- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Just a few months ago, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) didn’t officially exist. Now, the al Qaeda affiliate known colloquially as al-Dawla — simply "the state" — has emerged as a clear and present danger to Syria’s mainstream armed opposition.
The jihadist organization seized the northern Syrian town of Azaz on Thursday, driving out Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated rebel groups. The clashes were reportedly sparked after ISIS fighters grew suspicious of German doctors working at a field hospital in the area, and the FSA brigades protected the physicians from potential retribution. The town is now reportedly quiet, as mediators attempt to negotiate a ceasefire deal that would see ISIS withdraw from its positions. For the moment, however, ISIS’s presence in Azaz gives al Qaeda a presence on the border with Turkey, a NATO ally. However the conflict plays out, it will represent the most serious confrontation yet between jihadists and non-Islamist rebels fighting the Syrian regime.
Some of the FSA’s advocates in Washington, however, see a silver lining to the rebel infighting. The United States has hesitated to provide military aid to Syria’s armed opposition out of fear that such assistance could find its way into the hands of extremist groups — a possibility that would presumably be eliminated if the FSA and jihadi groups are in open conflict.
"At least in terms of further lethal support from the West, this otherwise threatening development is somewhat healthy for the moderate opposition, as there is now much less risk of weapons falling into the wrong hands," Dan Layman, the media director for the Syrian Support Group, a U.S. organization licensed to provide aid to the FSA, told FP. "After all, FSA units aren’t going to share their guns and ammunition with the people they’re now fighting directly against."
ISIS was created in April, as the latest in a long line of rebranding efforts by al Qaeda in Iraq. Its chief, Abu Baker al-Baghdadi, initially hoped that the effort would allow him to subsume the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra — but Jabhat al-Nusra chief Abu Mohammad al-Jawlani rebuffed any subjugation to Baghdadi, pledging allegiance only to al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. Nevertheless, over the following months, ISIS’s influence grew substantially in eastern Syria as some Jabhat al-Nusra fighters joined the organization.
U.S. officials estimate that ISIS currently boasts 7,000 to 10,000 fighters, and they have played a key role in several opposition victories in northern Syria. The group’s suicide bombers conducted a devastating attack that allowed rebels to capture the Mennagh Air Base in Aleppo last month, and their fighters have demonstrated particular expertise in using roadside bombs against Assad’s forces — a skill they likely learned fighting the U.S. military in Iraq.
Ironically, it was the Assad regime itself that initially allowed jihadists to establish a foothold along the Syrian-Iraqi border. During the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the Syrian regime turned a blind eye to fighters going east to combat the American military presence. Documents seized from an al Qaeda safe house in an Iraqi town only 10 miles from the Syrian border showed that hundreds of foreign fighters crossed into Iraq from Syria between September 2006 and September 2007. Now, the same networks that allowed jihadists and weapons to flow from Syria to Iraq have been reversed, as al Qaeda turns its attention to what it views as an apostate regime in Damascus.
Al Qaeda’s operatives in Syria have been mindful of their mistakes in Iraq, where the local Sunni population eventually turned against them due to their brutal and indiscriminate tactics. ISIS attempted a "charm offensive" in the northern provinces of Aleppo and Raqqa, providing free medical services, food, and cheap fuel to residents in some areas. It has even hosted public fairs, where boys competed in ice cream and pie-eating contests, jihadist fighters engaged in a friendly game of tug-of-war, and Syrians received pamphlets touting the organization.
All the ice cream-eating contests in Syria, however, don’t seem to have been enough to stave off ISIS’s showdown with more moderate rebel brigades. Tensions have been building for months, as the jihadi group has kidnapped aid workers, executed civilians for perceived offenses against Islam, and occasionally killed FSA-affiliated commanders in battles over turf. Now that the fight has spiraled out of control, it’s hard to see how the rival rebel groups will be able to patch up their differences.
"They are not rebels anymore; from this point, they are terrorists now," FSA spokesman Louay Mekdad told CNN. "We are fighting two terrorist teams on two fronts: One al-Assad regime and Hezbollah militia and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and the other the extremists al Qaeda, ISIS."