Middle East

Battlefield errors: One head too many for ISIS?

Marroush, left, ironically praises his eventual murderers in a YouTube video posted this week.

BEIRUT: A group of religious scholars in Aleppo has issued a damning statement against the Islamist State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), accusing militants of a long list of criminal acts and urging “loyal” fighters in its ranks to leave the Al-Qaeda-inspired group.

The move comes days after ISIS militants decapitated a rebel commander from the Ahrar al-Sham Salafist network, mistakenly believing him to be a Shiite fighting alongside regime forces.

Mohammad Fares Marroush, according to various sources, had the misfortune to mumble prayers to the imams Ali and Hussein, venerated by Shiites, after having been wounded in battle near Base 80, a regime-held outpost southeast of Aleppo.

Some pro-opposition media reports said Marroush, who was seized by ISIS militants in a field hospital, was under the influence of an anesthetic and was repeating the last thing he heard before being wounded in fighting against pro-regime Shiite militias from Iraq. Others said Marroush believed that he had been taken prisoner by the pro-regime militias, and was trying to deceive his captors as to his identity.

In a gruesome video posted on YouTube, two ISIS fighters, believed to be from Saudi Arabia and Libya, displayed Marroush’s head to a small crowd. ISIS issued Thursday an apology for the incident, which included the justification that similar battlefield errors were made during the time of the Prophet Mohammad.

The Ahrar al-Sham Movement responded by demanding the arrest of the two men appearing in the video, while the Aleppo scholars took a harsher stance, detailing what they said was a long list of crimes by ISIS militants during the six months that the group has been active in Syria.

The scholars urged ISIS fighters to leave the group and either head to the front lines to fight regime forces, or relocate to Iraq, where it originally began its activities.

The scholars said ISIS had erred by declaring rebel groups from the mainstream Free Syrian Army to be apostates and traitors, and were also guilty of adopting a similar view of all Syrians.

ISIS fighters have spread the notion that “all people in Greater Syria are apostates, on the pretext that they are worshippers of graves,” the statement said.

Militants from ISIS and a few other hard-line Islamist militias have destroyed the graves of figures from Islamic history, since they consider such monuments objectionable on religious grounds.

“We have sent word to [ISIS] several times, asking it to issue a statement banning the practice of branding the FSA, or Muslims in general, as apostates, and they have not responded,” the ulama said.

More seriously, the religious scholars accused ISIS militants of murdering and kidnapping dozens of people – Islamist rebels, civilian media activists and aid workers – and provided a detailed list of the alleged crimes, some of which ISIS had claimed responsibility for.

They said ISIS was also behind the kidnapping of a prominent opposition media activist, Abdel-Wahhab Malla, who disappeared last week in Aleppo.

ISIS militants had also stolen weapons, ammunition and war booty from the Nusra Front and other rebel groups, they said, and had branded the Northern Storm FSA Brigade “traitors and apostates” because its members had appeared in a photo with visiting U.S. Senator John McCain.

“The Prophet Mohammad met with nonbelievers,” the scholars pointed out.

Among the “strategic” errors committed by ISIS, the ulama said, were the destruction of civil records and the issuing of passports and ID papers.

ISIS was also accused of sowing “strife” with Islamist rebel groups on six different occasions. One incident saw the militants use loudspeakers to report the false news that regime tanks had reached the city of Al-Bab, which shook the morale of rebels fighting at Base 80, Kweiris Airport and the city of Safira, since they were anxious to retreat and protect their families.

The Aleppo scholars might not have a huge impact on the many non-Syrian fighters in the ranks of ISIS, but the declaration comes amid setbacks for the Al-Qaeda group on the military and political fronts.

Last week, a months-old audio recording by the leader of Al-Qaeda, Ayman Zawahri, was rebroadcast. In it, Zawahri orders the abolishment of ISIS and gives sole responsibility for Syria to the Nusra Front.

The rebels have also suffered a string of military defeats in the Aleppo and Damascus areas, with ISIS coming in for harsh criticism because its militants have been busy sparring with mainstream FSA units.

A media activist from Aleppo, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Daily Star that the damning statement by the religious scholars would likely be rejected by ISIS militants.

“There hasn’t been any notable response by ISIS. To begin with, they don’t trust the religious sheikhs of Aleppo. They consider them a bunch of [non-jihadist] Sufis,” he said.

“People in Aleppo are upset with ISIS, not only because of [the crimes listed in] the statement, but also because they are seeing acts that hurt the rebellion, and because of the tense military situation in the city,” he said.

While the botched decapitation of an “enemy” appeared to have prompted the latest salvo against ISIS militants, the jihadists from Nusra have pressed ahead with a similar summary execution.

A YouTube video posted Friday – and removed later in the day – purportedly shows the public execution of a captured Shiite paramilitary fighter by Nusra militants in Aleppo.

As for Marroush, activists were quick this week to pounce on older footage of the slain Ahrar al-Sham commander and repost it on YouTube. After shouting anti-regime rhetoric, Marroush praises the fighters of his group, as well as the Nusra Front and ISIS, his eventual murderers.



A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 16, 2013, on page 10.




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