Is Islamic State's next target Daraa or Ghouta?

There are questions about whether Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is plotting to take over areas held by the opposition.

al-monitor A member of Jabhat al-Nusra mans a checkpoint on the border crossing between Syria and Jordan, which they claim to have taken control of, in Daraa, Dec. 26, 2013.  Photo by REUTERS/Ammar Khassawneh.

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syria, jihadist, jabhat al-nusra, islamic state, daraa, damascus

Dec 10, 2014

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may have gone to Syria with some of his associates to oversee an alternative plan to confront expected developments, in light of talk that the battle of Mosul is near. Meanwhile, IS movements in the Damascus countryside are raising questions about Baghdadi’s next target.

Tensions in Bir al-Qasab in the Damascus countryside have peaked, especially after IS announced two days ago that it is sending more military support to the area, a matter that raised the anxiety and stress levels among the armed factions’ leaders amid speculation that IS’ next goal is to enter Daraa. Or could that be preceded by fabricating events in east Ghouta, which these days is experiencing many assassinations, illustrating the danger awaiting the area?

The latest IS moves in some Syrian areas, whether in the East or South, raise many questions, especially as these moves came in conjunction with information indicating that Baghdadi recently moved from Iraq to Syria along with some members of the Shura Council and his inner circle. Although such leaks may not be innocent and may be intended to camouflage Baghdadi’s real location and give him an aura of mystery, opening the Deir ez-Zor front in this violent way and threatening all of Daraa and the Damascus countryside point to the existence of an alternative IS plan to confront the developments that could happen in the coming months, especially in light of the battle of Mosul.

Did IS’ leadership feel threatened by the danger in Iraq and decide to expand its influence in Syria? Or does it really have a surplus of power that allows it to fight on two fronts, in Syria and Iraq, and against all opponents at once?

There is no doubt that IS choosing Bir al-Qasab to be an IS center has raised fears in Daraa and eastern Ghouta. This confusion about the ultimate goal may be intentional in order to camouflage IS’ true intentions and to split up its opponents’ efforts.

It was striking that IS’ information office of the Damascus province announced yesterday [Dec. 9] that additional supplies are being sent to Bir al-Qasab. The announcement was accompanied by pictures of these supplies. IS usually does that to raise the morale of the fighters and to exercise psychological warfare on its opponents.

About a week ago, a leading figure in Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Maria al-Qahtani, said that there are fears that IS’ next move will be toward Daraa, pointing out that Jabhat al-Nusra’s leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani has personally ordered the mobilization of the youth to confront such a development. Abu Muhjin al-Shami, a Jabhat al-Nusra leader in Ghouta, warned a few days ago on his Twitter account that IS’ real goal is east Ghouta, not Daraa. This indicates the degree of confusion caused by the IS hordes in Bir al-Qasab, including confusion among leaders of the same faction.

It seems that in the Damascus countryside and in east Ghouta (it is believed that IS is not present in west Ghouta), Jabhat al-Nusra has started taking preemptive measures to prevent the IS tide from reaching Jabhat al-Nusra’s areas of influence. Jabhat al-Nusra is also trying to reduce Jaish al-Islam's control of some key supply sources.

In this context, two leaders associated with Jabhat al-Nusra have been assassinated. Jabhat al-Nusra suspected that they had a relationship with IS so it killed them before they become dangerous.

The first was Abu Khattab al-Iraqi, a Jabhat al-Nusra leader and a veteran jihadist in Syria. He was killed because he defended IS in one of his discussions. The second was Abu Mohammad al-Iraqi, the general jurisprudence official of Ansar al-Sharia, which was founded a few ago months by Jabhat al-Nusra defector Abu Amir al-Urduni. He used to be the emir of al-Marj in Ghouta, then he was dismissed because he leaned toward IS.

Although Iraqi’s assassination happened under mysterious circumstances, the fingers immediately pointed to Jabhat al-Nusra because its leadership had warned that the new organization carries ideas identical to those of the Kharijites, meaning IS.

Days earlier, Abu Khadija al-Urduni (actual name Bilal Awad Abdul Razzaq Khuraisat), Jabhat al-Nusra’s general jurisprudence official in East Ghouta, arrested an official from Jaish al-Islam who was responsible for overseeing the large tunnel linking Barzeh to Harasta, a tunnel dedicated to transporting supplies to Ghouta militants. Ghouta is under siege by the Syrian army.

Finally, it may be significant that the commander of Jabhat Thuwar Suria in the south, Abu Osama al-Golani, announced his withdrawal from the Military Council in Daraa. Before that, he announced his withdrawal from the “Wa I'tasimu Initiative” and had declared that he has no relationship with the Revolutionary Command Council, which the initiative produced. The Revolutionary Command Council was established two weeks ago.

Are these events just precautionary measures by some factions to prevent any developments? Or are they real indications that the storm has already begun to reach the factions?

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