The Reality of Al-Qaeda in Syria
Conflicts between al-Qaeda-affiliated group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and Free Syrian Army-linked groups and the People's Protection Units (YPG), a Democratic Union Party (PYD)-affiliated Kurdish militant group, are worsening. ISIS is emerging stronger from the conflicts.
As a result of conflicts in Aleppo, Idlib, Ar-Raqqah, Al-Hasakah and Deir ez-Zor, which had mostly been controlled by opposition forces for a long time, the area controlled by ISIS is expanding. The rising force of ISIS causes unease among Islamist groups, including another al-Qaeda-linked group, the al-Nusra Front.
Conflicts might take place even between ISIS and the al-Nusra Front from time to time. The al-Nusra Front issued a declaration condemning abductions by ISIS in Ar-Raqqah not long ago. Meanwhile, the conflicts between ISIS and the YPG are continuing. During the clashes between ISIS and the YPG in Atme, administratively part of the Idlib Governorate, many fighters were killed on both sides. Recently, ISIS blew up a tomb in Buseyra, seized by the opposition in Deir ez-Zor. The local activists took the explosion as a sign that ISIS, which is strong in Ar-Raqqah and Aleppo, will further increase its influence in Deir ez-Zor in the near future. This situation brings forward the efforts to keep a balance against ISIS' rise. The fact that the strongest 11 Islamist opposition groups, including radical Islamist groups such as Ahrar ash-Sham and the Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Islam and Suqour al-Sham in addition to the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, urged all the opposition groups in the country to gather under the umbrella of Shariah long ago might be considered a result of this effort.
ISIS began to proceed towards Aleppo after seizing control of the border town of Azaz, located in northern Aleppo, in September. Approaching central Aleppo from the north, ISIS has been seizing control of some strategic villages and towns on the way. After ISIS took control of Azaz, the Öncüpınar border crossing was closed. As a result, the strategic importance of the Cilvegözü border crossing in Reyhanlı increased. ISIS has taken control of towns like Atareb, which is of crucial importance for seizing control of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing on the Syrian side of Cilvegözü. Following these developments, clashes took place between ISIS and the FSA-linked groups in central Aleppo. In eastern parts of Aleppo, controlled by opposition groups, intense conflicts are taking place between the Ababil Brigade of the FSA and ISIS, and radical Islamists have the edge over the FSA in the city.
One of the most significant factors increasingly strengthening ISIS is the fact that the Syrian youth, who feel cheated due to the lack of support from the West and have reacted negatively to the groups affiliated with the FSA, join ISIS. Also, the fact that Syria borders Israel and Palestine and the idea that the next target following the collapse of the Assad regime will be Jerusalem has led to a flow of Jihadist Muslims from all around the world into the country to fight with ISIS. The term “ash-Sham” in the name of ISIS encompasses the present Iraqi, Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli territories. The group shows with this term that their goal is not limited to Syria, but also includes the Near East. Thus, participation in ISIS from all around the world is on the rise.
It might be suggested that there are two different views towards the increasing influence of ISIS in the regions where the Assad regime has lost control among the locals. Some have reacted angrily to the way ISIS interferes in the private lives of people, their traditions as well as their lifestyles -- the prohibition of alcoholic beverages and tobacco products, forcing people to fast during Ramadan, blowing up tombs that are considered sacred by the local people, as tombs are prohibited in the Salafi faith. ISIS' ways have also spread fear among non-Sunnis. Anyone who is not a Sunni Muslim is considered “impious” and can be killed simply for that reason.
On the other hand, the second approach towards ISIS is positive. Accordingly, although ISIS and other al-Qaeda-linked groups are harsh, they do not steal the property and money of the people, unlike other groups affiliated with the FSA. Moreover, the chaos caused by the power vacuum in the regions seized by the opposition groups does not take place in regions controlled by ISIS. Learning from the Iraq experience, ISIS has understood the importance of winning over the local people and has been trying to gain sympathy by offering some basic services for free and by organizing activities for children. The group controls bakeries and distributes bread to the people, and provides certain basic services, such as collecting garbage, building roads and electricity distribution. Hence, the local people in some regions are against ISIS, while others find ISIS favorable as they think it more successful than other groups independent of the ideology.
Paradoxically, the gains of the opposition groups in Syria reinforce the Assad regime because al-Qaeda-affiliated groups and Islamists, and ISIS in particular, are at the forefront of the opposition. The problem, in terms of the West, is the fact that the goal of these groups is not only limited to toppling the Assad regime but that they consider it a stage of an overall struggle against Israel and the West.