It is no longer the Free Syrian Army but the radical Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams that is a serious threat to the Assad government
On Tuesday night, suicide bombers and gunmen attacked Iraqi checkpoints along Highway 11, which runs from Baghdad to Syria via Ramadi. They bombed the checkpoint at Rutba as well as points just west of Ramadi. Thirty-seven people were killed in these attacks, a majority of them security officers. Highway 11 is Iraq’s southern route into Syria. The other road from Baghdad to Syria is Highway 12, which runs from Ramadi northwards to the towns of Anan and Rawah, along the Euphrates River and into the Syrian city of Raqqa. Last week, gunmen of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS) attacked the towns of Anan and Rawah, destroying a bridge and trying to destroy the electricity transmission towers. The Iraqi army was able to deter the ISIS attack on Rawah, and so held off ISIS’s attempt to take the towns that would give it effective control of Highway 12. Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq said that last week’s attack was a “hopeless attempt by al Qaeda [ISIS] to establish a foothold in Iraq.” It seems likely that ISIS decided to try and take Highway 11 after its attack on Highway 12 was repulsed.
Over the past month, ISIS has made remarkable gains. Its operation, named Expunging Filth, has either expelled or absorbed the Free Syrian Army units along the spine of northern Syria. The Syrian-Turkish border town of A’zaz has been in ISIS hands for a month. Since April, ISIS began to draw in all the smaller Salafi factions, including Jabhat al-Nusra (not always without rivalry) and parts of Ahrar as-Sham (whose commander, Abu Obeida al-Binnishi, ISIS killed in September). A new report from the International Crisis Group from October 17 notes that ISIS is now “the most powerful group in northern and eastern Syria and was benefiting from control of oil fields.” Analyst Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi says that ISIS cannot be shaken from its strongholds in the north and east by any combination of FSA and its allies. Indeed, over the past few months, the ISIS has severely degraded the capacity of the Free Syrian Army, having killed one of its important battalion chiefs Kamal Hamami in July and having drawn in many of its local level fighters. The Free Syrian Army is no longer a serious threat to the Syrian government.
The main secular voice of this uprising in Syria, Yassin al Haj Saleh, who was underground in Syria during the civil war, fled the country on October 12. In an open letter, “Farewell to Syria, for a while,” Mr. Saleh wrote that the city of his birth, Raqqa, had been taken over by “the spectres of horror of our childhood, the ghouls.” The situation in Raqqa, Mr. Saleh writes, is deplorable. It was hard to watch “strangers oppress it and rule the fates of its people, confiscating public property, destroying a statue of Haroun al-Rashid or desecrating a church, taking people into custody where they disappeared in their prisons.” Mr. Saleh’s departure indicates that things are worse there than they were this summer when researcher Yasser Munif travelled in the north and found that in Raqqa “people are more and more critical of the ISIS and al Nusra.” It appears that the space for that internal criticism of ISIS is now narrower. Billboards promoting the views of ISIS are legion across Raqqa, with intimations that the rivalry between the various Islamist factions is at mute. As el-Tamimi notes, in public rallies flags of both ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra fly side by side.
In July 2013, ISIS led a mass jailbreak from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib to free 500 prisoners. The group used an array of car bombs, suicide bombers and gunmen in that operation. ISIS directed these fighters toward the Iraqi-Syria border, where they hope to take control of the crossing points as part of their attempt to form a corridor that runs from Ramadi to Tripoli in northern Lebanon (a clash in the city killed a 13-year-old boy on October 23). The attacks of the night of October 22 are part of this scenario.
ISIS and its form of radicalism are a product of Saudi Arabian and Qatari financing of the rebellion. Money from the Gulf Arabs alongside foreign fighters and a motivated group of Syrian fighters have given ISIS the advantage. At the same time, as Saudi and Qatari money has allowed its proxies to have the upper hand against other rebels on the battlefield, Saudi and Qatari influence has prevented unity and an agenda to develop among the political leadership of the rebellion. Over three years, the National Council for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (the SNC) has been unable to draft a clear programme for Syria. Its absence is not a sign of lack of imagination, but of the subordination of the SNC to the petty fights among its Gulf Arab benefactors. The SNC stumbled when it essentially allowed a palace coup to remove Mo’az al-Khatib from his post. After much infighting, the SNC finally appointed Ahmad Saleh Touma as its prime minister. Ghassan Hitto resigned because he was seen to be too close to the tarnished star of Qatar. The current president is Ahmad Jarba, closely linked to the Saudi government. By late September, the Islamists rejected the SNC. The leader of the Tawhid Brigade from Aleppo, Abdul Qader Saleh, intimated on Twitter that they would consider forming an Islamic alliance (al-tahaluf al-islami). Scholar Aron Lund suggests that the Islamists have not gone beyond this suggestion. The marks of Gulf Arab infighting are all over the Coalition.
Despite the gains in northern Syria by ISIS, Saudi Arabia’s agenda for the country is blocked. In the absence of foreign intervention, ISIS is not going to be able to overthrow the government in Damascus — which is one reason why it has moved to seize Syrian border posts (with Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq). A dangerous confrontation is likely in the Western Ghouta region near Damascus, but this is not going to lead to any major strategic advance for anyone. It will be a bloodbath with no substantial gain, as so much of this war has become. Unable to move to the centre, ISIS claims the margins of Syria. Saudi Arabia expected the U.S. to bomb Syria in September, weaken the Assad regime and allow its proxies to seize power (Saudi Arabia is also disappointed that the U.S. has accepted the Iranian overtures for talks). With no clear road to Damascus, ISIS has turned more forcefully to nihilistic violence in the regions it controls — not quite the outcome hoped for by Saudi Arabia. That is the reason Saudi Arabia’s liaison to the Syrian rebels, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, made his remarks about reassessing the U.S.-Saudi relationship, and this is why Saudi Arabia refused to take the U.N. Security Council seat it had just won. Saudi Arabia backed the Taliban in the 1990s thinking the group would moderate its ideology over time. Nothing like that happened. It seems that the Kingdom is willing to make the same wager in Syria, despite the adverse historical record.
Violence such as what broke out on October 22 night has become commonplace in Iraq, with several thousand killed this year (almost 500 this month alone). The Syrian war, blocked into a tragic stalemate, has moved into Iraq, a country already battered by war and devastation in its recent history. Here the “faces that harden behind a mask of gloom” as Syrian poet Adonis put it, watch civilisations crumble for the cheap ambitions of geo-politics. The shadow of al-Qaeda settles into Iraq and Syria, hardening the faces of ordinary Syrians and Iraqis further. The entry of a full-blown ISIS assault in Lebanon cannot be far, as the fighting in Tripoli and on the border towns suggest. Talk of ceasefires and negotiations in Geneva is distant from the desolation that has come to envelop the roads that link Beirut to Baghdad, a journey that could have been made in some peace a century ago but is now tormented with guns and frustration.
(Vijay Prashad is the Edward Said Chair at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon)