An under-reported fact about the Syrian war is that away from the major battles underway against ISIS in Al-Bab, Palmyra and Deir Ezzor, the fiercest fighting in Syria over the last two weeks has been in Jihadi controlled Idlib where Al-Qaeda has effectively declared war on Jihadi groups that are participating in the Russian-Turkish brokered ceasefire and in the Astana peace process.
Idlib is for understandable reasons out of reach of journalists so the exact extent of the fighting is very difficult to assess. Most of the reports of the fighting have come from sources like the Al-Masdar news agency and the Iranian news agency Fars. Both are supporters of the Syrian government in the ongoing war, and for obvious reasons neither is therefore in a position to report directly from Idlib. That does not make their reports necessarily wrong, but it does mean they have to be treated carefully.
That fighting between Jihadi groups is however indeed underway in Idlib, and that this fighting is very fierce, is beyond question, with numerous reports about it being published by the Jihadi groups themselves in their various media platforms. There have even been scattered reports of it buried deep in reports about the Syrian war published by the Western media. See for example this report in Middle East Eye.
Fars speculates that the outbreak of the fighting has been in part triggered by reports of secret agreements at the Astana peace conference to reinforce the Russian-Turkish imposed ceasefire at the expense of Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
It is quite likely that such agreements do in fact exist and Al-Qaeda – against whom they are directed – would of course see them as an act of betrayal on the part of the Jihadi groups that were party to them, and would respond violently to them.
However that is true of the whole Russian-Turkish-Iranian sponsored peace process, including the Russian-Turkish imposed ceasefire, and the peace conference in Astana. An organisation like Al-Qaeda, which is purposefully excluded from this process, does not require secret agreements to act violently against Jihadi groups and individuals who take part in it.
Beyond the obvious reason for the fighting – Al-Qaeda’s predictably violent reaction to Jihadi individuals and groups which have agreed to join the ceasefire and participate in the Astana peace process – it is likely that there are two other reasons for the fighting.
The first is that there are now the first tentative indications that the Turkish authorities are trying to reduce the flow of arms and supplies to Al-Qaeda in Syria across the Turkish border, though it should be stressed that this does not seem to apply to other Jihadi groups whom Turkey continues to support.
The extent to which Turkey really is seeking to limit the flow of arms and supplies to Al-Qaeda in Syria is debatable, but if there is any truth to this then it may be a reason for some of the fighting, with some of the reports from Fars especially suggesting that one of the main reasons for Al-Qaeda’s attacks on other Jihadi groups is to seize their supplies.
The second is the transfer by the Syrian government of defeated Jihadis from across Syria to Idlib. With the Jihadi fighters have a chronically chaotic chain of command it is easy to see how the arrival of large numbers of defeated and angry Jihadi fighters to Idlib from across Syria might be leading to quarrels and recriminations with the Al-Qaeda leadership which is based there. Given the sort of people these are, it is not difficult to see how such quarrels and recriminations might escalate to violence and eventually to all-out fighting as the Al-Qaeda leadership in Idlib struggles to assert its control.
Incidentally, for those interested in theological questions, this infighting between Salafi Jihadi groups contradicts the absolute Quranic prohibition against Muslims deliberately killing other Muslims except in self defence. Al-Qaeda and ISIS have previously rationalised their killing of non-Salafi Muslims by declaring them apostates. Now presumably they are extending the charge of apostasy to other Salafi Muslims.
One curious by-product of this Jihadi infighting the irony of which is not lost on the Russians, is that they have been insisting ever since the start of their intervention in Syria in 2015 that any Jihadi groups which wanted to participate in a peace settlement in Syria should separate themselves from Al-Qaeda.
Throughout the whole of 2016 the Obama administration and the Jihadis themselves insisted it could not be done as the various Jihadi groups and Al-Qaeda were “marbled together”. Now by attacking the other Jihadi groups Al-Qaeda – at least to a certain extent – is taking the initiative to do it.