BEIRUT: One of the most notorious hard-line Islamist groups fighting in Syria has been the victim of a media smear campaign as well as treachery by mainstream rebel battalions, according to its spokesman.
A range of figures in the Syrian opposition have accused the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, known popularly as ISIS, along with the Nusra Front, another jihadist group, of working against the goals of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
They say that ISIS and the Nusra Front, instead of engaging regime troops, have periodically engaged in fighting against battalions affiliated with the rebel Free Syrian Army, while oppressing civilian populations in rebel-held areas.
The title of a 21-minute audio statement circulating on YouTube, delivered by the official spokesman of ISIS, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani al-Shami, sums up the content of the rare public relations effort:
“ISIS is being treated unjustly.”
In the statement, Adnani takes issue with the notion that ISIS has been guilty of fighting with FSA units in rebel-held areas, as part of a plan to weaken the rebels and reduce pressure on regime forces.
“On the contrary,” Adnani says, citing several examples. He says that an FSA battalion called Ahfad al-Rasoul (Grandsons of the Prophet) in eastern Syria has been guilty of the actions that ISIS is being accused of.
He says that when Islamist groups were busy spearheading an offensive in rural Latakia earlier this summer, they reached the outskirts of Qardaha, the hometown of President Bashar Assad.
However, the Ahfad al-Rasoul Battalion “surprised” ISIS and its allies by instigating clashes with ISIS in the eastern cities of Raqqa and Deir al-Zor.
He accuses Ahfad al-Rasoul in Raqqa of provoking ISIS and finally killing two of its fighters and sparking the fighting.
The same accusation is leveled at the Northern Storm FSA Battalion in rural Aleppo, which has recently been involved in fighting with ISIS in the city of Azaz and elsewhere. Again, an offensive elsewhere was moving forward when the interrebel fighting broke out.
“They opened a front against us in northern rural Aleppo, while ISIS was making progress in rural Hama,” Adnani says.
Adnani takes aim at the Ahfad al-Rasoul Battalion, claiming that people have begun to refer to it derisively as Ahfad al-Rais (the Grandsons of the President), an accusation that it is in league with the regime. He also accuses a commander of the battalion of visiting France and receiving support in exchange for waging war against ISIS.
Adnani states that his group has definitive evidence and documentation of the various claims, without going into further detail.
He denies that ISIS is focused on eliminating all other armed opposition groups from the scene in Syria, although mainstream opposition figures and groups have regularly leveled this complaint at the jihadists.
Adnani also plays down accusations that ISIS has been involved in killing civilians, although several videos have shown hard-liners conducting summary executions of civilians and regime troops.
Most glaringly, Adnani fails to provide an explanation for the reported desecration of churches in the city of Raqqa by ISIS fighters, actions that have been widely condemned by opposition activists and groups. Civilians in Raqqa have staged several demonstrations against ISIS and its actions in recent weeks, and in one they held up a large wooden cross to express their rejection of religiously motivated violence. Adnani does not address these developments, nor the reports that ISIS fighters have assassinated FSA commanders on more than one occasion.
Adnani blames the “infidel West” for orchestrating a media smear campaign against his group, by accusing it of destroying mosques in Iraq with bomb attacks, and playing down its actions in the Syrian war.
“When ISIS allows another group to take part in a [military] operation, the media covers the actions of that group, without mentioning ISIS at all.”
The ISIS spokesman cites the taking earlier this summer of the Minnigh air base in Syria’s north, which was hailed by the opposition as a victory for the FSA.
“There was limited participation by FSA battalions, but the media didn’t mention the name of ISIS at all,” Adnani says.
Another campaign Adnani says is being spearheaded by ISIS, in the province of Hama, is also seeing an intentional cover-up of the role of the jihadist group.
He says that in contrast, the media pounces on any confrontation between ISIS and other groups, while claiming that clashes between non-jihadist rebel groups are much more frequent, without being covered by the media.
Adnani also denies that ISIS has embraced a blanket policy of takfir, or condemning Muslims to death if they are found to be insufficiently religious, unless “definitive evidence” is produced in specific cases. He later says that even in such cases, ISIS takes no actions against other rebel groups that are less pious, “unless they begin a war against us.”
He says that a number of jihadist fighters have been disciplined for going too far with their hard-line accusations against Syrians who aren’t sufficiently religious, but doesn’t go into further detail.
And although fighting between ISIS and the Nusra Front has been reported in Syria’s north, Adnani claims that no casualties resulted, despite the wishes of the enemies of the jihadists.
The tone of the latest statement by the ISIS spokesman is in contrast with a recording from mid-June, when Adnani released a 19-minute audio statement entitled “Kill the Polytheists,” a diatribe against the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq.
In that statement, Adnani praises the mass demonstrations that erupted earlier this year in Sunni-majority areas of Iraq against the Nouri al-Maliki government, which he said had left people with two options: Submit to its oppressive policies or take up arms.
The rhetoric, however, apparently failed to generate a mass following for Adnani. The YouTube video relaying the statement has had only 3,300 views, while Monday’s statement on the tensions between ISIS and rebel groups in Syria has already received double that number.