A stream of reports from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) beginning in mid-July say that al Qaeda’s Iraqi and Syrian wings are jointly fighting Kurdish forces in northern Syria. The reports suggest that a bitter disagreement between the emirs of the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has not stopped the two groups from fighting side by side.
Backstory on disagreement
Abu Bakr al Baghdadi (also known as Abu Dua), the emir of al Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), tried to subsume control of the Al Nusrah Front in early April. Al Baghdadi announced that the ISI would now be referred to as the ISIL, given its expansion into neighboring Syria.
However, a few days later, Al Nusrah Front emir Abu Mohammed al Julani rejected al Baghdadi’s decision to consolidate forces under a common banner even though al Baghdadi and the ISI had helped spawn the Al Nusrah Front in the first place. Al Julani reaffirmed his allegiance directly to al Qaeda’s emir, Ayman al Zawahiri.
The public spat prompted Zawahiri to intervene. Zawahiri criticized both leaders, but decided in al Julani’s favor, ruling that the Al Nusrah Front should retain its own separate command. While the Al Nusrah Front celebrated Zawahiri’s decision, al Baghdadi did not. The ISI/ISIL leader openly defied Zawahiri’s ruling.
How, or even if, the dispute has been resolved behind closed doors is not publicly known. But the SOHR’s reporting on the fighting inside Syria suggests that this leadership disagreement has not prevented the two al Qaeda wings from jointly confronting their enemies inside Syria.
SOHR reporting: Al Qaeda v. Kurdish forces
The fog of war makes verifying any battlefield reports a difficult endeavor. And The Long War Journal cannot independently verify the SOHR’s reporting. But the SOHR has proven to be a reliable outlet in the past, despite the many difficulties in reporting on the Syrian war. And the SOHR’s reporting on the conflict between Kurdish forces and al Qaeda’s affiliates is generally consistent with other reporting.
On the one side stands the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG), which is a branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a US-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization. The YPG’s forces are allied with the Liwa’ Jabhat al Akrad (Kurdish Front Battalion). On the other side stands the Al Nusrah Front and the ISIL, which the SOHR refers to as the “ISIS.” (The final “S” in this acronym stands for “Sham” instead of “Levant.”)
For months, the Kurds and jihadists had divided Ras al Ayn, a key border city in the northeastern province of Hasakah. But on July 16, the fighting took on a new urgency.
According to the SOHR, the “Al Nusrah Front and the ISIS attacked a YPG patrol and kidnapped 1 YPG fighter.” The “patrol” was a Kurdish women’s defense unit convoy. Even before the attack, the YPG had brought in reinforcements, as had Al Nusrah with “more than 200 fighters.”
The YPG quickly freed its detained fighter, but not without heavy fighting.
On July 17, “9 combatants” from the Al Nusrah Front and the ISIS were reportedly killed during the fighting with the YPG. “The Kurdish Defense units took hold of large parts of the Ras al Ayn city after violent clashes…with Al Nusrah Front, ISIS and rebel battalions,” the SOHR reported. “Most of the combatants of Al Nusrah, the ISIS and rebel battalions” withdrew to the surrounding areas. Additional reporting has since identified these “rebel battalions” as the Ahrar al Sham, a Syrian Islamist group that is sympathetic to al Qaeda; the Ahfad al Rasoul Brigade, a Free Syrian Army unit that is reportedly supported by Qatar; and the Islamic Kurdish Front.
The Kurdish forces purportedly wanted a truce, but al Qaeda’s men refused.
The following day, July 18, the SOHR reported that the “[v]iolent clashes” were “ongoing” between the YPG and the Al Nusrah Front in several villages with the YPG gaining control of additional territory, including an oil area. Meanwhile, the Al Nusrah Front and the ISIS “bombarded” Ras al Ayn from their “centralized” locations in neighboring areas.
On July 19, the SOHR reported that the fighting was “ongoing for the 4th consecutive day between the Kurdish Defence Units (YPG) and fighters from the Al Nusrah Front, the ISIS and rebel battalions.” That same day, an Al Nusrah Front fighter “was killed after detonating himself near a YPG headquarters,” but no one else was killed in the blast.
By July 20, “19 YPG fighters” and roughly three dozen “fighters from the Al Nusrah Front, the ISIS and some rebel factions have been killed” in the fighting.
More of the same was reported in Hasakah province from July 21 onward. After the ISIS lost control of Ras al Ayn, the SOHR reported that foreign passports, including one belonging to an American citizen, had been left behind.
Meanwhile, the battles between the YPG and Kurdish forces on the one side, and al Qaeda’s representatives on the other, intensified in neighboring Raqqah province.
The Al Nusrah Front reportedly detained a Kurdish journalist and several others on July 20. And the Liwa’ Jabhat al Akrad (Kurdish Front Battalion), which fights alongside the YPG, detained a local ISIS emir that same day. The Liwa’ Jabhat al Akrad had apparently refused to swear bayat (an oath of loyalty) to the ISIS man.
Liwa’ Jabhat al Akrad quickly exchanged the ISIS emir for “hundreds of Syrian Kurdish civilians.” The ISIS had kidnapped the civilians, “who are relatives of the fighters in the Kurdish brigade,” and turned them into bargaining chips.
On July 25, the ISIS allegedly blew up homes belonging to Liwa’ Jabhat al Akrad and YPG families in Raqqah province, drawing the SOHR’s condemnation. The SOHR stated: “These actions of forced displacement, and systematic burning of houses of opposition or fighters’ families reminds us only of the Baathist regime and its crimes. We at the Syrian Observatory strongly condemn the Islamic state of Iraq and its actions that are categorized as war crimes.”
In its updates on July 26 and 27, the SOHR noted that the fighting between the Kurds and joint Al Nusrah Front-ISIS forces was ongoing in both Hasakah and Raqqah provinces.
Despite the disagreement between al Baghdadi and al Julani, their forces continue to battle their common enemies. They have not turned their guns on one another, but instead on the Kurds.
*Note: The Long War Journal has standardized the spelling of some words, including the Al Nusrah Front, throughout the citations to SOHR’s reporting.