Syria: a fractured opposition and Australian consequences
24 Apr 2014|
A Syrian flag flutters outside a militar

Over the past two years, a significant number of Australians have become involved with armed opposition groups in Syria. Some (see here and here) have joined two jihadist organisations proscribed under Australia’s counter terrorism legislation, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which make up a small but prominent element of the Syrian rebellion.

This involvement has occurred despite Australian government counter-measures that include criminal charges, passport confiscations, bank account restrictions and coercive questioning, as well as public messaging (PDF) and community engagement initiatives.

The situation within Syria is changing rapidly, with open conflict breaking out between the competing opposition groups. What impact will the fratricide among those groups have on the involvement of Australians in the Syrian conflict?

The tensions behind the current intra-jihadist turmoil first became public in April 2013. The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), which had formed from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq, had released an audio message asserting authority over Jabhat al-Nusra, which was al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. ISI declared that it had created Jabhat al-Nusra, and that they were unifying under the new name of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

Jabhat al-Nusra refused to concede this, and released an audio message disputing that it was created by the ISI, rejecting the new name and re-affirming allegiance to al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. That led to a situation where ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra were both claiming leadership within Syria.

At first those tensions were held in check, as the groups shared the common enemies of the Assad regime and rival opposition groups. But when Zawahiri made clear (PDF) that he considered Jabhat al-Nusra to be al-Qaeda’s only legitimate representative in Syria, and that ISIS should restrict its activities to Iraq, ISIS began increasingly to reject al-Qaeda’s authority.

ISIS and its supporters argued that ISIS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had never pledged allegiance to Zawahiri; that, as ISIS constituted an Islamic State, it had greater authority than al-Qaeda; and that by ordering ISIS to restrict its activities to Iraq, al-Qaeda was acquiescing to Western-created (Sykes-Picot) borders.

In February 2014, as the dispute continued, Zawahiri publicly disowned ISIS. At this time ISIS was already fighting against other Syrian rebel forces (the Free Syrian Army and the Saudi-backed Islamic Front), and soon was in open violent conflict with Jabhat al-Nusra as well.

ISIS has also been attempting to convince al-Qaeda affiliates and other jihadist groups across the world to switch sides, with some success (see here, here and here). What began as a dispute over authority within Syria has become a struggle for leadership of the entire global jihadist movement.

This division has affected Australia’s small jihadist scene, prompting key ideologues to take sides.

One example is former Sydney preacher Abu Sulayman, now described by Jabhat al-Nusra as a member of their General Islamic Council. He has appeared in several Jabhat al-Nusra videos, and become their most prominent English speaking member to address the dispute.

In a video on 17 March he stated he’d been appointed to mediate between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. Along with several other jihadist ideologues, he then publicly called on Ayman al Zawahiri to provide more compelling responses to ISIS’ criticisms. Days later he appeared in a 45-minute Jabhat al-Nusra video, making a detailed condemnation of ISIS and defence of al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Abu Sulayman argued that al-Baghdadi had indeed pledged allegiance to Zawahiri and that al-Baghdadi had no authority to claim that ISIS constituted an actual state. He also argued that restricting ISIS’ authority to Iraq and Jabhat al-Nusra’s to Syria was done for strategic reasons and didn’t mean that al-Qaeda was accepting colonial borders. Being in English, the video was likely directed at Western jihadists, with whom Jabhat al-Nusra has been struggling for support against ISIS’ competition.

But Abu Sulayman’s high-level role doesn’t mean that Jabhat al-Nusra dominates Australian jihadism. A former Melbourne preacher, Musa Cerantonio, has been vocal on social media defending ISIS’ version of the dispute. A recent ICSR report notes that ‘although he insists he is not a tribal loyalist who is committed to the group in all circumstances’ he tends to support ISIS over Jabhat al-Nusra, and has an extensive following among jihadists worldwide.

What impact the infighting will have on Australian jihadism is unclear. For the preachers, whoever sides with the winning faction will likely prove more influential afterwards. For the footsoldiers, the more recent Australian deaths in Syria have been associated with ISIS, which could indicate that ISIS has been winning out over Jabhat al-Nusra in attracting Australian recruits, but the information currently available is limited. It might be that aspiring footsoldiers are more concerned about the battle against Assad than which group they join.

There are also signs that infighting is disillusioning some foreign fighters. If so, the fratricidal conflict could end up having a greater impact on reducing the appeal of the Syrian jihad than the counter-measures currently being implemented.

Andrew Zammit is a researcher at Monash University’s Global Terrorism Research Centre and blogs at The Murphy Raid. Image courtesy of Flickr user Freedom House.