Tensions are running high in the city of Raqqa, where the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, know by the acronym ISIS, is seeking to expand its influence at the expense of the other armed opposition groups on the ground, including the Free Syrian Army.
The situation recently reached a breaking point on Aug. 13 when an explosion targeted the headquarters of the Brigade of the Descendants of the Prophet, a group fighting under the banner of the FSA. The Brigade accused ISIS of carrying out the attack, which killed the Brigade’s commander, Ali Abdul Khalifa Othman, and some 70 others. Violent clashes between the two groups erupted shortly after and lasted for several days.
These developments followed the expansion of the Raqqa Military Council, which answers to the FSA leadership and was established to unify the military councils of other cities in the province of Raqqa in light of the absence of a unified security force and the presence of many jihadist groups competing with the FSA.
The military council currently oversees all the battalions and brigades of the FSA in Raqqa, including the Regiment 11, which was formed on July 17 and is made up of four large armed groups, including the Brigade of Raqqa Revolutionaries, the Brigade of God’s Victor, the Brigade of Raqqa Guardians and the Brigades of the Victor Salah ad-Din.
The process of expanding the military council followed long negotiations between the military council in Raqqa and the one in the city of Tabaqa, according to the former head of the council in Raqqa, who went by the name Abu Mahmoud. Abu Mahmoud spoke during an interview with the Damascus Bureau earlier this summer. He is a former pilot for the Syrian air force who defected and became an officer in the FSA. At the time, he spoke openly of the power struggle between the FSA and Islamist groups such as the ISIS.
The current head of the military council, Col. Moataz Raslan, was elected after the expansion. Before the recent clashes between the ISIS and the Brigade of the Descendants of the Prophet, which is loyal to the FSA, Raslan insisted to the Damascus Bureau that, “There is no conflict between the military council and any other armed group: Neither the Nusra Front nor the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham.”
Even after the clashes, a spokesman for the military council adopted a diplomatic tone.
“The council itself was not party to the dispute, but it did communicate with both sides to help broker a cease-fire,” said the spokesman, who called himself.
Abu Bakr quoted one of the leaders of the Brigade of Descendants of the Prophet, saying that many fighters had left the city “for the sake of protecting civilians.”
Other FSA-aligned groups maintain good relations with the jihadist groups, however, and some even work together in certain areas. The Brigade of Guardians of Raqqa is represented by the military council but also falls under the security branch of the local Sharia Council, an Islamic court and the only judicial authority in the city. The Sharia Council also controls some elements of the Islamic State along with the Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist jihadist movement.
Other groups on the ground in Raqqa include the local council, which briefly stopped working after the abduction of its head, the lawyer Abdullah Khalil, on May 18. General elections in July resulted in the election of a new local council, however, with the FSA’s Regiment 11, which falls under the military council, announcing its support for the new council.
It is not yet clear whether the local council, in addition to providing services such as trash collection, securing potable water and maintaining the electricity network, will work with the military council and the other security bodies to maintain order in the city of Raqqa.
According to Col. Raslan, the military council provides a minimum level of security through patrols and checkpoints, which are set up at night “to prevent theft.” The military council has also established a “security office of the revolution” to register security complaints from the public.
Col. Raslan also said the military council played an active role in the battle to break the siege imposed by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party on the city of Tal Abyad in northern Raqqa. The Brigade of the Descendants of the Prophet and the Raqqa Revolutionaries’ Brigade, which fall under the council, succeeded in breaking the siege July 21. He added that the council organizes all Free Syrian Army battalions in the province of Raqqa, including Tal Abyad and Tabaqa, which still engage in battles against government forces.
While the armed opposition controls most of Raqqa, the government still holds the nearby headquarters of the Regiment 17, which occasionally comes under attack from the armed opposition.
“The council has no intention of being the only security body in the region,” said Colonel Raslan. “We are working with all revolutionary factions and are ready to deal with any faction. Our only goal is to overthrow the regime.”
Among the greatest challenges facing the military council, said its spokesman, Abu Bakr, is the lack of military and material support, which has yet to materialize despite promises from the FSA leadership.
Many activists see increased coordination between the FSA groups as a hopeful sign.
“I am somewhat optimistic about the expansion of the military council,” said Ahmed al-Satam, 30, a media activist. “I hope they will play a more effective role by including all factions of the opposition, and acting as the sole legitimate representative to the FSA leadership.”
Most activists also expressed a desire to see the military council address the presence of jihadist groups, especially after one of them allegedly launched an RPG at a demonstration demanding ambulances be allowed into the site of the bombed headquarters of the Brigade of the Descendants of the Prophet. Both the bombing and the RPG attack were widely believed to have been carried out by the ISIS.
Arwa Muhamish, 54, a civil society activist, called on the FSA to fulfill its “duty to protect the liberated cities and prevent anyone from killing or intimidating civilians.”
Media activist Amer Matar, 23, on the other hand, said he does not expect any armed group to play a positive role, even the FSA, pointing to incidents of “murder, robbery and kidnapping” carried out by elements of the armed opposition. The only solution to face the regime, he maintained, is using peaceful means of protest.
*By Abdel Karim Jaafar
The Damascus Bureau is an online platform for independent Syrian journalists. The men and women who write for The Damascus Bureau report on the social, political and economic affairs of war-torn Syria and the Syrian diaspora in the surrounding countries. Read more: http://damascusbureau.org.