Musings of an Iraqi Brasenostril on Jihad: Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham in Raqqah: Demonstrations and Counter-Demonstrations

NOTE: An archive of the Musings of an Iraqi Brasenostril on Jihad column can now be found here.

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
In a previous post for Jihadology I documented how looking at evidence from Raqqah Governorate basically illustrates that the designations of Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) are interchangeable in that area. The latest controversy that has emerged in the city of Raqqah itself further demonstrates this conclusion.
The controversy began with videos that came to light of a sit-in demonstration being held by some women in front of what the channel Aks Alser termed ‘the headquarters of the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham.’ The grievances focus on calls for ISIS to release close family members from detention, with one woman holding a placard entitled ‘I want a piece of my liver’ (i.e. an idiomatic expression for ‘I want my son/offspring’).
The woman who first speaks at length in the video holds a sign saying ‘Where is my son?’. The lady to her right holds a sign asking ‘Where is my brother?’ As for the speaker, she mentions how men from rival battalions like the Kata’ib al-Farouq[i] have been detained with no knowledge of their fate, with some having been held for up to a whole month now.
Similarly, another video [H/T: @Syrian_Scenes] emerged showing demonstrations ‘in front of the headquarters of Jabhat al-Nusra,’ where a young girl first appeared, crying about the fact that her father- himself a rebel fighter- had been detained with ‘that Jabha’ for more than a month. By ‘Jabha’ (‘front’), she is presumably referring to ‘Jabhat al-Nusra’, as she also mentions how they are ‘Islamiyeen’ (‘Islamists’). In her pleas for her father, the young girl was one of the figureheads for the protests.
To be sure, the protestors shown in this video are religious, but they clearly do not subscribe to a comprehensive Islamist program, and only the Free Syrian Army flag is to be observed here.
Some Arabic news channels like al-Arabiya seized upon news of these protests, prompting a response from activists in JAN and ISIS circles. Most notably, here is a statement released by a pro-JAN activist based in Syria who uses the handle @9amar_1.
She begins by complaining of the spreading of slanderous attacks on ‘the mujahideen of the Islamic State [of Iraq and ash-Sham][ii] and Jabhat al-Nusra, especially in light of what is transpiring from the protests in Raqqah in front of the headquarters of the Islamic State, by which also Jabhat al-Nusra has faced accusations- for general distortion- in the media,’ later singling out al-Arabiya and al-Jazeera in particular for incitement against the mujahideen.
She goes on to explain how the ruling of Syria by a ‘Nusayri regime’ has distanced the people from religion. As for those whom ‘the Islamic State has arrested,’ she justifies the detention by asserting that said prisoners ‘have exceeded the boundaries of Shari’a.’
One conclusion to note from this activist’s statement is the importance of not generalizing about the ISIS-JAN relationship in terms of what activists in these ideological circles. It is quite clear that @9amar_1 views ISIS and JAN as working for the same goals but the naming is a matter of personal preference and completely interchangeable.
In turn, it is clear that a conflation of JAN-ISIS in terms of the naming of the headquarters outside of which were protests and the faction against which the protests took place indicate how ISIS and JAN in Raqqah are essentially one and the same.
In Raqqah itself, further evidence of an ISIS-JAN unity became clear in the counter-demonstrations on the ground. Here is one such video, featuring several youths holding the banners of Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham al-Islamiya (which, to recall, was the main group of battalions responsible for the rebel takeover of Raqqah in March), ISIS and the general flag of jihad.
The video itself is entitled ‘Syrians’ response to the al-Arabiya report against Jabhat al-Nusra, Raqqah.’ In the video, the speaker sarcastically asks, ‘Where is the Arab Jabha?’- a clear retort to denunciations of JAN. He concludes by making clear that the only worthy slogan is the Shahada. Here is another video of a recent counter-demonstration, featuring the banners of Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham al-Islamiya, JAN and ISIS.
These videos form a marked contrast with footage of demonstrations from Raqqah before. While it is evident that the numbers in these rallies and counter-rallies are fairly small in comparison to the protests based on common causes like solidarity with the rebels fighting for Quṣayr, they mark for the first time a true demarcation based on ideology, whereas in earlier demonstrations I documented banners and factions from across the spectrum could be seen.
At the same time, it is apparent that ISIS/JAN in Raqqah does not think it can assert itself in the face of ideologically-opposed protestors by means of an armed confrontation. Notice how the demonstration outside its headquarters was entirely left alone, even as the group has made its show of strength clear with spectacles like the execution of three men in a public square, accused of working for the Assad regime.
However, if the rallies and counter-rallies continue, it may well be that no concord can be reached again whereby FSA and ISIS flags feature side-by-side in rallies, and instead a situation emerges as in Aleppo where ISIS and other sympathetic factions have their own separate marches.
The recent developments should also debunk the false dichotomy posed by some commentators of ‘Salafist nationalist’ Syrian Islamic Front [SIF] groups like Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham al-Islamiya versus transnational jihadist groups (cf. my overview of statements put out by various factions on Sheikh Jowlani’s bayah to Sheikh Aymenn al-Zawahiri).
To sum up, the recent wave of demonstrations in Raqqah only reinforces the point that in this part of Syria, ISIS and JAN are interchangeable. Further, it illustrates how groups like Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham al-Islamiya of SIF can on the ground display more affinity with overtly transnational jihadist groups than commonly thought. The current tensions are unlikely to spill into overt bloodshed between rival battalions in Raqqah itself, but that could well change when such rivalries are on display in the border town of Tel Abyaḍ.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum. His website is Follow on Twitter at @ajaltamimi

[i] Farouq Battalions in Raqqah Governorate have a long-standing rivalry with JAN/ISIS, centering on border control at Tel Abyaḍ. See my post here and Shami Witness’ article here.
[ii] In discourse within Syria, it is common to abbreviate ‘Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham’ to just ‘State of Islam’ (literal translation here) or ‘Islamic State.’

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