Catching Up: Two Jihadology Pieces and Middle East Week

Apologies, super-behind in updating this blog! (Also, following me on Twitter is a much better way to stay up-to-date on anything I’m writing.)

Two recent Jihadology guest pieces:

Also, tune into my recent appearance on the Middle East Week podcast, on which I discuss the above two pieces and how Nusrah has evolved more broadly over the course of 2014.

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Jeish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar Shar’i: “I bring you good news…”

Below we see Jeish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar’s top shar’iMu’tasim Billah al-Madani” rebut the arguments of defected shar’iAbu Azzam al-Najdi.” Mu’tasim Billah’s response is itself enlightening, insofar as it provides a window into how jihadists understand intra-rebel dynamics and their own legitimacy.

Since his defection to ISIS, former Jeish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar shar’i Abu Azzam has continued to appeal to other jihadists to join him in what he argues is ISIS’s successful, coherent experiment of Islamic governance. He has emphasized ISIS’s most visible achievements, e.g., the implementation of the hudoud, a set of Islamic criminal punishments. He has also denigrated the dysfunction of rebel-held areas and the fact that “sincere” – that is, jihadist – fighters are sent to the fronts to be chewed up while crooks and agents of the West plot to undermine them.

Mu’tasim Billah answers by pointing to jihadists’ preferred model of Islamic law being implemented across northern Syria. In sharp contrast with the alarm of many inside and outside Syria over ISIS’s videotaped stoning of an allegedly adulterous woman in eastern Hama earlier this week, Mu’tasim Billah’s first example of God’s will being done is a stoning in Saraqeb (Idlib). He also provides a sort of map of northern jihadist areas of control, including many areas now administered by the Jabhat al-Nusrah-linked Dar al-Qadaa (Judiciary).

All of these examples flag a shift within Syria’s jihadist camp, one that seems driven by an evolving Jabhat al-Nusrah (also known as al-Qaeda in the Levant). Nusrah had previously adhered to a sort of jihadist minimalism, at least temporarily declining to implement harsh social codes like the hudoud and backing consensual structures that met a minimum level of Islamic legitimacy, such as the Aleppo Shari’ah Commission. Now, in a seeming attempt to shore up its own credibility and to retain the loyalty of jihadists who might otherwise defect to ISIS, Nusrah has been behaving more and more like circa-2013 ISIS. Nusrah is now engaging some less-reputable nationalist brigades with the same sort of sharp-elbows approach ISIS used in summer and fall of last year. It’s also begun to adopt a similar fast-forward approach to law and governance that is, arguably, religiously unsound in wartime.

Despite warnings from jihadist reformers like Nusrah’s Abu Mariyah al-Qahtani about the need for jihadist groups to purge “ghulaat” (extremists) from their ranks, Nusrah and other groups seem to have responded to ISIS’s ideological threat by becoming more like ISIS – catering to their own most extreme members by competing to implement Islamic rule here and now. That’s why we see Mu’tasim Billah mustering these examples when arguing with Abu Azzam; in an intra-jihadist argument, stonings are a badge of pride.

(Also of note: That the areas Mu’tasim Billah says are either under jihadist control or that of jihadists’ nationalist rebel frenemies like Jamal Ma’rouf are so discombobulated geographically is just further evidence of what a patchwork things are in the rebel north.)

Translation follows:

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Abu Azzam al-Najdi: “No one has a successful plan to implement God’s law except the Islamic State.”

Below we see Jeish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA) shar’iAbu Azzam al-Najdi’s” frank rationale for leaving JMA to join the Islamic State (IS / ISIS). Jeish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar is a mostly foreign fighter battalion that has been active in Aleppo. It is best known for its Caucasian (e.g., Chechen) contingent, but it also counts Arabs among its ranks — it recently absorbed the heavily Saudi al-Katibah al-Khadra (the Green Battalion), and Abu Azzam’s nom du guerre indicates that he hails from the Najd (east Saudi Arabia). Abu Azzam had been JMA’s shar’i and, at least in Arabic media, its main fundraising point of contact. Saudi fundraiser and ideologue Abdullah al-Muheisini had recommended as late as April that any would-be foreign fighters should reach out specifically to Abu Azzam.

Abu Azzam defected to ISIS alongside a substantial chunk of al-Katibah al-Khadra, including its commander Omar Seif and at least one of its shar’is. (Seif had apparently just been detained by the Syrian Revolutionaries Front on suspicions, now vindicated, that he was linked to ISIS. Other jihadists intervened to broker his release.)

As can be seen below, there are a number of strains to Abu Azzam’s thinking, or at least what he’s willing to disclose of it. Some of it reads like picking a winner: on the one hand, an endorsement of ISIS’s success in building a functional Islamic state; on the other, disillusionment with the dysfunction of rebel-controlled areas and a clear distrust of non-jihadist rebels. The current U.S./Coalition campaign on ISIS apparently figures into his logic, too, pushing him to advocate jihadist solidarity with ISIS to better resist “the nations of disbelief.”

ISIS and pro-ISIS accounts have been crowing about successive jihadist defections to ISIS, doing everything they can to advertise ISIS’s continuing momentum. When it comes to drawing away foreign fighters, I suspect they’re right – Abu Azzam is not the first to defect to ISIS, and I doubt he’ll be the last.

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Suqour al-Sham commander: “Our land can’t bear a proxy war.”

Below is Suqour al-Sham / Islamic Front commander Abu Ammar’s response to impending U.S. intervention in Syria. Unsurprisingly, after America’s stop-and-start support for rebels and recurring rumors that Ahrar al-Sham or the entire Islamic Front would be designated as terrorists, he is not in love with the idea.

One idea worth bearing in mind when evaluating American intervention in Syria is “path dependence,” the idea that your previous action (or inaction) bounds the options currently available to you. Goodwill towards America among Syria’s rebels – while not necessarily exhausted – is a wasting asset, one that has been depleted as the war has dragged on without meaningful American support for rebels. When America was considering action in August and September 2013, the rebels most unfriendly to a U.S. role were substantially less powerful and dug into areas outside regime control. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that America is going to have a much tougher time finding partners now than it would have last year.

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Ahrar al-Sham’s Abu Yazan: “It’s our country and our revolution.”

Below is a translation of Ahrar al-Sham shar’i-commander “Abu Yazan’s” apparent response to Jordanian Salafi-jihadist theorist Eyad Quneibi. Quneibi has attracted sharply critical responses – particularly from prominent Ahrar leadership – for his non-specific warnings against cooperation with Syrian factions that are Western agents and are otherwise tainted. In this 3 September response, we see Abu Yazan rebuke not only (an unnamed) Quneibi, but also ideas of Salafi-jihadist purism more broadly. This is quite striking coming from a leader in Ahrar, which has itself flirted with Salafi-jihadism but now may have reverted to a more nationalist brand of (still hardline) Salafism.

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Bishara on Syria: “The people are the ones who turned out to be strong!”

The above is a selection from Azmi Bishara’s appearance on the May 20 episode of Al Jazeera’s “Fil-‘Umq” (In Depth), titled either “Challenges Facing the Syrian Revolution” or “The Syrian Revolution at a Crossroads.”

Bishara is one of the Arab world’s leading public intellectuals (and, reportedly, a key influence on Qatari foreign policy). Here he helps contextualize Syrian-American relations, both before and since the revolution.

The real nut of this should be evident from the title of this post, though. Circa 2:20, Bishara upends much of the discussion of the Syrian regime’s strength. It’s some key perspective that helps re-frame the balance of power inside Syria and  makes clear the real strength of the Syrian people and the opposition rebels.

This still doesn’t mean that the fall of the regime is somehow a foregone conclusion. It should, however, suggest why it will be so difficult for the Syrian regime to break the back of this rebellion.

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King Bashar

Here’s something I wrote earlier today. Forgive me if it’s a little too inside. The Gause-Yom piece I discuss, by the way, comes highly recommended.

(Also, I forgot to post my Foreign Policy article earlier, so please read that if you haven’t.)

King Bashar: What the Survival of the Arab Monarchs Tells Us About the Assad Regime

The staying power of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has left many perplexed. Since 2011’s wave of Arab revolution, Assad has outlasted his contemporaries among the region’s republican autocrats. President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, President Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen are all (basically) finished.

The Arab monarchs, on the other hand, have persisted. From Morocco to Saudi Arabia to Oman, the Arab world’s monarchies weathered unrest and emerged whole. Even Bahrain, which faced the monarchies’ most regime-threatening uprising, is intact.

It’s a phenomenon of survival for which Sean L. Yom and F. Gregory Gause III offer a compelling logic in their Journal of Democracy article “Resilient Royals: How Arab Monarchs Hang On.” They cast that survival in strategic terms – and, reading the article this week, I couldn’t help but think that those terms also describe the Assad regime.

It may make sense, then, to think of Syria not as one of the last Arab republics standing, but rather as one of a host of Arab monarchies that refuse to die. The framework put forward by Yom and Gause might help explain how Assad has lasted so long – and why he could last substantially longer.

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