The battalion- led by one Abdullah al-Habib- describes itself as independent, but in an interview, the group's spokesman affirmed to me that Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna shares the ideology of Kata'ib Junud al-Haq and supports the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate. Indeed, it would seem that there is close general affinity between Kata'ib Junud al-Haq and Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna. However, the membership of the latter battalion is exclusively native Syrian.
It was a signatory to the 13 September ceasefire agreement and like Kata'ib Junud al-Haq has deployed fighters beyond Abu Kamal, most notably in the city of Deir az-Zor, where it closely coordinated with the Fatihun min Ard ash-Sham brigade and Jabhat al-Nusra in operations in al-Rashdiya quarter during the autumn, consequently being praised by the former group in October. In November, the battalion sent a further deployment of fighters to al-Rashdiya.
Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna also distributes weekly da'wah (faith outreach) pamphlets for the local population in Abu Kamal.
Kata'ib Allahu Akbar
The "Allahu Akbar Battalions": the group is distinguished by its affiliation with the eastern branch of the "Jabhat al-Asliya wa al-Tanmiya" (Authenticity and Development Front), which is a nationwide alliance of rebel groups that use FSA flags and symbols but do not actually identify themselves as part of 'the FSA': see, for example, this message from late April directed from Kata'ib Allahu Akbar to the "Free Army," urging for unity in the latter's ranks.
Apparently taking its name from calling Abu Kamal "the Allahu Akbar town," it is led by one Khaz'al al-Sirhan (Abu al-Waleed, who refers to the struggle against "the immoral Nusayri regime") and it played a role in the capture of Hamdan military airport near Abu Kamal in November of last year, claiming some military defectors in the process. The group also seems to have a subsidiary military unit-Liwa al-Fatah al-Mubin- and has participated more recently in fighting for Deir az-Zor military airport.
In May, Kata'ib Allahu Akbar put out a statement announcing the formation of an "Army of the town of Allahu Akbar in Abu Kamal," consisting of Liwa Allahu Akbar, Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar, Liwa al-Qadisiya, Kata'ib Allahu Akbar, and Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna. However, while the statement appears to bear the relevant leaders' signatures, there is no evidence to suggest that this formation ever came to exist as something beyond a declaration on paper, and testimony I gathered elsewhere- which I will detail below as regards insistence on independence- also tells against this supposed army existing on the ground.
As for the ideology of the Kata'ib Allahu Akbar in line with the wider Authenticity and Development Front, it was outlined to me in an interview as follows by the head of the military office of the Kata'ib Allahu Akbar:
"Of course our 'aqida like the rest of the Syrian people is Sunni Islam and we want the rule of God's law and the creation of laws derived from the Qur'an and Sunna of His Prophet- may God's peace and blessings be upon Him- with the protection of the rest of the rights for the other sects as specified for them by the Shari'a.
Our program is moderate and for justice and we do not declare takfir on anyone from the Ahl al-Qibla [i.e. those who adhere to the tenets of Islam]…and our school of thought consists of the great 'ulama of the Ahl al-Salf like Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Baz."
The ideological vision of Kata'ib Allahu Akbar and the wider Authenticity and Development Front is therefore very much in accord with the Sunni Islamism that has characterized other major rebel groups like Liwa al-Tawhid (at least prior to the latter's joining the Islamic Front). The most notable overlaps with the recent Salafi-leaning Islamic Front are the claim to protect minority rights within the framework of Shari'a and the claim to follow the likes of Ibn Taymiyya, which partly explains the anti-Alawite sentiment that is very much mainstream in the insurgency. In any event, the head of the military office also made clear to me that Kata'ib Allahu Akbar has good working relations with all factions in Abu Kamal and is currently participating on the same military fronts where they are fighting.
Liwa Allahu Akbar
The "Allahu Akbar Brigade" is an affiliate of the nationwide Ahfad al-Rasul ("Descendants of the Prophet") network aligned with Salim Idriss' Supreme Military Command (SMC). Like Kata'ib Allahu Akbar, Liwa Allahu Akbar played a role in many incidents of fighting against regime forces last year, including the capture of Hamdan military airport, but unlike Kata'ib Allahu Akbar, the group not only uses FSA imagery but also calls itself part of 'the FSA.' The leader of the local Abu Kamal branch was until recently one Saddam al-Jamal, who was noted above in reference to the conflict with Jabhat al-Nusra in September.
However, a video recently emerged showing Saddam appearing in front of an ISIS flag, claiming his defection from Liwa Allahu Akbar to ISIS. Saddam goes on to document an alleged conspiracy involving Qatari, Turkish, Jordanian, Saudi and Western intelligence agencies whereby the Ahfad al-Rasul movement- originally of non-ideological orientation and just concerned with bringing the downfall of the regime- was co-opted as part of the wider FSA to fight ISIS.
It is of course true that generally speaking, the Ahfad al-Rasul movement lacks a clear manifesto and political program, and as noted above in the conflict with Jabhat al-Nusra, this point has made it the target of criticism for supposedly being only concerned with profiteering and warlordism.
As for ISIS' accusation of collaboration with Western intelligence, this is a charge ISIS has leveled at Ahfad al-Rasul before during the conflict with the local Raqqa branch of Ahfad al-Rasul that saw the movement expelled from the city in August. Like the video of Saddam al-Jamal, ISIS circles put out a video in August of an Ahfad al-Rasul detainee in Raqqa purporting to document how the movement received aid from France to take on ISIS, whence the derisive name 'Ahfad Faransa' ("Descendants of France") in ISIS circles for Ahfad al-Rasul.
When I asked Kata'ib Junud al-Haq's spokesman about the video of Saddam al-Jamal, he confirmed to me that it is indeed authentic but pointed out to me he did not defect willingly. Rather, he was kidnapped, though the abduction did not take place in the town of Abu Kamal itself, but in an "unknown location." More recently, rumors have claimed that ISIS has appointed Saddam al-Jamal as its own local commander for the Abu Kamal area, but I find no evidence from my local contacts to corroborate that.
It should also be noted that even after the ceasefire agreement between Jabhat al-Nusra and Liwa Allahu Akbar, not everything was harmonious, as Saddam al-Jamal escaped an assassination attempt in late September.
Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar
The "Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar Brigade": its name derives from the Libyan anti-colonial revolutionary Omar al-Mukhtar. In an interview, the group's spokesman Abu Louay emphasized to me that the battalion is "independent" and while it has no links with "Islamic extremists," it also rejects the Syrian opposition-in-exile coalition (SNC), despite sharing photos and postings of developments regarding the SNC on Facebook. In fact, Abu Louay indicated to me that Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar has no ideology or political program, but is simply concerned with bringing about the downfall of the Assad regime.
Like most of the other groups documented above, it was a signatory to the September ceasefire and has played a role in more recent fighting outside of Abu Kamal, most notably in the city of Deir az-Zor. For these recent efforts, Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar was commended by Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna. Interestingly, it has also claimed some martyrs from a deployment sent to aid the wider rebel front in the Qalamoun area of Damascus province.
Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya
As mentioned above, Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya has participated in fighting outside Abu Kamal in Deir az-Zor province. Having an Islamic name but lacking a coherent political program, it appears to be one of the most recent formations in the Abu Kamal area and according to Kata'ib Junud al-Haq's spokesman, it does not have a very significant presence inside the town. That said, the battalion, which is independent, has also coordinated with Salafist groups Ahrar ash-Sham and Liwa al-Haq as well as local Abu Kamal ally Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar in targeting with Grad missiles Al-Tefur military airbase in the desert of Homs governorate during the autumn of this year.
While the above factions are the ones with meaningful power in the town of Abu Kamal itself (as corroborated in my interview with Kata'ib Junud al-Haq's spokesman), the overall area with its surrounding countryside is home to more very small and generally insignificant factions. Some groups appear to be defunct: a case-in-point being the Katiba Junud al-Haq ("Battalion of the Soldiers of Righteousness"), which went by the FSA-label and not only conducted joint operations in 2012 with Jabhat al-Nusra in the Abu Kamal area but also released joint statements, such as a claim in October of that year to have downed a regime fighter jet in a coordinated operation between Jabhat al-Nusra, a member of Katiba Junud al-Haq, and Katiba Dhi al-Nurain. The group has since October 2012 otherwise been inactive, and likely evolved into Kata'ib Junud al-Haq that became a formal Jabhat al-Nusra affiliate. Other groups like Katiba Saraya al-Tawhid- similarly using FSA imagery- were announced to be part of some mergers last year, only never to be heard of again, whether in separate form or as part of the declared FSA mergers in the Abu Kamal area.
From the active factions of the town of Abu Kamal, can we identify a leading faction in particular? In my view, the answer to this question is yes. The key is to turn to examine the nature of the Shari'a committee of Abu Kamal.
The Shari'a Committee of Abu Kamal
The authority of the Shari'a committee of Abu Kamal is respected by all the factions operating in the town of Abu Kamal, but as indicated to me in an interview with the committee's spokesman, it is led solely by Jabhat al-Nusra. Even without conducting an interview, it should be apparent that Jabhat al-Nusra leads the committee because the Shari'a institute is named after Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, who was a mentor of Osama bin Laden and an influential ideologue behind the foundation of al-Qa'ida ("martyred in Afghanistan," as the spokesman for Kata'ib Junud al-Haq put it to me). The Shari'a committee regularly releases statements and has worked to crack down on smuggling of sheep, for example, from Syria to Iraq.
The town of Abu Kamal defies simple characterizations. Indeed, pace Elizabeth O'Bagy's misleading map in her now infamous Wall Street Journal op-ed, it would be wrong to think of Abu Kamal as a mere stronghold for "extremist groups." The reality is that there are factions of a range of orientations in Abu Kamal, from non-ideological (Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar and Liwa Allahu Akbar) to standard Islamist (Kata'ib Allahu Akbar) and pan-Islamist/jihadist (Kata'ib Junud al-Haq/Jabhat al-Nusra and Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna). This kind of arrangement can similarly be found in a number of towns with an ISIS presence, such as Tel Abyaḍ in Raqqa governorate, and Idlib towns like Saraqeb, Salqin and Ma'arat an-Na'aman.
As the September ceasefire agreement shows, Jabhat al-Nusra cannot simply do as it pleases in Abu Kamal, but it is not unreasonable to conclude that it is the leading faction in the town, especially in light of its monopoly on the Shari'a committee.
From the Iraqi perspective, there is the additional problem that the ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra split does not really matter in the borderlands- something particularly apparent in the testimony relayed to me and corroborated by the fact that Zawahiri insists on cooperation between mujahideen in Syria and Iraq anyway. The Abu Kamal area is certainly an environment where cross-border exchange of manpower and resources between mujahideen can easily take place.
More generally, the number of factions in the area- considering Abu Kamal's relatively small size- points to rampant localism across the rebel-held areas of Syria. Go a little further up the Euphrates in Deir az-Zor province and you will find a different set of factions in a town like Mayadeen. It is hard to see any kind of unifying rebel authority- let alone the unrepresentative Syrian opposition-in-exile- being able to assert itself over the expanse of rebel-held lands in Deir az-Zor province any time soon.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University.