Infighting may rid Syria of extremists

The killing of Al Qaeda leader in Syria in a suicide attack blamed on Isli could signal the beginning of an end to jihadi extremistm

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It is difficult to form a clear picture of the dynamics of the Syrian conflict on the ground, especially when it comes to the different jihadi groups that are fighting the regime and, more recently, each other. But the killing of Abu Khalid Al Suri – the chief representative of Al Qaeda in Syria and who helped shape the Salafi group Ahrar Al Sham’s ideology – in a suicide attack in Aleppo would seem to be a turning point, indicating a new phase in the battle involving Al Qaeda and other international jihadi groups.

Ahrar Al Sham immediately blamed the attack on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), which is, according to observers, the most violent jihadi group in Syria, to the extent that it was recently disavowed by Al Qaeda. Another theory was that the attack came from within, due to conflicts among Ahrar Al Sham’s leaders. If, despite the denial of Isil’s commanders, the first theory is correct, it could mean that the relentless upwards trajectory of jihadism in Syria may have reached its conclusion. If Isil – which only emerged about a year ago after it splintered from Jabhat Al Nusra – is already in deadly conflict with other militant groups, then this is a remarkable turn of events.

The continuing feuding between Isil and the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al Nusra and other Syrian radical organisations has clearly resulted in new kind of discourse. Debate among these groups and their supporters about the use of extreme tactics has started to take place openly on social media platforms that are being used avidly by jihadis.

The fact that we’re witnessing internal debate about the use of indiscriminate violent tactics – which is, of course, a result of jihadis being on the receiving side of suicide bombing – is significant. Several Islamist groups have issued statements condemning Isil’s campaign of suicide bombings and assassinations from an Islamic perspective, pointing out that the religion rejects the killing of innocent people. Some jihadis have gone so far as to call for “Islamic regulations” on such tactics, which might lead to major changes within several groups.

This kind of debate would not be happening if jihadis were able to contain their infighting, as they mostly did in Afghanistan and Iraq. But many in Syria, and elsewhere, who are concentrating on fighting Bashar Al ­Assad’s forces, will welcome the suggestion that this intra-militant fighting might soon lead to the extremists burning themselves out.