The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is the victim of a US-Saudi decision to get rid of the ISIS burden and rehabilitate the Islamic Front as a final substitute for the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
In the last few hours, ISIS lost control of more areas in northern Syria. For the third day in a row, the military operations against ISIS are being conducted by an alliance that includes the Islamic Front and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF), which are respectively led by Saudi Arabia’s two men in Syria: Zahran Alloush and Jamal Maarouf.
ISIS fighters retreated in front of a coordinated attack by the Islamic Front on ISIS sites in the strategic towns of Atma and Dana in Idlib. ISIS abandoned its positions in Sarmada near the Turkish border. Islamic Front fighters ejected ISIS from the vital Bab al-Hawa border crossing, through which convoys of foreign fighters and weapons supplies from the West and Saudi Arabia pass. ISIS also gave up its positions around the crossing.
The Americans seem to have succeeded in igniting a major front among the jihadists in Syria. The Americans chose to stand by those advocating “jihad only in Syria” and against the regional and global jihadist trend represented by ISIS.
The offensives by the Islamic Front and SRF on ISIS positions in northern Syria coincided with the counteroffensive launched by the Iraqi army and rebel tribes in Iraq against ISIS and with US support, which is clearer in Iraq than in Syria. US Secretary of State John Kerry said in Jerusalem, before going to Riyadh where he met Saudi King Abdullah [bin Abdulaziz Al Saud] and Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, that “this battle is too big for Iraq to be left alone. The fighting in Syria is part of what’s causing instability in the region. This is the battle in the end. They have to achieve victory in it.”
In a joint news conference with Faisal, Kerry said, “[During the meeting], we discussed Syria, the Geneva II meeting. We discussed Iran and our common interests in seeing Lebanon be able to be stable and unimpeded by the interference of Hezbollah …”
Kerry will be meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on Jan. 13 in Paris. Kerry said that Iran could perform a “role” in the Geneva II conference but only from the sidelines. He insisted that Iran will not be a full participant in the international conference, which will open in Montreux, Switzerland, on Jan. 22.
The statement by the US Embassy in Baghdad last week was interesting. For the first time, the US State Department called on the countries neighboring Iraq and Syria to not allow the passage of weapons and fighters through their territory.
The US-Saudi plan aimed at replacing the FSA with the Islamic Front started a few weeks ago with attempts by US Ambassador Robert Ford in Antakya, through meetings with Ahrar al-Sham, Suqour al-Sham and Liwa’ al-Tawhid Brigades, and the most prominent leaders of the Islamic Front, to persuade them to return to the FSA General Staff, whose headquarters and weapons stores near Bab al-Hawa they seized, and to join the political process in Geneva.
Saudi intelligence oversaw a meeting in Mecca last December attended by Salafist preachers Mohammad al-Arifi, Saad al-Barik, Saad al-Muhaimad and Nasser al-Omar. Those four are known to have supported Sahwa’s fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq. No anti-ISIS religious edicts were issued in the Mecca meeting. But, according to experts on Syrian jihadism, the group worked to create the atmosphere to fight ISIS.
The Syrian National Coalition, which re-elected Ahmed Jarba as its president for six months, provided significant political support for the ongoing military operation and accused ISIS of being an ally and a product of the Syrian regime.
If the military operation by the Islamic Front succeeds, the Americans would have been able to weaken the global jihadist wing in Syria before the Geneva II conference and portray those fighting the global jihadists as a party that is acceptable in the political process.
The Americans would also be able to continue exhausting Damascus and its allies through a force that is better organized than the FSA and with a more ideologically homogeneous discourse, whose “jihadism” doesn’t threaten US regional interests and is limited to the US need to strike Syria.
Despite that, it is not certain that the jihadist-Salafist allies, represented by the Islamic Front and SRF, would be able to quickly defeat ISIS, first and foremost for military reasons.
Despite ISIS losing important regions in north Syria. It still controls the main supply routes in Syria’s east, from Raqqa and Deir al-Zour, to Anbar in Iraq, where ISIS has significant posts and an army of foreign and Arabs fighters coming from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and North Africa.
The outcome of the battle in Anbar will determine the outcome of the battles in north Syria, and vice versa. Militarily, ISIS is building a strategy that tries to avoid confrontations in the areas where ISIS cannot fight. ISIS withdrew from its besieged positions around Aleppo and handed them to Jabhat al-Nusra. Instead of a direct confrontation, ISIS sent six car bombs yesterday [Jan. 5], killing dozens of people in Haritan and the Aleppo countryside.
ISIS launched a war of ambushes in the town of Magharat al-Artiq, killing four enemy fighters and 10 others near Tal Rifaat. ISIS also executed five fighters in Haram and assassinated Ammar Laila, a main leaders of Liwa’ al-Tawhid in the northern Aleppo countryside, in response to Tawhid killing Assem al-Masri (Abu Hafs), one of the most important ISIS military leaders. ISIS regrouped its fighters in Aleppo and can still send fighters and reinforcements, and conduct operations in the region.
More importantly, ISIS is threatening to bring down the temple on everyone’s head. The situation in Aleppo and its countryside may turn in the interest of the Syrian army if the Islamic Front maintains its attack. ISIS has threatened to withdraw from its fronts in Aleppo in al-Sheikh Saeed, Afrin, Magharat al-Artiq, Nabbal, al-Zahra and Khan Toman.
There are other reasons preventing a direct defeat of ISIS. They are related to the complexities of “jihad” in Syria. The presence of more than 10,000 Arabs and foreign “immigrant” jihadists in both the Islamic Front in ISIS is preventing the fight between them to go all the way to the end.
The factions inside the Islamic Front are unable to agree on decisiveness against ISIS because the leader of Ahrar al-Sham Abu Abdullah al-Hamwi decreed the killing of anyone who assaults any “immigrant” woman, after the Syria Martyrs Brigade captured the families and women of ISIS “immigrants” fighters and killed the emir of Jund al-Aqsa Abu Abdul Aziz al-Qatari.
The harsh rhetoric against targeting the “immigrants” is due to their central role in giving the Syrian “jihad” their best leaders and fighters. Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic Front arrested fighters for Suqour al-Izz, which especially attracts Saudi “immigrant” fighters and is led by the Saudi man named Saqr al-Izz. The latter is famous for his hard line in the battles in the Latakia countryside and in his role in massacring Alawite villages.
ISIS has accused its attackers of seeking to kill the “immigrants.” The Islamic Front responded, “We are fighting those who attacked us and to defend the factions from both supporters and immigrants.”
The fighting between the “jihadists” and the clear Americans support to the National Coalition and the Islamic Front raises the question about America’s position regarding Jabhat al-Nusra and its avoidance so far in the ongoing fighting, noting that Jabhat al-Nusra, not ISIS, is the official al-Qaeda representative, through its leader Ayman al-Zawahri, of the global “jihad” in Syria.
So far, Jabhat al-Nusra is “dissociating” itself from the conflict going on between the “jihadist” brothers. The group of Abu Mohammed al-Golani (Jabhat al-Nusra's leader) is mediating between the warring parties. He was handed ISIS’s headquarters and weapons, which strengthens Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, but only if the fighting stops because Golani and Jabhat al-Nusra's Shura Council cannot stay on the fence for very long. Otherwise, Jabhat al-Nusra may split between ISIS and the Islamic Front.
The rift appeared in the implicit call by Jabhat al-Nusra Islamic jurists, such as Sultan bin Isa al-Atawi and Abu Hassan al-Kuwaiti, to support the attack against ISIS, because “whoever lit the fire should be the one to put it out.” In contrast, an ISIS emir named Abu Sami al-Waili said that he has received messages from a senior official informing him that Jabhat al-Nusra stands with ISIS because the latter has been attacked.
The question raised by those partial to ISIS is being echoed inside Jabhat al-Nusra. They think that their role will come as soon as ISIS is defeated.