Analysis |

The Al-Qaida-linked Group That’s Reshuffling the Deck in Iraq and Syria

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has seized control of Fallujah and is fighting both rebel and regime forces in Syria.

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
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Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

One of the most important players to emerge in the conflicts in Iraq and Syria in recent years is the Al-Qaida-linked organization Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In the past few days its forces have scored a major accomplishment, taking control of two important cities in Iraq’s western Anbar province.

After several days of combat, ISIS was in control of most of Fallujah; the local Iraqi police announced that it had regrouped on the edge of the city and left the city center. In Ramadi, meanwhile, Iraqi government forces were still fighting for ISIS for control in several districts.

Anbar is a large desert province bordering Syria to the west and Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the south. It accounts for one-third of Iraqi territory, and almost all its inhabitants are Sunni Muslims.

Much has changed since the onset, in March 2011, of the uprising against the Assad regime in Syria. Its proponents were grouped under the all-inclusive term “the Syrian rebels.” After around six months the popular uprising gave way to organized resistance by armed militias.

The first of these was the Free Syrian Army, composed mainly of Syrian army deserters. The opposition hoped that it would eventually replace the army of the regime, attracting more deserters and serving to unify the various opposition groups. But internal dissent and a lack of foreign logistical support brought Syria into its current nightmare scenario: The secular opposition lost control, the national army began to disintegrate and militias fighting under the black flag of Al-Qaida have appeared.

The most prominent of the extremist, Al-Qaida-affiliated groups is the powerful Nusra Front, founded in late 2011.

The Syrian opposition claims that members of ISIS serve the Assad regime, not the Syrian revolution, and there have been fierce battles among ISIS and militias of the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front. The latter was forged by the merger of seven less radical Salafi Muslim groups.

The growing power of ISIS has led the states bordering on Syria, particularly Iraq and Jordan, to rethink their support of the Syrian opposition. It has also curbed the West’s enthusiasm for the fall of President Bashar Assad, by raising the prospect of Syria’s transformation into a huge base for radical Islam.

The Syrian regime and the groups that oppose ISIS cultivated fear of the organization, posting online shocking videos showing members carrying out beheadings, mutilating corpses and executing bound prisoners, including Christian clerics. The images affected public opinion profoundly, and the Syrian opposition was hard-put to justify plans to include the Nusra Front, another organization linked to Al-Qaida, in its program for Syria’s secular and democratic future.

The nucleus of ISIS was formed in 2004 as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Its founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden. According to Arab sources, the organization in its current form was founded in Iraq in October 2006, after Zarqawi’s assassination, with Abu Omar al-Baghdadi at the head.

ISIS has claimed responsibility for many operations against U.S. and Iraqi forces, as well as for car bombs in Baghdad and in Shi’ite areas of Iraq. The U.S. and the Iraqi governments have claimed that the organization has received indirect support from the Assad regime and that many of its fighters have found refuge in Syria.

The chaos in Anbar over the past week illustrates the deterioration of Iraqi security in the two years since the U.S. military withdrawal. Al-Qaida forces took advantage of the vacuum: Carrying out some 30 to 40 suicide terror attacks a month, originating on the Syrian side of the border, they caused more than 8,000 deaths in Iraq, as if the clock had been turned back to 2008.

Baghdadi was assassinated in a major operation by U.S. and Iraqi forces in Anbar province in April 2010. The U.S. and Iraqi armies caused serious damage to the organization between 2006 and 2010, but their focus was on winning the trust of Anbar’s Sunni tribes, who had previously sheltered members of ISIS.

Jordan, which also viewed Anbar as a terrorist hotbed, helped to fight ISIS in the wake of a terror attack in Amman in November 2005 that Zarqawi had planned. Cooperation from Anbar’s Sunni tribes yielded valuable intelligence that aided in the assassination of the group’s leaders.

Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was succeeded by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who continued his predecessor’s battle against the Iraqi government. In late 2011 the establishment of the Nusra Front in Syria was declared, and in April 2012 Baghdadi announced that the organization was a branch of ISIS.

Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammad al-Jawlani initially denied the statement, declaring loyalty to Al-Qaida in Afghanistan. But judging from recent events it seems that ISIS and the Nusra Front are cooperating and that unlike many other Syrian opposition groups they are not engaged in power struggles with each other.

The well-publicized reports of the rising power of ISIS helped it to recruit thousands of militants in Syria and Iraq as well as volunteers from countries including Jordan, Turkey, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. European nationals and citizens of the Chechen Republic are fighting in Syria with the organization, whose military force is estimated at 50,000 to 70,000.

ISIS is believed responsible for several bomb attacks in Damascus and areas identified with the Assad regime. The organization is fighting on several fronts, against the Iraqi army, the Syrian army and opposition militias. One of its toughest foes is Hezbollah, in Syria and recently in Lebanon as well.

In November, ISIS claimed responsibility for a double suicide attack against the Iranian embassy in Beirut. This weekend, it took responsibility for a suicide attack in Beirut’s Dahiyeh quarter, near the headquarters of Hezbollah’s political wing. Some view these incidents as an escalation in the Sunni-Shi’ite conflict in the Middle East.

This aspect came to the fore in the recent battles in Anbar. A spokesman of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is Shi’ite, called on the Arab states and the international community to support Baghdad in its fight against ISIS. He warned that unless immediate action is taken, the organization could pose a threat to the entire Middle East and spread from Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Sinai peninsula.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, said that while the United States would support Iraq’s war against the Al-Qaida-affiliated militias it will not send troops. Kerry said the militias sought to undermine regional stability and sabotage the democratic process in Iraq, adding that the United States was in touch with tribal leaders in Anbar province who were fighting against the terrorists.

But Kerry added: “This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis. That is exactly what the president and the world decided some time ago when we left Iraq, so we are not obviously contemplating returning. We are not contemplating putting boots on the ground. This is their fight. ... We will help them in their fight, but this fight, in the end, they will have to win and I am confident they can.”

U.S. senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, two critics of the Obama administration’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, issued a joint statement. “When President Obama withdrew all U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, over the objections of our military leaders and commanders on the ground, many of us predicted that the vacuum would be filled by America’s enemies and would emerge as a threat to U.S. national-security interests,” it said. “The thousands of brave Americans who fought, shed their blood, and lost their friends to bring peace to Fallujah and Iraq are now left to wonder whether these sacrifices were in vain.”

Mourners and Sunni gunmen chant slogans against Iraq's Shiite-led government in Fallujah, Jan. 4, 2014.Credit: AP
'The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria'Credit: Haaretz

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