On November 27, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) clashed for the first time with the Islamic State-linked group called Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed (“The Army of Khalid bin al-Waleed”) on the border between the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and the Yarmouk Basin region of southwest Deraa province. Though no casualties were reported on the Israeli side, at least three members of Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed were killed. Do these clashes mean the Islamic State is opening up a front against Israel via the Golan borderlands? And what do they tell us about the ever-shifting puzzle of jihadist groups in Syria?
Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed is named for a companion of the Prophet Muhammad who led the Muslim armies that defeated the Byzantines in the Yarmouk Basin, leading to the conquest of the Levant region. It was formed in late May as a merger of three main factions, the most important being the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade that is native to the Yarmouk Basin area.
Its links with the Islamic State have been made clear in a number of ways. For example, Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed photo releases have the same high quality production values of Islamic State photo releases, and revolve around similar themes such as advertising normal life, nature scenes, implementation of Islamic law and military clashes. Further, the group’s media output is promoted on Islamic State media aggregate channels on Telegram. The Islamic State’s Amaq News reports on developments surrounding Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed and the Yarmouk Basin area.
Since late 2014, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade faced accusations of links with the Islamic State as it clashed openly with Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. Those links date back as far as summer 2014, when the Islamic State declared a caliphate and the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade withdrew from the Western-backed “Southern Front,” the framework for Free Syrian Army groups in the south.
The existence of an Islamic State affiliate on the border with the Golan Heights is naturally a concern for Israel. Until recently, however, no attacks had occurred. In an environment rife with conspiracy theories, the lack of open confrontation with Israel has sometimes given rise to the notion that the group has been secretly collaborating with Israel. When I put the issue of not fighting Israel to Omar Mardini, the media activist for Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed and previously the Yarmouk Martyr Brigades, he simply retorted: “Why don’t the Southern Front and al-Qaeda organization wage war on Israel?”
Of course, the logical explanation for refraining from all-out war on Israel is that Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed and other Syrian militant groups do not have the resources and manpower to afford such a conflict. At present, its war with the rebel factions is at a stalemate, and has been so for many months. The last major changes in territorial control came before Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed was formed: gains made by the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade in March that were all reversed by the following month.
One ex-Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed fighter from the Yarmouk Basin village of Jamla who quit the group a while ago, summed up his frustration with the stalemate to me in rather amusing terms: “There is no fighting. The battles have become something agreed upon between the Jaysh and the Sahwat only for photography.” For context, Sahwat is a common Islamic State/Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed derogatory term for Sunni rebel factions, referring to the Sahwa forces of Iraqi Sunni tribes that cooperated with the United States and fought the Islamic State of Iraq during the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The former fighter expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of life in the Yarmouk Basin, and hoped to find a way to get to Turkey, but was also concerned the rebels would try to arrest him because of his affiliation with the Baridi clan, a local clan in the Yarmouk Basin that constituted the founding base for the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade.
On top of the siege conditions imposed by the war with the rebels, Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed has also been beset by internal problems, which have become more apparent since the assassination of the group’s commander, Abu Hashim al-Shami, in October. Abu Ahmad al-Shari’i, a cleric associated with Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed, told me that al-Shami was originally from Idlib. It is most likely that he had been sent by the Islamic State to run Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed when it was formed, as there is no evidence of prior involvement with its predecessors. The circumstances of his assassination suggest the operation was an inside job of some sort. The group’s security apparatus arrested a number of key figures who had been associated with the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade. The most notable individual among those arrested was Abu Obeida Qahtan, a Syrian-Palestinian who fought in Afghanistan and became commander of the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade after the assassination of the founder and original leader al-Khal (Muhammad Sa’ad al-Din al-Baridi) in November 2015. Also arrested was Nidal al-Baridi, a brother of al-Khal.
As of the time of writing, both apparently remain imprisoned and are said to be undergoing a tahqiq (verification process), though Abu Uday al-Ansari, a one-time supporter of the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade who remains well-connected with Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed members claimed to me that Qahtan was secretly released around two weeks ago and that there may be a plan to transfer him Islamic State territories in the north of Syria. He adds that the reason his release has not been publicized on the ground is because the affair is a “big scandal.”
The precise nature and explanation of these events remain somewhat murky. One line of testimony suggests that Qahtan and his associates have been framed for Abu Hashim al-Shami’s assassination with charges of betrayal and collaboration with Israel. This turn of events is thus portrayed as a kind of internal coup by those who had been affiliated with the Islamic Muthanna Movement, a component of Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed that had once been an influential group in Deraa but clashed with the rebels in January 2016 on accusations of conducting assassinations and kidnapping operations, including the killing of the head of the main southern rebel judiciary authority in December 2015.
The Islamic Muthanna Movement eventually set up its own enclave near the Yarmouk Basin but then lost its new territorial holdings by April and had to seek refuge in the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade’s territory, numbering perhaps no more than a few or several dozen individuals. In fact, the Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed merger came about shortly after the mysterious death of Abu Omar Sawa’iq, the deputy head of the Islamic Muthanna Movement who had rejected a merger and may have been assassinated. In mid-summer, the man who had led the Islamic Muthanna Movement- Naji al-Masalama- left the Yarmouk Basin, apparently heading for the Islamic State’s territory in the north of Syria. Others who had been part of the group had quit the fighting and tried to flee Syria all together.
Even so, Ibrahim Mardini, a civilian resident of the Yarmouk Basin, cautions against the assumption of knowing the charges against Qahtan and others, telling me: “No one knows what he [Qahtan] has been accused of, and the issue of treason is a falsehood.” Portraying the Yarmouk Basin area as stable in comparison with rebel-held areas despite the hardships of life, he added that one should not forget that “there are groups still coming to the area [i.e. to join Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed]. And their number has increased.”
In light of the preoccupation with fighting the rebels and the internal problems, one must wonder why the IDF was attacked by a Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed contingent. The testimony provided to me points to the clash as a one-off incident, caused by perceived Israeli infringement on the group’s territory. “The Jews trespassed on the lands of the Dawla [Islamic State] and the soldiers repelled them,” explained Abu Kinana al-Yarmouki, a member of Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed. Another source, calling himself Abu Ali Takfir, said: “They [the Israelis] were not able to enter but tried to enter.” This testimony matches the fact that the Israeli forces were inside Syrian territory in an enclave they claim to be Israeli.
As far as the execution of the attack on the IDF itself goes, Abu Uday al-Ansaritold me that the attack was done “without the order of the leadership. The leadership was very angry with them [those that carried out the attack]…out of fear of the Jews’ response.” This is so despite some social media rhetoric from at least one member who expressed hope that there would be a replay of the Muslim expedition against the Jewish Banu Qurayza tribe in what is now Medina in Saudi Arabia. The expedition culminated in the massacre of the Banu Qurayza. A more level-headed assessment was provided by the ex-Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed fighter: “If God wills, there will be this [a war between Israel and Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed], but there is nothing of the sort.”
Indeed, no further incident has taken place despite the retaliatory Israeli airstrikes on Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed territory. The group must focus in the meantime on a new rebel offensive aiming to take its territory, though past evidence suggests that there is unlikely to be any meaningful change in the situation. None of this is to say that Israel should not be concerned about the Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed presence on its border, but the prospect of an all-out war remains unlikely for the foreseeable future so long as the group’s priorities lie elsewhere within Syria.
For Israel, a policy of keeping a cautious distance, while making clear that any aggression will be met with severe retaliation in the form of airstrikes rather than deploying troops inside the Yarmouk Basin area, makes the most sense. Meanwhile, the backers of the Southern Front based in Amman need to provide better incentives for the Southern Front to amass forces and try to capture the Yarmouk Basin in a swift offensive. The continuation of the prolonged siege with its hardships for the locals will only increase resentment towards the rebels and make securing the area all the more difficult.