In Syria, negotiations continue for a merger between Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), the rebranded al-Qaeda branch in the country, and other insurgent groups in the north, particularly Ahrar al-Sham. Two Jihadi-Salafi clerics have offered very different proposals for the way forward in the last couple of days.
Abdallah al-Muhaysini is a Saudi jihadi cleric in Syria who presents himself as independent but who is in fact a senior JFS official. Al-Muhaysini has previously explained his stance on the reasons for the failure to implement a merger agreement reached at the end of last year (unsurprisingly, he affixes blame firmly to Ahrar). Tonight, al-Muhaysini released a message on his Telegram channel, “A Non-Ideal Reality”. Al-Muhaysini’s message is that a merger is at hand that was not what had been hoped for initially, but that the jihadists should not make the good the enemy of the perfect and certainly should not begin in-fighting over it. The message was translated by al-Maqalaat and is reproduced below with some minor editions:
We strived and others strived to reach a merger but Allah did not preordain success for these endeavours so far. I say so far to remind everyone that hope is still present, with the permission and aid of Allah. We did not aid a frontal operation and we were, and still are, convinced that a merger is the real solution for the arena. But having come to this stage let us operate on the (jurisprudential) basis of, “That which is achievable is not toppled by that which is unachievable”. So, if we did not succeed in the merger it does not mean I belittle the pursuit of reaching that which is less: “That which is not realized completely is not left completely”. I say to the reformers and the scholars and the leaders: Do not despair, we have no other choice but to finish our pursuit and we will not be held accountable for the results, for they are in the hands of Allah.
And the mujahid youth must be warned from carelessness with sacred blood under the title of taghalub [one faction dominating or overpowering another by force] and the like. Taghalub equals a sea of blood. That this happened in history does not mean that it is allowed legally in the shari’a; we do not read in the science of fundamental principals (usul) that history is one of the sources for legal opinions (fatwa). We take our religion from the Holy Book, the Sunna, the scholarly consensus, analogy (qiyas), etc. What good is there in a merger created on a sea of blood with which we will face Allah the Almighty?
And it is not correct to apply the formation of the Taliban and [Yusuf] Ibn Tashfin and others to our reality. First, these are momentous events (nawazil) and such events must be judged as individual incidents without any analogy based on it. Second, in these events the corruption has reached the level that those who carried weapons could be described as bandits not as holy warriors (mujahideen). Third, we saw the experience of Da’ash [the Islamic State], how much blood was spilled, and they did not reach anything with their taghalub, except a sea of blood. And we saw how much blood of martyrs was spilled in al-Ghuta (in the infighting between Jaysh al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman) and in the end the battle was not decisive for any of the parties.
So be careful, oh mujahid, that your anger does not carry you away from your brothers and you justify taghalub … [T]he issue has even pushed one of them, under the prevailing state of tension at the moment, to say about his brothers that they are apostates and that killing them is legal. Oh Allah, I declare my innocence in front of you for the spilling of any mujahid blood with deeds, or incitements, with any comment or statement.
A near-diametrically opposed statement was issued yesterday by Issam al-Barqawi (Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi), the most prominent Jihadi-Salafist ideologue, who is based in Jordan. Al-Barqawi can theologically be thought of as the father of the Islamic State (IS), but who has personally come out sharply against IS and in favour of al-Qaeda.
Al-Barqawi’s 9 January statement reads:
In my opinion, the mergers will result in the appearance of two groups, each one with his project.
The first group: It is the one that will strive for the Islamic project and application of shari’a.
The second group: They are the groups receiving foreign support, who will strive for the Erdogan model and strive for a democratic state wearing the cloak of Islam …
There will be a clash between the two groups sooner or later, and the governments undoubtedly will support the groups they fund after they paint the first group to look like Da’ash [the Islamic State] in order to open the path to exterminate it. And they will not hesitate to create or invent internal causes for the clash to occur which will hide the foreign involvement.
So the taghalub is coming whether we like it or not! And as long as the truthful ones don’t strengthen the first group and increase their numbers to be able to control the land, the conspiracy will be successful against them and the [agents] of the Tawagheet [impious rulers] will overpower them.
But sadly, we notice that the biggest factions have drawn closer to them the people who water down the religion, who are amongst the most important reasons for deviation and failure, while they drive away the truthful ones who are the reason for being distinct and protecting the principles, or they make them inactive.
Among al-Barqawi’s ideological innovations was apostatizing the rulers of the Arab world, so it is no surprise that in Syria he has remained a forceful voice against insurgent groups working with, or accepting assistance from, external governments, even those that are religious in character.
Foreign support is also a sticking point—politically—between Ahrar al-Sham and JFS. Ahrar is close to Turkey and Qatar, while JFS (in theory) refuses to deal with any existing governments. In practice, Ahrar has often functioned as a conduit for JFS resources, possibly providing an existential lifeline during JFS’s schism with the Islamic State, and JFS has opened up sources of finance that kept Ahrar afloat when governments (usually under American pressure) have at various points cut back their support for the insurgency. But this tension over foreign backers, particularly insofar as those foreign governments have, or try to exert, influence over Ahrar, is the primary driver of that group’s internal turmoil.
Al-Barqawi is the same extremist he always was and—outside Jordan, which would throw him in jail again if he crossed their rhetorical red lines—he favours warring on the Arab governments and anathematizing those who cooperate with them. Al-Barqawi thus takes a dim view of this muddled arrangement that allows Ahrar to be all things to all sides and allows JFS the advantages of foreign support without sullying its ideological purity.
If al-Barqawi’s call was heeded it would crystalize an already fairly-well-advanced split within Ahrar—witness the formation of Jaysh al-Ahrar—and almost certainly weaken the insurgency as a whole. Of course, al-Barqawi already has an answer to that: the treason by those working with foreign governments is coming anyway, so this would be a pre-emptive strike and the jihadists could weather whatever turbulence more easily now than later, after these groups and those governments have had a chance to excogitate their conspiracy.
Post has been updated