BEIRUT

Middle East

Islamist militants drive Free Syrian Army out of Raqqa

A Syrian woman carrying a bag of bread exits a bakery run by the Islamic rebel group "Ahrar Al-Sham", in the northern city of Raqqa on August 11, 2013. (AFP PHOTO/ALICE MARTINS)

BEIRUT: Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria clashed with members of the Free Syrian Army, driving them from the city of Raqqa Wednesday in a sign of a worsening feud among rebels.

Fighting between ISIS and the Ahfad al-Rasoul brigade for control of Raqqa – which fell out of the control of president Bashar Assad in March – has intensified over the last week. The battle culminated with the jihadist group detonating a car bomb early Wednesday at the city’s main train station, killing Rasoul commanders Abu Mazen and Fahd Hussein al-Kajwan.

The Al-Qaeda-linked ISIS clashed with Rasoul fighters at the brigade’s headquarters, which they eventually overran, with most of the group withdrawing to Turkey Wednesday.

Free Syrian Army leaders have acknowledged that the fighting between their brigades and Islamist rivals has reached a critical stage.

Having failed to secure weapons from their Western backers amid fears they could land in the hands of Al-Qaeda, the FSA is now pitted against those very groups, who are armed with funds from Islamist backers in the Gulf and bolstered by foreign jihadists. The FSA says the Islamists’ main concern is not to overthrow Assad, but to establish an Islamic state in Syrian territories.

There are also growing complaints of Islamists doling out harsh punishments for religious crimes, as well as killing, detaining and kidnapping those from other sects or ethnicities and targeting activists opposed to Islamic rule.

Underlining those fears are increasingly credible reports of the likely murder of popular Italian priest Rev. Paolo Dall’Oglio, a prominent regime critic who was detained by ISIS last month as he traveled to Raqqa to negotiate the release of others kidnapped and an end to fighting between Islamists and Kurds in the east of the country.

Dall’Oglio has not been heard from since he sought a meeting with the group’s leaders at their headquarters in Raqqa. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Wednesday, citing activists in the city, that Dall’Oglio had been killed in ISIS custody. Neither the Vatican nor the Italian Foreign Ministry have commented on the report.

With Islamists making apparently unchecked gains in “liberated” areas, opposition figures are increasingly frustrated about the lack of support the West is providing to the more moderate brigades.

“We warned the international community a year ago that without weapons and help in organizing, the extremist threat will become a reality,” FSA spokesman Louay Mekdad said. “We don’t know why [the Islamists] are doing this. They are giving a free service to the regime. They said they were coming to help us, then prevent us from attempts to build a free and democratic regime.”

“The excuse was always that the weapons might fall into the hands of extremists. Well, the proof that we are not cooperating with them is in the fact that they are fighting us now.”

American Muslim scholar and member of the Syrian National Coalition Louay Safi told The Daily Star that “these groups are becoming increasingly aggressive. It’s becoming a big problem.”

But there are indications that not everyone is unhappy with the more rigid administration offered by the Islamists in Raqqa and elsewhere.

One Raqqa resident, Abu Abdul Rahman Al-Raqqawi, speaking via the Internet, told The Daily Star things were calmer in Raqqa following the Rasoul brigade’s withdrawal.

“ISIS enjoys both support and opposition here,” he said. “It had an important role in the battles in Raqqa and its province and a big role in bringing security and safety in the governorate”

He said the problem was divided allegiances in Raqqa and pointed to a misrepresentation of protests in the city in Western media that had labeled them all as against the Islamists.

Video of protests there released Wednesday showed Raqqa residents chanting “People want to save the wounded” and “People want to overthrow the regime.”

“Some are supporting the withdrawal of the Rasoul from the city, and some are supporting the withdrawal of ISIS from the city. Others just want both of them out,” Raqqawi said. “The protests that took place two weeks ago were not against ISIS but against the two factions that have not stopped fighting each other.”

Claiming the majority of Raqqa residents supported ISIS and an Islamic state, he said: “ISIS holds thieves, kidnappers and those that cause trouble in the markets accountable. ... They also hold accountable the brigades that steal.”

“There are members from outside Syria, like Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey [in ISIS] but their morals are better from those who are [Syrian]: the way they treat people, their courage, and the religious lessons they give at the centers and mosques.”

Charles Lister, an analyst with IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, said that while he believed the clashes in Raqqa appeared to be a localized phenomenon, “In general, developments in Raqqa fit within an emerging dynamic in northern Syria of the growing strategic influence of Islamist groups.”

“I expect ISIS will indeed have established further control over the city today. However, the continuing anti-ISIS protests, in which civilians are demanding the release of imprisoned family members, suggests Ahfad al-Rasoul will maintain a solid support base in the city.”

“Certainly [the clashes] have the potential to spark wider condemnation and certainly suspicion over ISIS’ objectives in Syria. Continuing rumors over a proposed Sahwa force in Syria that will aim concurrently to fight Assad and eventually combat jihadists, could for some moderate political leaders, fit well with a seemingly aggressive ISIS presence in Raqqa fighting to drive out moderates from their zone of control.” Sahwa forces were Iraq Sunni militants who assisted the U.S. in fighting Al-Qaeda there.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 15, 2013, on page 1.

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