Isis seizure of Syria's Azaz exposes rebel rifts

A Free Syrian Army fighter aims his weapon during a clash with government forces in Idlib, northwestern Syria. A Free Syrian Army fighter aims his weapon during a clash with government forces in Idlib, north-western Syria

The Free Syrian Army is driven out of a town on the Turkish border. Several of their men are killed, perhaps as many as 100 captured. Inside the town, there are arrests of opposition activists and citizen-journalists. Members of the Sharia court are detained.

It sounds like a description of a successful offensive by the regime. But the Free Syrian Army lost the town of Azaz to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or Isis, the most hardline group linked to al-Qaeda on the rebel side. As a measure of the grip the jihadis have in Azaz, one eyewitness inside the town said no-one was smoking on the streets - tobacco is forbidden according to strict Islamist doctrine.

All of this started when a wounded fighter from Isis, or from an allied group, al-Muhajireen, was taken to the field clinic in Azaz. Doctors from a German charity have been working in the clinic for many months. The fighter was filmed by one of the German doctors, or by someone documenting their work in order to raise money back home.

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The wounded fighter demanded the film. He called some of his friends to come and help. FSA fighters, from a unit called the Northern Storm brigade, were guarding the field clinic. There was a confrontation. It's claimed that two Muhajireen fighters were killed (a Tunisian and a Libyan, according to tweets from activists in Azaz). In reply, the Isis "emir" of Azaz - that is the senior jihadi commander in the area, said to be a Kuwaiti - ordered an attack. The Northern Storm brigade were put to flight.

Isis and al Muhajireen accused the man filming them - a doctor or his associate - of being journalists. That is a very dangerous accusation in Syria at the moment since the most extreme jihadi groups have taken a position that Western journalists are spies.

The jihadis seem to believe that mooted US strikes against the Syrian regime would have been aimed at them and were only postponed because Islamist fighters had successfully dispersed and hidden in new locations. They believe that Western journalists are coming into Syria now to acquire new targeting information for drone and missile strikes against them.

'Cowardly attacks'

A new posting on a jihadist forum announced that "journalists are the enemy to the mujahideen in Syria and globally". Any Western journalists should be arrested and punished according to Sharia, the posting said.

Azaz lies near a busy border crossing between Syria and Turkey. Azaz lies near a busy border crossing between Syria and Turkey

The fighting over Azaz seems to have evolved, accidentally, out of this set of circumstances rather than having been part of a long-planned offensive. Still, there is a long record of skirmishing between the jihadis and FSA brigades for control of the border crossings into Turkey (along with all the lucrative income from smuggling and stealing from aid shipments).

Tensions have been steadily escalating. A senior FSA commander was shot dead in an argument with an Isis emir in nearby Idlib in the summer. Last week, Isis issued a fatwa declaring operation Banishment of Hypocrisy against the FSA in al-Bab and in Aleppo, both not far from Azaz.

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There is a long record of skirmishing between the jihadis and FSA brigades for control of the border crossings into Turkey”

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According to fliers handed out by Isis fighters, this would be an offensive targeting two FSA brigades accused of "cowardly attacks on the benevolent mujahideen". Fighting has also broken out between the FSA and Isis in another important town, Dayr az Zawr.

Isis seems to be in control of Azaz for the moment, though Northern Storm and Liwaa al Tawheed, another FSA brigade, are massing outside. Turkish authorities have closed a nearby crossing from Syria. It will be interesting to see how Turkey reacts to the Islamic State's dominance just across its border.

What does this mean for the Syrian revolution? In the long term, the United States and other Western governments might be more willing to support the Free Syrian Army if they see real distance between it and the jihadis. In the short term, if the rebels are fighting each other, they are not fighting the regime.

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