Below we see Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusrah’s top shari’ah official Sami al-Oreidi issue an unusually direct attack on top leadership in Jeish al-Islam, the most powerful rebel faction in Damascus’s East Ghouta suburbs. Al-Oreidi’s tweets (translated below) make clear that members of Nusrah’s top leadership share and endorse hardline jihadists’ hostility to Jeish al-Islam and its leader, Zahran Alloush. They also speak to broader anxieties among Syria’s jihadists as they attempt to coexist, often uncomfortably, with other political and ideological trends within the Syrian opposition.
Al-Oreidi is apparently annoyed over comments from Jeish al-Islam leader and religious figure Sheikh Sami (Abu Abdurrahman) Ka’ka’ criticizing Jabhat al-Nusrah for shelling Damascus city after an aborted Russian-brokered ceasefire that would have allowed relief into the besieged East Ghouta suburbs. (I’ve been unable to find Ka’ka’s original comments.) Al-Oreidi reproaches Jeish al-Islam for its own overreach and, somewhat more dramatically, endorses premiere Salafi-jihadist theorist Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi’s comparison between the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and the “Alalish” – Zahran Alloush’s supporters, or Jeish al-Islam.
Al-Oreidi’s comments are in one sense a product of personality clashes and local, Damascus-area politics. Jihadists have long been hostile to Jeish al-Islam and Alloush personally; in turn, Jeish al-Islam and Alloush have had a reputation for heavy-handedness in how they dealt with local political and military rivals. Recently tensions in East Ghouta have spiked amid jostling over control of smuggling tunnels into East Ghouta and allegations that Jeish al-Islam was behind the assassination of a local jihadist cleric and judge.
These disputes have prompted jihadists outside the Ghouta, many of whom view Alloush as an enemy-in-waiting, to weigh in. A series of leaked video and audio recordings of Jeish al-Islam leaders allegedly plotting assassinations is actually what prompted al-Maqdisi – who has controversially attacked Alloush before – to compare ISIS and the “Alalish.” Now we have apparent evidence that Jabhat al-Nusrah’s top religious official is sympathetic to al-Maqdisi’s position on Jeish al-Islam and Zahran Alloush, which seems to promise new waves of intra-rebel violence.
Al-Oreidi’s reference to “Bosnia,” though, shows that his mind is also on broader rebel-jihadist dynamics. Al-Oreidi’s allusion to his remarks to now-deceased Ahrar al-Sham leader Hassan Abboud (Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi) refers to their sharp back-and-forth over the “Revolutionary Covenant” that was announced in May 2014. “They say, ‘We don’t want the Iraqi tragedy to repeat itself,’” wrote al-Oreidi at the time, “but they are heading towards a new Bosnian tragedy, on Syrian soil. Save yourselves, save yourselves from the whirlpool of the past.” (For more on al-Oreidi and Abboud’s argument, see my June 2014 article on Syrian factions’ “shar’is.”)
The Revolutionary Covenant was framed in uncomfortably nationalist, non-religious terms for al-Oreidi, hence his evocation of Bosnia’s Dayton Accords. The 1995 Dayton agreement is a recurring bugbear for jihadists, who view its requirement that all foreign fighters withdraw from Bosnia (Annex 1A, Article III) as a nationalist betrayal of the jihadist foreign fighters who had sacrificed for their Muslim brothers. (Al-Oreidi is himself a foreign fighter of Palestinian-Jordanian origin.)
Jihadists fear a Dayton-style settlement in which Syria’s nationalist – or not-transnationalist, at least – rebels compromise on the jihadists’ goal of a purely Islamic state and turn on the jihadists themselves, many of whom would become stateless fugitives. In that sense, jihadists have adopted Zahran Alloush as a sort of hate object in part because he symbolizes many of jihadists’ fears and suspicions about the revolutionary context around them. He is, they think, exactly the sort of Syrian nationalist who would sell them out.
This is the sort of angst that will only intensify as regional and international actors push for a political settlement. When the next round of rebel-jihadist violence breaks out, it will likely have a local spark, but these arguments and apprehensions about the character of the Syrian state mean the stakes will be much bigger.
Translation follows. (Note: To the extent possible, I’ve maintained the odd, haiku-ish way al-Oreidi splits his individual tweets between multiple lines.)
When [ISIS spokesperson Abu Muhammad] al-Adnani spoke, we saw a thousand pens respond.
But when [Jeish al-Islam commander Zahran] Alloush and [top Jeish al-Islam religious official and judge Samir “Abu Abdurrahman”] Ka’ka’ slander the mujahideen,
Then we don’t hear a whisper.
The disastrousness of what Alloush and Ka’ka’ say
Is no less than that of al-Adnani.
Our Sheikh al-Maqdisi spoke the truth when he compared the Da’adish [derog., ISIS members] with the Alalish [derog., Alloush/Jeish al-Islam supporters].
Ka’ka’ resembled al-Adnani
When he described Jabhat al-Nusrah’s shelling of Damascus after their supposed truce as “foolishness”
Because the regime targeted Jeish al-Islam positions afterwards.
What would he say about what [Jeish al-Islam] did – foolishness, according to Ka’ka’ and his sheikh Alloush – when they shelled Damascus.
And after that, the Duma massacre happened. Is that jihad?
What is the matter with you? How do you judge?
I said it before to [now-deceased Ahrar al-Sham head] Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi – may God have mercy on him: You say you don’t want [Syria] to be another Iraq. We say that we don’t want it to be another Bosnia.
God, may You guide us toward Your religion and put our Islamic nation on Your path.