This post was written by Shami Witness (
@ElSaltador), a rising star as it concerns Syrian Jihadism
This post is about growing tensions between two factions of the Syrian Resistance, Jabhat an-Nusra and the Kata’ib al-Farouq in Syria.
Kata’ib al-Farouq, one of the largest, GCC-leaning opposition battalions in Syria is in the news again. Since last week, they have been busy battling jihadists from Jabhat an-Nusra in Tal Abayadd, a town in ar-Raqqa governorate, near the Turkish border. The details of the why and how are murky, but clashes continued at least till 24 March, 2013, when Jabhat an-Nusra was seen gaining ground near the Ali bin-Abi Talib Mosque in the city. A report from Rania Abouzeid (@Raniaab) of TIME mentions only the Farouq side of the story, which of course, doesn’t give a complete picture of what happened.
But from the facts that cannot be denied is this: Turkish intelligence maintains a strong influence over Farouq leaders, specially over the Northern Farouq ones. Back in July 2012, a coalition of rebel brigades captured Bab al-Hawa border crossing. Among the coalition were jihadists from the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC), which though not part of Jabhat an-Nusra (JN), is under “Jabhat an-Nusra’s umbrella organizationally” (to borrow a phrase used by JN to highlight relations between them and MSC).
The Turkish intelligence panicked as soon as they realized the jihadists’ presence. They would rather have another brigade involved in freeing Bab al-Hawa, a local chapter of the Farouq Brigade, than jihadists at their borders. It is not clear what happened,and again we only have Farouq’s side of the story (courtesy @Raniaab again), but hostilities between the MSC leader in Bab al-Hawa, Firas al-Absi, and the local Farouq deputy leader, Tha’ir al-Waqqas, increased to a point where al-Absi was kidnapped, tortured and executed by Tha’ir’s men. Though this caused a lot of anger among other rebels, most saw it wise to not create further intra-rebel strife. Even Jabhat an-Nusra kept their mouth shut, instead of coming forward to defend a group under umbrella, fearing broader backlash. al-Waqqas and his now Tal Abaydd based Farouq commander even went on to boast about this killing to media outlets, painting it in the more media-friendly narrative of moderate rebels dislodging fanatical jihadists. But revenge was coming.
By early January 2013, al-Waqqas was shot dead, allegedly by a Tunisian jihadi, in Sarmada. al-Absi’s brother, who was a commander in Homs, had pledged vengeance for his brother. And so he delivered. The blood debt was paid. Neither Farouq high command (always had tenuous control of Northern Farouq) nor MSC, nor their jihadist allies, escalated the strife. JN issued a denial of involvement and called for peaceful redressal of differences.
If you see how Farouq presents the story to English language media, it would seem it’s a plain black and white case of local, moderate fighters clashing with rabid, fanatical global jihadists, purely because Farouq wants a moderate Syria. All fine and dandy, but the truth, as always, is much more complex.
You see, Farouq Brigades, “are a bunch of thieves”, as one of my sources described them. Northern Farouq is notorious for its extensive smuggling businesses of diesel, cement, and even hashish. They carry out extortion on their checkpoints. They charge exorbitant taxes for goods passing through their checkpoints, and this greed is shared by their Homs based colleagues, who, in the last week of December 2012, were busy taxing weapons to other rebels, instead of co-operating with them to fight the regime forces, and the result was al-Assad forces carried out the Deir al-Balba massacre on Dec 29,2012. Death toll was above 100, though exact figures are disputed.
Not ashamed by this massacre, in March 2013 itself, some rebels managed to cut off al-Assad forces’ pipelines to Homs from the North. Farouq leaders actually tried to convince these rebels to not cause problems to these pipelines! Apparently they get some kickbacks from al-Assad forces for keeping the lines running.
Locals in Bab al-Hawa and surrounding don’t like Northern Farouq’s control over Bab al-Hawa. These Farouq leaders are considered outsiders, but local civilians and rebels in Bab al-Hawa as well as Tal Abaydd keep their mouth shut (for now) because they don’t want Farouq’s wrath. Farouq has almost zero public outreach, no humanitarian programmes or aid efforts; there is almost zero contact with the the civilian Syrian population, in stark contrast to jihadists from JN or the much larger Syrian Islamic Front (SIF).
Northern Farouq has also been blamed for looting of private and public property in the liberated zones, like some other rag-tag FSA factions. This was one of the crucial reasons for the jihadists now controlling ar-Raqqa city to not allow FSA factions inside the city, the ones that played no role in freeing it.
It is still not clear who started the fight first in Tal Abayyd recently, whether JN or Farouq. But this needs to be seen in recent JN efforts of influencing small, but locally-influential battalions under its umbrella, across Syria. Recently, around 15 battalions involved in the seize of Kweires Aiport pledged to support JN against “US threats”. This is what JN is trying to do. This is their second ring of defense, local allies across Syria who are much deeply rooted than big names like Harakat Ahrar as-Sham, Kata’ib Farouq, Liwa Tawheed etc. By attacking Farouq, they are signalling to local FSA battlions that they would no longer have to live under the mafia-like extortion of Farouq, if they team up with JN instead. Also watch how quickly, even after capturing territory, JN backtracked and called for peaceful redressal of disputes.
Given JN’s success in actually injuring the Farouq commander in Tal Abaydd, and ability to seize Farouq territory, this little battle should be seen as a presentation from JN to locals: see how effective we are. They most probably had no intention to totally kill off Farouq influence, but this 2-step forward, 1-step back approach is very convenient for JN.
Farouq is up against some seasoned minds who have survived,and are now recovering from the Sahwa debacle in Iraq. If Farouq wants lesser public wrath, they would have to change their ways. Or else, local battalions always have an option.
Dated:27 March, 2013