By Mahmoud a-Shimali and Rami al-Khattib
IDLIB: On a Wednesday evening late last month, minarets in the northern Syrian town of Saraqeb broadcast a message over their loudspeakers. Instead of calling for prayer, the mosques were calling for men to take to the streets.
At the time, tensions between Idlib province’s powerful Islamist rebel factions were rapidly approaching a breaking point. Jabhat Fateh a-Sham, a former affiliate of al-Qaeda, had launched attacks against several nationalist, Free Syrian Army rebels following their attendance of political negotiations with the Syrian regime in Kazakhstan.
The initial JFS attacks provoked retaliation from Ahrar a-Sham and several other armed factions, leading to exchanges of gunfire and artillery in the mountainous Jabal a-Zawiya region 20km south of Idlib city. By January 25, JFS had lost 7 soldiers—including one commander—and five civilians had been injured or killed in the fighting, reported the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
That same day, the local council of Saraqeb learned that a JFS convoy was set to pass through the city and join the fight in Jabal a-Zawiya, and decided to act. They commissioned Saraqeb’s mosques, using the loudspeakers that normally broadcast the five daily calls to prayer, to mobilize a demonstration. Protestors from Saraqeb blocked streets and burned tires at a checkpoint five kilometers from the city, effectively preventing the convoy from passing.
Eventually, JFS caved. In a joint statement with Ahrar a-Sham, Saraqeb’s local council, and other local factions, JFS announced that Saraqeb was neutral in the infighting and prohibited any military convoys from entering city limits.
The events in Saraqeb in late January are one example of how unarmed civilians are intervening to slow the pace of rebel infighting which is endangering their lives and, in their view, their “revolution.” Since the nearly four weeks of on-and-off, rebel-rebel clashes began on January 20th, civilian-run local councils in Idlib and opposition-controlled west Aleppo have organized protests, issued public statements and, in Saraqeb, actively disrupted the factions’ military maneuvering.
“Your infighting leaves a deep wound in the body of our revolution,” read a sign held by a protestor in central Idlib’s Maarat an-Numan on January 28th.
As in Saraqeb, the local council in south Idlib’s Kufr Roma announced the town’s neutrality on January 25th, building a coalition of civilians and tribal elders to prevent any militant intervention in the city’s civil affairs. Since Kufr Roma’s statement, over 20 other local councils have followed suit and announced their neutrality from the infighting.
Rebel groups respond to infighting
Ahmed Qurra Ali, the official spokesperson for Ahrar a-Sham, released a statement crediting civilians for pressuring the factions toward a “peaceful, internal solution.”
Ali adds that families divided by the conflict—with sons fighting in multiple groups—also played a role in ending the infighting.
“The civilians’ pressure was enough to end the infighting on all levels,” he claims.
Over the course of last month’s infighting, factions hostile to JFS began merging with Ahrar a-Sham—one of Syria’s largest and most powerful rebel factions—effectively granting them protection from JFS attacks. In response, on January 28 JFS announced the formation of Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham—a coalition of rebel groups coming together under JFS.
The hostilities between the two groups have calmed, for now, but new infighting broke out earlier this week between Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham and hardline Islamists in the Jund al-Aqsa faction over the latter’s alleged ties to the Islamic State.
Syria’s Cain and Abel
45-year-old Ismail Muhammad’s two sons are rebel fighters with Syria’s opposition. His older son, Muhammad, fights with JFS, while his younger son is an Ahrar a-Sham militant. The past few weeks having been trying for the family, he tells the Syrian Voice.
Abu Muhammad feared that the infighting would enter his home, and he imagined himself reliving the tale of Cain and Abel, with one of his sons killing the other.
He came up with a plan to indirectly take them off the battlefield.
“When the fighting started, I convinced my son Muhammad to open up a store,” the father tells the Syrian Voice. As for my other son, Ahmad, I asked him to build a house next to my home and paid him to do so.”
“Thankfully, this kept them too preoccupied to participate in the fighting.”