Four days after the Islamic State launched a sudden assault on towns and villages in Syria’s northern Aleppo province, the heavy fighting continues. Not only is the Islamic State battling a consortium of rebel groups and jihadists in Aleppo, the “caliphate” is attempting to push into the predominately Kurdish city of Hasakah, which is the capital of the northeastern province with the same name .
Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s men began to attack Hasakah several days ago, with the Syrian state-controlled news agency, SANA, claiming that the jihadists’ plans had been thwarted by regime loyalists. However, the Islamic State regrouped and began a new round of fighting in the last twenty-four hours.
As part of its propaganda campaign accompanying the battles, the Islamic State released photos showing the execution of two men who were accused of being spies for the the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a US-designated terrorist organization that is affiliated with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The PKK, YPG, and elements from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) drove the Islamic State out of Kobani, another Kurdish-majority city in northern Syria, earlier this year.
One of the photos advertising the execution of the alleged PKK spies can be seen above.
The Islamic State’s decision to seize territory controlled by rebel groups north of Aleppo has set off another major, multi-sided battle. Initially, the “caliphate’s” main target was the Levant Front, a coalition of several factions, and fighters belonging to the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
But the decision by Baghdadi’s men to move against the anti-Assad rebels has drawn in other actors, namely the jihadists from the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, and Ahrar al Sham, which is linked to al Qaeda.
A number of al Qaeda ideologues and their allies have issued a fatwa saying it is “compulsory” for Muslims from Aleppo and elsewhere to drive the Islamic State’s forces back.
The ideologues note that Syria has witnessed “greatest victories and conquests in recent times,” which have caused “the tyrant Bashar and his allies” to “panic.” They are referring, primarily, to the gains made by the jihadist-led coalition, Jaysh al Fateh (“Army of Conquest”), in Idlib since March.
“The Islamic Nation waited for further victories when suddenly the Baghdadists stabbed the Mujahideen in their backs in Sawran [a town in Aleppo] to stop the advancements made against the regime and to lengthen the lifespan of this tyrant,” the anti-Islamic State jihadists claim, according to a translation published by their supporters online.
Because of this situation, they conclude, “it is compulsory (waajib) to repel their [the Islamic State’s] aggression and defend the lands of the Muslims and it is impermissible to hand over the land of Shaam to them for it has become clear the corrupted beliefs they hold.”
The statement’s signatories include Dr. Sami al Uraydi (Al Nusrah Front’s top sharia official), Abu Sulayman al Muhajir (an Australian al Qaeda sharia official who was dispatched to Syria and serves in Al Nusrah), Al Mu’tasim Billah al Madani (the head sharia official of Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar and Ansar al Din, both of which are tied to al Qaeda), Abu Qatada al Filistini and Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi (two pro-al Qaeda thinkers who are also staunch critics of Baghdadi’s organization), as well as Abdullah al Muhaysini (who is, at a minimum, tied to al Qaeda’s international organization). Several others signed the edict as well.
Their fatwa clears the path for Al Nusrah and its jihadists allies to wage war against the Islamic State in Aleppo. And they explicitly condone the sending of reinforcements from other areas in Syria, arguing that if the forces “close by are not sufficient to repel their [the Islamic State’s] attack, then it is compulsory for everyone in the land of Shaam to repel this aggression.”
The Al Nusrah Front, Ahrar al Sham, Jaysh al Islam, and other insurgents have posted numerous images of their fighters being redeployed to Aleppo to counter the “caliphate’s” men.
The complex battle has even led to renewed allegations that the Assad regime has a de facto alliance with the Islamic State, as Assad’s warplanes have reportedly hit positions standing in the Islamic State’s way in Aleppo. The al Qaeda ideologues echo this claim in their fatwa, pointing out that the Islamic State has effectively run interference for Assad, who has lost key battles over the past two and a half months.
On its official Twitter feed, the Levant Front has posted images and videos from the ongoing battles. One photo, included on the right, purportedly shows improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that were discovered and defused after the Islamic State had implanted them.
The showdown in Aleppo sets up a confrontation between the two competing models for waging jihad in Syria. The Islamic State is uncompromising and operates under the belief that it is the only true authority. The Al Nusrah Front, which answers to al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri, continues to work with other factions in an attempt to dethrone Assad. Al Nusrah’s strategy reflects al Qaeda’s belief that a true Islamic state cannot be established until after its major opposition is cleared from the land.
Naturally, the Islamic State’s supporters chastise Al Nusrah and its jihadist comrades for working with allies who do not share their radical beliefs.
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