As the world watches on, Al-Qaeda is gradually building a state for herself in Syria and Iraq.
November 10, 2013 | Gaziantep, Turkey
Having made its operational debut in Syria during the Summer of 2013, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a known Al-Qaeda affiliate comprised mostly of foreign Jihadists, is now actively implementing a fast-track plan for taking over governance of all areas in that country liberated from the rule of the Assad regime, taking advantage of the fractious nature of the rebel movement and the lack of international support to moderate groups. While the plan seems to be running into some trouble in the Kurdish majority areas in the Northeast where hardened PKK fighters have left their positions in Turkey and rushed to support their co-nationals, the takeover process seems to be proceeding at a deliberate pace elsewhere in the country and is picking up speed from day-to-day. The internal differences pitting ISIS against Jabhat Al-Nusra (JAN), another Al-Qaeda affiliate operating in Syria supported mostly by local recruits, and the leader of Al-Qaeda itself, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, does not seem to be having much impact operationally at this stage, although this could change in the future.
Indeed, ISIS seems to be following a clear operational strategy, one that combines a carrot-and-stick approach with a hearts-and-minds campaign. The first is reserved for dealing with other fighting groups, many of which are now flocking to pledge allegiance to ISIS to take advantage of its generous supplies of arms and cash or to avoid being assassinated or kidnapped by its fighters. The a hearts-and-minds campaign, on the other hand, is primarily designed to win allegiances of the local population. This approach has so far worked more effectively in the case of certain clans in Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, Al-Hassakeh and Aleppo provinces, but is running into some resistance elsewhere in the country. Still, once ISIS has consolidated its control over the north and northeast and so long as the international community seems oblivious of or disinterested in this development, people and rebel groups in other parts of the country might soon see the “wisdom” in changing their attitude.
For the most organized rebel groups to emerge on the scene so far all espouse an Islamist ideology that puts them in the same camp as Al-Qaeda, except for a lesser emphasis on the need for an immediate resurrection of the obsolete caliphate system, as well as greater reliance on Syrian rather than foreign fighters in their ranks. Thus, as ISIS’ influence grows in certain parts of the country, many of these groups might find joining forces with it more appealing than fighting against it, especially considering that such fight is bound to bolster the position of the Assad regime and its own sectarian militias. Recent advances on the ground by the regime made possible by growing support from Iran’s Republican Guard as well as Hezbollah fighters might indeed underscore this point in the minds of all.
ISIS plans comes ahead of the much ballyhooed Geneva 2 Conference that is being organized by the United States and Russia in cooperation with the United Nations and various regional powers for the purpose of bringing peace to Syria, where fighting between militias loyal to the current president, Bashar Al-Assad, and groups demanding an end to his corrupt and authoritarian rule has been raging for close to 30 months, with no end in sight.
There is no escaping the conclusion now, considering the strategy and tactics involved, that the crackdown Assad unleashed against his opponents, who for many months in 2011 remained committed to peaceful protests, constitute an attempted genocide targeting large segments of the majority Sunni population. But the reluctance of the international community to take a firm stand against Assad’s genocidal campaign has left a huge vacuum that is now being filled by foreign Jihadists affiliated with Al-Qaeda. The war has so far claimed more than 200,000 dead by some counts and left millions as refugees living in destitute conditions in myriad of makeshift camps within Syria and in neighboring countries.
Meanwhile, the Assad regime which less than a year ago seemed to be standing on its last leg is now scoring consecutive military victories buoyed by growing military and financial support from Iran and Russia. Indeed, at this stage, the regime’s military operations seem to be run by Iranian commanders and Russian advisers supported on the grounds by thousands of fighters from Iran, Lebanon and Iraq. Some reports claim that Shia fighters from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen are also involved. The involvement of foreign Shia fighters on side of the regime has served to enrage Syria’s rebels making them more unwilling to compromise, and has created an ethos that is suitable for the introduction of Al-Qaeda ideology and fighters. In practical terms, the country is currently being divided between Iran, Al-Qaeda, and, to a limited extant, the Kurds, represented for the most part, and to the discontent of many, by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – a Syrian offshoot of the PKK and an equally totalitarian political group in terms of ideology.
If successful, ISIS’ efforts in Syria will likely render the controversial conference in Geneva, whose date has recently been postponed from November 2013 to early 2014, completely irrelevant to unfolding realities. After all, neither ISIS, nor its main rival in the country, Jabhat Al-Nusra (JAN), nor the plethora of Islamist fighting groups in the rebel movement, currently accept the authority of any of the political opposition factions acting in or outside the country. This includes all factions affiliated with the Syrian National Coalition, the largest opposition body which gained international recognition months ago through the Friends of Syria platform, an alliance of over 100 countries, led by the United states, France and United Kingdom. The Coalition just announced its willingness to participate in the Geneva 2 Conference on condition that Bashar Al-Assad plays no role in the transitional period. The Friends of Syria claim to support the aspirations of Syria’s rebels but their continued failure to provide them with any substantial military assistance, despite making repeated promises in this regard, has undermined the credibility of the Coalition with rebel forces, especially those with an Islamist agenda. The decision by the Coalition to attend Geneva 2 will not endear it to them.
Together with JAN, Islamist groups are said to be planning to establish their own political body soon. This development and the sentiment of the Islamist groups in general are playing right into ISIS hands giving her much leeway in imposing her authority over rebel-held areas in the run up to Geneva 2.
But while ISIS’ plans are clear to any who would examine her recent advances in the battlefield, its leadership structure remains mired in mystery. The purported leader is more often identified by his pseudonym, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. His exact whereabouts are currently unknown, but is believed to be somewhere in the northeastern parts of Syria, if not back in Al-Anbar Province in Iraq where he has been the leader of the local Al-Qaeda Franchise there, Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), since 2010. Intelligence sources long identified the man behind the pseudonym as the Iraqi national Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali Al-Badri Al-Samarrai. But running a sophisticated organization like ISIS (not to mention ISI) is surely not a one-man operation: others must be involved working as a sophisticated team of technocrats and military experts. Yet, ISIS’ public representatives in Syria and Iraq, often young men in their early twenties, do not act like figures of major consequence when it comes to decision-making in the organization and seem as mere implementers of plans laid-out by more senior figures, hence their inability to respond promptly to certain challenges on the battlefield. They always have to wait for instructions.
Despite the relative fast pace of ISIS’ attempted take-over of the rebel scene in Syria, there is also much patience and forethought to their decision-making. Contrary to the prevailing propaganda, ISIS fighting units seldom get involved in side battles with other rebels groups. Each time they clashed with other groups it was over control of a key location. Local ISIS leaders might offer justifications for their attacks targeting other rebel groups that seem trivial, such as hosting an infidel doctor or consuming alcohol, but the actual reason for the attack is often far from trivial and serves a clear strategic purpose, such as control of an important road or checkpoint, if not an entire town. Moreover, ISIS fighters only join main battles at a time that allows them to take advantage of the exhaustion of both sides: the regime’s loyalist militias and the rebels, allowing them to emerge as the de facto force in charge of the situation, just as they did in the Raqqah Province. Meanwhile, they are singularly focused on taking control over oil fields, refineries, grain silos and major factories. Income derived from operating these assets allows ISIS to fund its operations and pay its members on a regular basis thus enabling them to avoid behaving like brigands, unlike many of their comrades affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, the loose network of fighters and groups often considered as moderates by the international community.
Naturally, the rise of ISIS and Islamist rebels in general lends some support the position of the Assad regime which has always claimed that it was fighting against terrorists. But since this has not been the case in the beginning, the Assad regime has had to work hard to conjure them. Indeed, it is no mystery by now that Assad’s security apparatuses have striven tooth and nail to encourage the Islamization of the Syrian Revolution and have, in fact, facilitated Al-Qaeda’s arrival onto the scene, knowing that its activities and ideology will be more problematic to the opposition than to them and will undermine the secular and peaceful character of the early protest movement. The Assad regime has a long experience dealing with extremist groups, including Al-Qaeda, and has previously supported their activities in the region, especially in Iraq and Lebanon. The regime only turned against these groups and began imprisoning their leaders after 2008 when its relations with the West began to improve again.
But, in the early weeks of the revolution, and as part of a presidential amnesty, hundreds of Jihadi prisoners were released from captivity. Not only did the amnesty fail to include the nonviolence activists who led the early protests calling for reform, but some of these activists, like Ghiyath Matar, were sent back to their families in body bags having been tortured to death. Meanwhile, most released Jihadists refused to join the ranks of anti-Assad demonstrators on account of the latter’s espousal of nonviolence and secular democratic ideals. Nonviolence, secularism and democracy, the demonstrators were told, were all western constructs incompatible with true Islamic values. Rather, the Jihadists argued, demonstrators need to call for the establishment of an Islamic state and launch Jihad against the Assad regime. At first, early protest communities and towns refused to listen, but as the regime amped the levels of its violence and started relying more and more on the use of tanks, heavy artillery and helicopters, and as western leaders continued to dither and issue contradictory statements at once delegitimizing Assad but also vowing not to get militarily involved in the situation, the protesters’ sense of abandonment grew and calls for Jihad began to find willing ears.
Still, early defectors from Assad’s armies, convinced as they were with the need to fight force with force, opted to form their own brigades, which were regional in focus and secular or at least pragmatist in ideology. But the released Jihadists had a different idea. They already had connections with Gulf donors, especially in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and UAE, and they began appealing for funds to purchase arms locally or through smugglers in Lebanon. They then proceeded to form various units with names derived from Islamic history, and, in time, these units attracted more followers to their ranks due to provenance of funds, weapons and ammunitions. As Islamization proceeded, and Western leaders refrained from offering support to moderate rebels, the ground was prepared for the eventual emergence of Al-Qaeda.
First, Al-Qaeda made its presence known in Syria through the activities of Jabhat Al-Nusra (JAN) back in early 2012. JAN was formed in response to a call to Jihad in support of the people of Syria made by Al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri. Its founder, Abu Muhammad Al-Jawlani remains an enigmatic figure and nothing is known about him but this pseudonym, and his earlier involvement in Al-Qaeda activities in Iraq working under ISI leader Al-Baghdadi. Recent report by Syrian state TV that he was killed in his alleged hideout in the Lattakia Mountains appears to be false, as his followers continue to operate normally. Few months after its founding, JAN was designated as a terrorist organization by the United States in a decision that also included two pro-Assad factions: the Shabiha and Al-Jaish Al-Sha’bi. The move angered many Syrian rebels at the time, including moderates, because JAN had already become the most effective fighting force on the ground and the U.S. had thus far failed to provide on his promises of support. Soon, however, moderate rebels and local populations in liberated area began to see the danger posed by JAN as its members proceeded to establish sharia courts and began trying to impose their version of Islam on communities under their control. Summary executions imposed on loyalist prisoners and, at times, members of local communities accused of committing such minor infringements as selling alcohol or saying the Lord’s name in vain, often backfired, and local activists, already toughened by the fight against the Assad regime, grew increasingly critical. The more alarming development, however, was the arrival of thousands of young Jihadists into the country hailing from such places as Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Chechnya. Clearly, these Jihadists had little understanding of Syrian culture and even less understanding of what the conflict was all about.
To these Jihadists the fight in Syria was against their historical arch-nemesis: the Shia. The fact that the Assad family hailed from a small sect – the Alawites – that was loosely affiliated with the Shia tradition, and the fact that Iran was involved in supporting the Assads were enough to convince the Sunni Jihadists that the struggle in Syria was a sectarian one. But then, that’s how the Assad regime itself wanted the fight to be seen, that’s how its spokespeople billed it and, perhaps, that’s how many of the regime’s top leaders, including the Assads themselves, saw it. The Assads have always relied on the Alawite community to provide the bulk of their most effective fighting units, and to man key positions in their security apparatuses. Moreover, due to nepotism and ongoing dabbling of security officers in their function, Alawites long became disproportionately represented in state institutions to the dismay of the Sunni majority. When Bashar Al-Assad rose to power to replace his deceased father, he enacted policies that ended up bringing more people from his own family to prominence in the country’s social and economic life. The sectarian nature of his regime became even more pronounced years before the Revolution. But both Assad and his top lieutenants went really out of their way to make this sectarian reality quite apparent to all in the early days of their crackdown as part of their calculated bid to elicit violence and sectarianism from the protesters.
To the Assads, sectarianism was necessary for consolidating their support base and for involving the larger Alawite community as well as other confessional minorities in the country in their fight. The presence of sizable Sunnis segments in their support base was not too reassuring. The Assads were not just manipulators of sectarian sentiments but also victims thereof, and except for certain individuals, they could never bring themselves to trust the Sunnis.
But just as important as billing the conflict in Syria as a sectarian one, to the world the Assads needed to appear as champions of secularism as well. With extremist Islamists and Al-Qaeda affiliates finally making their presence on the scene, the Assads can finally have their way.
Photos recently shared on Facebook finally underscored the reality of it all. The photos showed leaders of three of the largest Islamist groups on the scene posing together shortly after they were released from the infamous Sednaya Prison in early 2011. They are: Hassan Abboud, Zahran Alloush and Issa Al-Shaikh, heads of Ahrar Al-Sham, Jaish Al-Islam and Suqur Al-Sham respectively. Together with other Islamist groups, whose ranks are swollen with released Jihadists, the three groups are now openly calling for the establishment of an Islamic State in Syria.
From Left to Right: Hassan Abboud, Issa Al-Shaikh and Zahran Alloush
The groups also cooperate closely with JAN, albeit at this stage not with ISIS, which broke away from JAN in May 2013 taking with her most foreign Jihadists. The reason for the breakup appears to be a personal and perhaps an ideological dispute over leadership and the nature of the state between Al-Baghdadi and Al-Jawlani. Considering the major role played by the Islamic State in Iraq in the establishment of JAN, Al-Baghdadi saw fit to establish his authority over it as well, as a preparation for the eventual establishment of a unified Islamic state in both countries: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Seeking to preserve his authority and as a result of a growing ideological rapprochement with other Islamist groups on the scene, including the three groups named above, who prefer to maintain the current borders and opt for a more gradual approach in regard to the resurrection of the old Caliphate institution, Al-Jawlani refused to submit to Al-Baghdadi’s directive, referring the matter to Al-Zawahiri. Eventually, Al-Zawahiri ruled in favor of Al-Jawlani’s point of view, and ordered the two organizations to remain separate. But this decision by Al-Zawahiri served only to earn him repudiation from Al-Baghdadi who insisted on the unification of the two organizations. ISIS might remain part of Al-Qaeda at this stage, but it no longer accepts Al-Zawahiri as the group’s legitimate leader.
This situation has spawned rumors that the latter is planning to leave hid hideaway in Pakistan’s tribal areas and move to the region to meet with the two leaders in person and attempt to resolve these differences and to take advantage of the new Al-Qaeda haven that puts her right on the borders with NATO and Israel, as well as the shores of the Mediterranean. More importantly though, Syria is the country where Islam had its imperial beginnings. The impact that the country and her history has on the imagination of Jihadists was recently highlighted in a CNN report where Jihadists were described as kneeling upon crossing the Syrian-Turkish to kiss her “holy soil.”  With the fate of such prime real estate at stake, it’s no wonder that such competition over leadership is taking place.
The puritan approach of Al-Baghdadi and ISIS, while ideologically problematic to other Islamist groups, is currently serving as a source of strength. Their vision seems clearer than all, and so does their strategy, which appears much more thought-out than even that of JAN’s. This again raises the question of who is responsible for ISIS strategy.
One of the Jihadists rumored to have been released from Assad’s prisons in the early days of the Revolution was one Mustafa Bin Abd Al-Qadir Sitt Maryam Nasar, AKA, Abu Mus’ab al-Suri. Abu Mus’ab is an Aleppo native who joined the Afghan Mujahideen in the late 1980s and later became one of Bin Ladin’s chief advisers. He also spent a number of years in Europe during the 1990s moving between France, Spain and Britain and acquired a Spanish citizenship by virtue of his marriage to a Spanish woman. In 2004, the United States State Department listed him as a Most Wanted Terrorist and assigned a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture. In 2005, he was captured by the Pakistanis while hiding in Quetta and handed over to the Americans who, in 2006, sent him back to Syria for rendition as part of an ongoing security cooperation that existed at the time.
Abu Mus’ab is one of the major ideologues of Al-Qaeda and of the global Jihadi movement. His influence can be detected on Jihadi groups operating from North Africa to Southeast Asia. What distinguishes Abu Mus’ab from other Al-Qaeda leaders, however, especially the late Bin Ladin himself, and which was the reason why Abu Mus’ab is said to have grown critical of the latter, is the emphasis put by Bin Laden on terrorist attacks like 9/11. Abu Mus’ab learned the futility of such a strategy from his previous experiences in Syria herself back in Hama in 1982, when he was a member of the Islamic Vanguard Movement, an offshoot of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Abu Mus’ab’s experiences taught him to pay more attention to state-building. He expressed his vision in two major works: a 900-page book “The Syrian Experience” (1991) and the 1,600-page oeuvre “Call for A Global Islamic Resistance” (2004). Building a state is exactly what ISIS is trying to accomplish, and this what its members are telling people frankly these days, contrary to all earlier speculations about Al-Qaeda’s plans in Syria. One cannot but wonder if Abu Mus’ab is not directly involved as one of the architects of this project. But even if he is not, his ideas seem to be of great relevance here, and the involvement of Islamist “technocrats” who are Western educated, or like Abu Mus’ab, who had long stints in the West at some point in their lives, seems highly likely. It’s also quite possible that mid-level Sunni state employees from Iraq who long fell victims to the policies of debaathification are also involved in this project.
Al-Qaeda is rapidly sinking her teeth in Syria, and she is doing it methodically. Those who claim that ISIS is somehow being manipulated by the Assad regime miss the point. Right now, the two sides represent the most organized factions on the scene, and they tend to approach the unfolding situation in a more calculated and rational manner. Both sides have an interest in squeezing out moderates, avoiding clashes with each other, keeping the international community, especially the United States, out of Syria, and avoiding Western military strikes. As such, both sides have an interest in claiming that ISIS and the Islamists represent the entirety of the rebel movement.
This confluence of interests leads to certain patterns of behavior that make the two sides appear as though they are cooperating, and they might indeed be, for now. But this does not make ISIS a tool in the hands of the regime, or its main ally Iran, to wield as it sees fit. ISIS has her own agenda. And at this stage, the thrust of her agenda is to create facts in the ground that will make Geneva 2 irrelevant even before it takes place. A dominant ISIS will seek to attract all other rebel factions to her orbit, making the possibility of normalization under a new centralized government moot. For ISIS agenda, very much like that of the Assad regime and its Iranian and Russian backers, calls for the consolidation of the current de facto partitioning of Syria, at least for the foreseeable future. This will give ISIS a state that will combine major chunks of Syria and Iraq and will have an access to the Mediterranean through the small gauntlet in North Lattakia that is rapidly coming under ISIS control. The would-be state might at one point extend even as far as Damascus, or parts thereof, and all the way to the borders with Jordan and perhaps, Israel. To achieve this grander vision, ISIS will have to clash with regime forces in some locations. But the two sides will also be talking to each other, because the ultimate goal for both is to agree on the borders of their respective states, not to destroy each other. In fact, and in order to ensure that the Assad regime has a strong hand in Geneva 2, after all, a strong hand for Assad is a strong hand for partition, ISIS might be intentionally pulling out of some areas, letting loyalist militias take it over, knowing that they could reverse this situation later.
Meanwhile, and through their local defense units, the YPGs, the Kurds seem to be drawing and defending the borders of their enclaves as well. Enclaves, because they are unlikely to get the contiguous sliver of territory that they covet along the Syrian-Turkish border stretching all the way from the borders with Iraq in the northeast to the shores of the Mediterranean in the northwest, and will likely have to settle for three cantons centered on the towns of Qamishly, Kobani and Efrin and their immediate environs. Safe travel arrangements will have to be agreed with ISIS and her would be allies. This means that, in time, representatives of ISIS, or some of her allies, and PYD will have to begin talking rather than just fighting.
This grandiose vision might appear impossible to achieve at first, but, at this stage, it is the only vision out there, and much has been done by all sides in its service. The Assad regime has already dislocated half the population, and, only months following her appearance on the scene, ISIS is already spreading her control and increasing her numbers over the parts of the country that fell out of regime’s control. Meanwhile, led by an increasingly reluctant and obscurantist American administration, the international community seems all too focused on a process that is rapidly becoming obsolete. The die is cast.
But things can get even worse.
Not too long ago President Obama made the argument to the American people that America’s strategic interests are not at stake in Syria. It’s simply beyond macabre to hear an American President whose sole foreign policy success is the assassination of Bin Ladin make this kind of argument. But it will be even more macabre to see him decide to launch military strikes against ISIS positions in Syria, even if only drone attacks, when he has repeatedly refused to do anything against the Assad regime to stop its genocide. Such move will most likely backfire making the United States in the minds of Syria’s Sunni communities complicit in the Assad regime’s ongoing genocide against them, while simultaneously shoring up the legitimacy and credibility of Al-Qaeda in Syria, including ISIS and JAN.
Indeed, one can argue that the Obama Administration is aware of this potential and that its main interest in Geneva 2 is actually to create an alliance between the Assad regime (minus Assad), the political opposition and moderate rebel groups that can help her fight ISIS, JAN and their allies. This is at least what most Syrian rebels and political opposition members seem to believe. While some in the opposition might indeed be convinced to cooperate in such a scheme, because they do see Al-Qaeda as an enemy and because they want the Assads’ genocidal war to stop, they simply have no reason to trust or believe that the Obama Administration can indeed deliver the goods, especially ensuring the departure of Assad and his top commanders, as well as the departure of Iranian troops and other foreign Shia fighters. The Obama Administration has so far failed to deliver on each and every promise it made to Syria’s political opposition and moderate rebels. Moreover, its policy statements have so far reflected little interest in ending the conflict itself by focusing first on the issue of chemical weapons and now on Al-Qaeda’s growing presence. Indeed, the Obama Administration seems oblivious to the ongoing genocide, to Iran and Russia’s role in fueling it, and to the Assad regime’s role in facilitating the rise of Al-Qaeda. Its willingness to strike a deal with Iran over the nuclear issue seems premised on a trade-off that includes turning a blind-eye on Iran’s support to Assad and her growing presence in Syria. But by giving Syria to Iran, the Obama Administration is, in fact, ensuring Syria’s partition, knowing that major chunk of territory will fall to Al-Qaeda. As such, the Administration is not seeking an end to the Syrian conflict, just its transformation, from one focused on removing the Assad regime to one focused on removing Al-Qaeda. That is at least the intention. In practical terms, the Administration has done much, often by refraining from doing anything, to ensure that neither objective is achievable, because it failed to cultivate any real ally in this struggle, depriving itself of any relevance.
No party associated with this conflict has any reason to do what the Administration wants done. It’s as simple as that. As a result a two-headed monster made up of the Assad regime and Al-Qaeda is now feeding on Syria and her people, and there is no one in the international community willing to espouse the action needed to stop it. And so, the country is now falling apart, and will drag the region along with it.
Again, the die is cast.
 See for example the analysis offered by Uğur Ümit Üngör http://www.brismes.ac.uk/nmes/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/NMES2013%C3%9Cng%C3%B6r.pdf.