The revolt against the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (greater Syria), usually referred to by its acronym ISIS, is the latest dramatic turn in the Syrian civil war. In the last few weeks, a range of rebel groups, including other Islamists, have turned their guns against ISIS, driving it from parts of Syria the group had controlled and where it was trying to build what it saw as a true Islamic state. Beyond its radical ideology, ISIS is of tremendous concern to U.S. policymakers because of its links to Al Qaeda and its embrace of foreign fighters from around the Muslim world, including Europe and the United States. Charles Lister, one of the premier outside experts on the Syrian opposition and a colleague at the Brookings Doha Center, offers his analysis of the anti-ISIS campaign and what it means for other opposition groups and the jihadist organization itself.
Charles Lister is a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. His work currently focuses on assessing the state of the insurgency in Syria, in addition to the various zones of spillover in Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, and further afield. Follow him on Twitter: @Charles_Lister
Since early on 3 January, Syrian insurgents have engaged the extremist group, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in intense battles across 5 of the country’s 14 governorates, forcing ISIS out of at least 28 separate municipalities. So far, forces combating ISIS’ control of territory across areas of Idlib, Aleppo, Hama, Al-Raqqa, and Deir ez Zour governorates have included members of three insurgent fronts – the largely nationalist Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF); the newly formed moderately Islamist Jaish al-Mujahideen; and the Salafist Islamic Front (IF).
This was an entirely expected development. For months tensions had been rising between ISIS and Syria’s various opposition groups, not to mention among large sectors of the Syrian population. Since its emergence in Syria in April and May 2013, ISIS has steadily asserted its hardline and uncompromising ideological norms in areas under its control. Syrians have perceived ISIS as a singularly self-interested actor. ISIS has proven increasingly disinclined to work alongside pre-existing multi-group structures established in order to coordinate operations against the government, administer effective opposition governance in “liberated” territory, and resolve legal disputes.
Taken in isolation, this concerted pushback against ISIS influence is a positive step. For the first time in many months, the most recent fighting against ISIS appears to have united nationalists, secularists, Islamists and Salafists behind one single banner. Finally, Syrians are seizing control of their revolution. However, the emergence of this new front adds yet another element of complexity to the always-shifting conflict. Two issues are of particular concern: who will benefit from ISIS’ setback, and how will ISIS adapt?
Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) – As the official Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria (ISIS’ predecessor, the Iraq-based Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) has ceased to be recognized as an Al-Qaeda affiliate since 2007, according to some reports), JN has shrewdly portrayed itself as a mediator during the recent fighting. While the group itself announced its emergence in Syria in late January 2012, subsequent evidence suggests it had been at least nominally active in Syria since the summer of 2011, when its leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani and several fellow Syrians from the ISI in Iraq arrived in Syria to establish an armed group. Although it focused its first six months of operations primarily on carrying out a series of mass casualty car bombings in urban centres, by mid-to-late 2012 JN had qualitatively evolved into a professional force undertaking concerted multi-group offensives across northern Syria. Today the group operates in 13 of Syria’s 14 governorates and its impressive military capabilities and consistent diplomatic pragmatism led it to represent a widely accepted – and indeed respected – member of the Syrian armed insurgency.
In an audio statement issued on 7 January, JN leader Jolani called for the establishment of “an independent legal council [involving] all the factions in addition to a ceasefire,” but subtly hinted at ISIS’ previous record of consistently failing to cooperate with such opposition courts. Ironically, while JN has played a minimal role (at most) in the anti-ISIS fighting, many municipalities have simply fallen or been placed under de facto JN control. As such, at least in the immediate term, JN has assumed an increased level of territorial influence in areas of northern Syria. Looking forward, it is likely this control will be shared with locally-based groups and members of larger, primarily Islamist groups who operate across multiple governorates or in some cases, on a nationwide basis.
Jabhat al-Nusra has also benefited from a series of statements issued by prominent jihadist individuals condemning ISIS. One notable example came on 16 January when the radical cleric Abu Qatada - speaking during his trial in the Jordanian capital Amman – called on ISIS to cease kidnapping, release its hostages, and most importantly, to dissolve its structures and subsume itself under the command of Jabhat al-Nusra. Later that day, senior Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya commander and veteran Al-Qaeda official Abu Khaled al-Suri condemned ISIS for its “crimes” during the jihad in Syria and insisted that ISIS did not in any way represent Al-Qaeda, its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, or its former leader Osama Bin Laden. (As a side note, it is worth adding here that Abu Khaled al-Suri was appointed by Zawahiri in mid-2013 as his chief delegate and mediator between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS after the latter’s divisive emergence in Syria in mid-April 2013).
The Islamic Front (IF) – While much of the initial fighting against ISIS appeared to have been dominated by Jaish al-Mujahideen and the SRF (formed on 9 December 2013), the more conservative IF has since emerged as a pivotal actor. After nearly seven months of negotiations, the IF was established on 22 November and is composed of Syria’s most powerful individual insurgent units – including Harakat Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam, Liwa al-Tawhid, and Suqor al-Sham. Devised to represent a total merger of all seven signatory groups (the remaining three being Liwa al-Haq, Kataib Ansar al-Sham, and Al-Jabha al-Islamiya al-Kurdiya), the IF currently commands approximately 60,000 fighters and can safely be said to represent the single most powerful insurgent grouping in Syria today.
Despite denying involvement in fighting ISIS, IF groups have certainly been involved in offensive and defensive operations since 4 January. And, on 6 January, a statement issued by the IF’s Political Office asserted that “we fight against whoever attacks us and whoever pushes us to battle, whether they are Syrian or foreign” – a pointed reference to ISIS’ strong muhajideen, or foreign fighter component. The IF’s prominence has also had the concomitant effect of underlining the structural weakness of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and the Syrian Military Council (SMC). The IF’s long-standing refusal to be involved in or to recognize the legitimacy of the scheduled international conference in Montreux has arguably contributed significantly towards the weakening of Syria’s political opposition structures in the lead up to the talks themselves. As such, the IF’s pivotal role within the conflict has become increasingly clear.
President Assad – While activist reports suggested more than 1,000 combatants were killed in the first 13 days of fighting, several locations, particularly in and around Aleppo city, appeared to fall under government control as a result of clashes. It can be of little surprise that Army, Air Force and Paramilitary operations in northern and eastern Syria appeared to decline considerably after 3 January. There was little the government and its supporters needed to do, except sit back and watch their enemies turn on each other.
ISIS Mark 2.0
ISIS has sustained significant territorial and manpower losses in recent days. However, it is already fighting back. Since 6 January, ISIS has begun deploying suicide bombers and car bombs against IF, SRF, and Jaish al-Mujahideen targets across northern and eastern Syria. On 7 January, chief ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani issued an audio statement pledging to “crush” those fighting against it and formally declaring war on any individual or group suspected of links to the SNC or the SMC. Adnani’s specific choice of words left little to the imagination: “We have armies in Iraq and an army in Syria full of hungry lions who drink blood and eat bones, finding nothing tastier than the blood of the Sahwa.”
In the wider context of a conflict that is set to continue in some form for years to come, the fact that most Syria rebel groups have now made an enemy of ISIS will undoubtedly have negative repercussions in the future. In Iraq, ISIS’s predecessor, the ISI, demonstrated an impressive ability to recover, grow, and fight back with renewed strength following the US-facilitated Sahwa, or Sunni tribal Awakening in the mid-2000s. Its almost professional campaign of assassinations of and targeted attacks on security forces and Awakening Council militiamen will likely be replicated in Syria in the future. An ISIS military campaign on the SNC and SMC inside Syria will likely have a deleterious effect on the capacity of moderate rebels to successfully defeat government forces on a local, regional, and potentially national level.
As inter-factional fighting continues in northern and eastern Syria, ISIS increasingly appears to be on the counter-attack. More and more casualties are reported every day. Meanwhile, pressure is building within the wider Western-backed Syrian political opposition – the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) – to attend the talks in Montreux on 22 January, despite the fact that they are destined to fail. A sizeable majority of insurgent actors on the ground maintain a total opposition to the talks and the SNC appears heavily divided on whether to attend at all.
It is depressingly ironic that continued Western pressure on the SNC to attend and invest in the talks is in fact directly undermining the opposition structures it explicitly wants to reinforce. The SNC in its current form exerts a negligible influence upon developments within Syria and it seems highly unlikely at this point that the talks on 22 January will result in any discernibly positive result. The military opposition – nationalist, secular, Islamist, and Salafist – has long complained that they have not felt represented within political opposition structures, despite being crucial to the future of Syria’s conflict or peace. As such, the best chance for discernible progress now lies in encouraging the formation of a new and more representative opposition structure, which potentially includes any and all expressly Syrian groups both worthy and willing to be involved.
ISIS is not going anywhere, and it has already begun a concerted fight back. However, recent developments have injected a much-needed boost of energy and enthusiasm into the more moderate ranks of Syria’s armed opposition and have potentially served to entice elements within more hardline groupings back into the fold.