BEIRUT: Supporters of Syria’s armed opposition were shaken over the weekend by the latest atrocity by members of the Al-Qaeda splinter group ISIS, whose militants conducted the horrific public beheading of an Islamist rebel figure known for his military prowess.
The news came as the Islamic Front, to which the slain fighter belonged, and four large Islamist militias issued a “code of honor” governing their tactics and strategy, urging all other rebel groups to endorse the document. The code is notable for failing to mention the goal of establishing an Islamic state, and it earned a swift rebuke from the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
Pro-opposition media said that ISIS militants Friday intercepted Muthana Hussein, a native of Idlib province and senior commander with the Ahrar al-Sham militia, one of the Islamic Front’s seven members.
Known by his nickname “Abul-Miqdam,” Hussein was also called “the tank sniper” and was a veteran of battles on the coast, Idlib and Raqqa provinces, the Ghouta suburbs of Damscus, and the nearby Qalamoun mountains.
Reportedly responsible for destroying some 15 regime tanks during the course of the war with weapons such as Konkurs missiles, Hussein was intercepted by ISIS fighters in rural Hama, on his way back to Idlib from Qalamoun.
In his final battle, he reportedly destroyed four tanks when rebels stormed Battalion 559 in eastern Qalamoun earlier this month, an attack that saw them seize huge quantities of ammunition, equipment and vehicles.
The gruesome photographs circulated widely over the weekend, showing militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, slicing off Hussein’s head and placing it on the corpse’s back.
His crime? According to pro-opposition media, the ISIS militants said he was an “infidel” and referred to him as being part of the “sahwat,” the term for Sunni Muslims who oppose Al-Qaeda, coined in post-invasion Iraq.
Rebels from all stripes on the front lines, as well as the political opposition-in-exile, the National Coalition, have accused ISIS of actively working against the uprising against President Bashar Assad, by targeting rebel groups it accuses of apostasy instead of focusing its efforts on regime forces.
Although Hussein was from the hard-line Ahrar al-Sham Salafist militia, mainstream and even secular opposition groups condemned the killing of Hussein because of his military prowess.
The Islamic Front and other Islamist militias, along with the rebel Free Syrian Army, have been fighting ISIS militants throughout Syria since the beginning of the year, sparking clashes and violence that has killed over 6,000 people, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Meanwhile, the “code of honor” emerged as the latest move in the political battle to shore up the credibility of the armed opposition.
Apart from the Islamic Front, the signatories included the Furqan Brigades, the Failaq al-Sham, the Mujahidin Army, and the Islamic Union of Ajnad al-Sham. Most of the signatories enjoy a strong presence in Aleppo and Damascus, although they have units in a number of provinces.
The 11-point code stresses the group’s rejection of “extremism” and explicitly condemns ISIS; it reiterates that the overriding objective should be to topple the Assad regime.
The code of honor also denounces the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilian populations, and commits to keeping civilians out of its military operations.
The militias urge “the rest of the forces active on the ground in Syria to sign this document, so that we form one hand in the struggle to topple the regime.”
The document rejects any attempt to partition the country, and point 8 says: “the Syrian revolution is a revolution of morals and values, aiming to achieve freedom, justice and security for Syrian society and its diverse social fabric, made up of all racial and sectarian elements.”
The Arabic word “thawra,” which means revolt or revolution, is systematically shunned by groups such as ISIS or the Nusra Front, which instead advocate jihad.
Notably, the Nusra Front did not sign the code, though it has joined forces with a number of the signatories for joint military operations against both ISIS and regime forces.
Nusra Front officials, according to media reports, have criticized the document as a deviation from the “core principles” of Islamist militias.
A media activist based in Idlib said the code was a promising step, provided that the militias are able to keep their promises.
“Most of these groups have been cooperating with each other in recent fighting, and bringing them together will enhance their linkages, and their activity,” he told The Daily Star, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The coming days, he added, would prove whether the militias are actually committed to stopping targeting regime-held civilian areas, such as in Aleppo or Damascus, a tactic that has earned them a considerable amount of criticism from supporters of the armed opposition.
The activist said the exclusion of Nusra was significant, and was part of a gradual move to “exclude it from any political role.”
An observer of military affairs, based outside Syria, called the code of honor an attempt to obtain the type of sophisticated weaponry – namely shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles – that has been denied to them by western powers, led by the United States.
Also requesting anonymity, he agreed that the exclusion of the Nusra Front was significant, while adding that the Islamic Front and its allies have been handicapped in their fight against ISIS.
“The Islamic Front is in a difficult position,” he said, adding that “It has been unable to commit itself wholeheartedly to the war against ISIS” because of two objections within its ranks of the various member groups.
“Some Islamist militias have been hesitant to join the fighting against ISIS, which shows that they actually share the same type of ideology, deep down,” he said.
“But you have members of other Islamist militias, such as Tawhid, who are angry at the failure to strike back [against ISIS]. This has led to defections” toward mainstream FSA groups, which are more enthusiastic about fighting ISIS, he said.
The killing of Ahrar al-Sham commander Muthana Hussein was merely the latest “embarrassment” faced by the Islamists, he said.
“The killing took place in a remote area in the Syrian desert, east of Hama. This is where many ISIS fighters withdrew when they were chased from the coast,” the observer said.
While ISIS militants were swept from many positions in places such as Idlib and Aleppo, they have for the most part retreated to the east, to Deir al-Zor and Raqqa, where their influence remains potent.
The observer played down the significance of the pledge to avoid targeting civilians, however.
“They have an excuse: ‘We’re responding to the regime’s targeting of rebel-held neighborhoods.’ And they will always be ready to use this excuse” to fire artillery shells or mortar bombs at civilian neighborhoods, he said.
The observer agreed that the latest “declaration” by rebels represented a bid to keep Nusra on the outside, in order to boost standing with foreign backers of the uprising.
Meanwhile, the FSA made its own political statement over the weekend, announcing that its Military Council for Damascus had been reorganized, with the consent of its now-ex-chief.
The observer called the step “positive,” but said only time would tell if it would help FSA rebels in Damascus improve their performance, and show themselves “worthy” of more sophisticated weaponry.