In the badlands of northern Syria, the rebels are fighting a brutal enemy—but it’s not President Bashar al-Assad.
On New Year’s Eve, the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), an Iraq-based Al Qaida affiliate, released the mutilated body of Dr. Hussein al-Suleiman, the young leader of one of the largest Syrian rebel groups. Pictures circulated on the Twitter accounts of Syrian rebels, and the streets erupted in protest. Marchers held signs depicting ISIS as a parasite from the film Alien, bursting from the monstrous chest of Iraq.
Within days, the main insurgent groups in northern Syria were engaged in combat with ISIS. After two weeks, a thousand militants were reported dead.
On January 19th, ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called for an end to the fighting, but ISIS’s behavior was too abhorrent for the Syrian rebels to accept. The release of Suleiman’s body on December 31st was the last straw—but only the latest in a long list of affronts. Since its arrival in Syria in May 2013, ISIS had killed rebel fighters and tried to take control of the rebels’ supply lines to Turkey. ISIS had kidnapped aid workers, civilian activists, and journalists, as well as Syrian Kurds, Christians, and Alawites.
Across the border in Iraq, equally momentous events unfolded. On New Year’s Day, ISIS captured the Iraqi cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, the sites of some of the fiercest battles of the US occupation. When Baghdadi offered his olive branch to the Syrian rebels, ISIS remained in control of the cities. As of this writing, ISIS still holds the cities.
The Syrian fighting is bleeding over the border into Lebanon, and ISIS has moved with it. As of January 24th, ISIS has a branch in Lebanon called the Abdallah Azzam Brigade, Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution told the Tufts Observer in an email.
ISIS is an outgrowth of Al Qaida in Iraq, “perhaps the most extreme and violent franchise of Al Qaida in the movement’s history,” Riedel told the Observer. The stated goal of ISIS is to establish a pan-regional Islamic state in Iraq and al-Sham, an area consisting of most of the Levant.
Al Qaida is not new to Syria. Jabhat Al-Nusra, an Al Qaida affiliate and homegrown spinoff of ISIS’s predecessor, has been operating in Syria since January 2012. According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, ISIS is the most powerful group among the foreign fighters coming in to exploit Syria’s instability and found an Islamic state. Now Jabhat Al-Nusra is fighting ISIS.
Images on ISIS-linked web pages confirm Riedel’s impression of the group, painting a grim picture of its activities in Syria. Twitter feeds reveal long convoys of trucks filled with black-clad gunmen, armed “cub scouts” at an ISIS training camp, and a man holding a wooden box containing a severed head. YouTube videos depict convoys of machinegun-mounted ISIS flatbeds roving across the Iraqi desert.
ISIS has also used social media to support its outreach campaigns, which focus partly on encouraging the support of children. ISIS recruits children for training camps, and its fighters give money and gifts to children in the street.
Despite its large social media presence, little is known about the strength and organizational structure of ISIS. According to the Twitter account of an alleged ISIS insider, which was picked up by Al Akhbar, a Beirut newspaper, the leadership council of ISIS consists of three former Iraqi army officers who served under Saddam Hussein.
ISIS’s finances are equally opaque. Riedel told the Observer that ISIS’s funding probably comes from “a combination of criminal operations and Gulf donors.”
The Syrian rebels who oppose ISIS are convinced that the group is working with the Assad regime. Foreign diplomats are increasingly suggesting the same. Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoğlu, for example, said that ISIS and the Assad regime are cooperating, after a deadly car bomb exploded at a town on the Syrian-Turkish border on January 20.
But an August 2013 video of Abu Wahib, the ISIS commander in Anbar, tells a different story. The video shows Abu Wahib questioning three truck drivers on a highway in Iraq, concluding that they are Alawite, the minority ethnic group of Assad, and then shooting them with an assault rifle.
At the rifle-point of Abu Wahib, ISIS has been quick to assert itself by capturing territory in its home state of Iraq—perhaps too quickly for its own good.
“If I were running ISIS, I would put all my chips in Syria,” Lt. Col. John Nagl (ret.), a co-author of the military’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual, told the Observer in a phone interview on January 22nd. In Syria some groups are capable of overthrowing the Assad regime, Nagl said, but in Iraq, the government is too strong. “It’s not the same as in Pakistan where Al-Qaida operates unhindered […] the interests of Iraq broadly align with the interests of the United States.”
Nagl, a veteran of both Iraq wars who was stationed between Ramadi and Fallujah from 2003 to 2004, expects that Iraq will oust ISIS and reassert its sovereignty in Anbar Province.
Nagl considers ISIS’s move to capture and hold territory in Iraq a “critical error” that negates its previous advantage operating as an elusive insurgent force. The day after the Observer interviewed Nagl, the Iraqi Army recaptured the city of Khalidiya, where Nagl had been stationed.
Yet Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki seems unwilling to use overwhelming force to drive ISIS out of the major cities, relying instead on targeted airstrikes. The Iraqi government is trying to convince local tribes to drive ISIS out, with logistical support from the Iraqi military. Maliki has reportedly rejected senior officers’ plans to drive ISIS out of Fallujah with a large-scale operation. The Iraqi government isn’t doing more, Nagl said, because of political pressure.
“Maliki made a critical error when he failed to conclude a security relationship with the United States,” Nagl said, adding that Iraq is fully capable of suppressing ISIS. But the goal would have been better served, according to Nagl, by US special forces, which might have remained in Iraq had Maliki concluded a security agreement with the US at the end of the occupation.
The security situation in Iraq is at its worst since the departure of US troops in 2011—and much of the credit goes to ISIS. According to UN figures, there were 7,818 terror-related civilian deaths in Iraq in 2013, more than twice as many as in 2012.
“ISIS is a serious threat to the stability of Iraq, but it can not take over Iraq” because of opposition by the Iraqi Shia majority, Riedel told the Observer. He added that ISIS is a more serious threat to Syria because of the country’s Sunni majority.
Nagl said, “ISIS has de facto sovereignty in some areas in Syria because of the weakness of Assad’s government.” But Assad “retains enough loyalty, enough levers of power,” he said, to prevent his fall to a group like ISIS.
The US has agreed to send arms and artillery to Iraq to fight ISIS, but it will not intervene with military force. The presence of Al Qaida in Syria complicated the US stance toward the Syrian rebels, but now that ISIS has broken off from the rebel groups, the US is taking action. The Daily Telegraph reported on January 21st that the US is secretly contributing millions of dollars and “non-lethal aid” to rebel groups fighting ISIS.
Meanwhile, ISIS—perhaps the strongest and most extreme Al Qaida group—continues to terrorize Syria and Iraq.