Ana Maria Luca

An overshadowed front

How ISIS’ gains in Iraq might influence the Syrian conflict

Opposition fighters prepare to storm the headquarters of the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters in the Bab al-Neirab neighbourhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on January 7, 2014

“They are not afraid of anything anymore,” a Syrian activist told NOW. “They are even stricter and more aggressive toward people in imposing their sharia.”


In the wake of sweeping jihadist gains in Iraq, the Raqqa-based activist – who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons – described a city losing hope that fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) will ever withdraw from their district. “This is our nightmare. A nightmare,” he said.


But while in ISIS-controlled regions the situation seems to have changed for the worse, for some Syrian opposition activists and fighters, ISIS’ pivot to Iraq brought a ray of hope. “The Syrian opposition will benefit a lot from the situation in Iraq because it will have new supply chains, a new strategy, and its morale is better because the regime will be weakened after the Iraqi Shiite militias went back to fight in Iraq,” said Syrian activist Ghassan Yassine. “The opposition will have more chances to resolve the Syrian battles.”


However, it remains unclear how and if Syrian opposition brigades would reorganize to oust ISIS from their territories. Despite these activists’ optimism, analysts say there are little chances for radical changes in Syria triggered by ISIS’s renewed focus on Iraq.


“Generally speaking, the Syrian opposition lacks the ability to confront ISIS in all areas,” Carnegie Middle East Center senior associate Yezid Sayigh told NOW. “It has been effective in Idlib, for various reasons, but they haven’t been as successful to the north and east of Aleppo, they haven’t been able to push back in Raqqa, and in and around Deir Ezzor they lost a lot of ground. The picture varies a lot,” he added. “The rebellion has been unable to operate strategically.”


The current situation has many variables, Sayigh explained. “It is not clear if ISIS will bring back to Syria the weapons they have captured in Iraq and the released prisoners, who presumably have experience, and a lot of money to pay new recruits,” he told NOW.


But all these are just possibilities, because it’s still unclear if ISIS is capable of fighting on two fronts at once. “I don’t think they are going to prioritize Syria over Iraq, if this choice has to be made,” Sayigh said. “Right now there is a growing military challenge in Iraq, as the government tries to fight back.”


Fighting continues in Deir Ezzor, where the town – currently held by Syrian opposition forces – has been besieged by both ISIS and the Syrian military. On June 16, the Supreme Military Council of the Syrian Coalition released a statement asking the international community and especially other Arab countries to help them fight ISIS in Syria. “The SMC calls on sister countries, especially Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, the UAE, and Jordan, to support active brigades in Deir Ezzor in order to repel the terrorist group ISIS,” the statement read. “The SMC calls on all active brigades in Deir Ezzor to unite and face Assad’s thugs and ISIS.” So far, however, there is no sign that any of the named countries would provide assistance.


According to Sayigh, Hezbollah, one of the Syrian regime’s strongest allies, might also be forced to begin campaigns it hadn’t planned for. “It is believed that some of the Iraqi Shiites have been called out from Damascus, Syria, to go back to Iraq,” Sayigh explained. “This might compel Hezbollah to stretch out while it was trying to wind down part of its military involvement [in Syria].”


Statements released by Hezbollah General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah have been more enthusiastic. “We are ready to sacrifice martyrs in Iraq five times more than what we sacrificed in Syria, in order to protect shrines, because they are much more important than [the holy sites in Syria],” Nasrallah was quoted to have said in a meeting.


In the meantime, the Party of God is engaged in a bloody battle with Syrian rebels in the Qalamoun region in an attempt to establish control of the Lebanese-Syrian border. According to Free Syrian Army Commander Abu Omar Alloush, 29 Hezbollah fighters were killed in Syria’s Rankous last weekend during clashes with the opposition.


The latest front in this campaign was the Lebanese village of Tfeil, besieged by Hezbollah on June 18, according to an administrative source in the village. Hezbollah’s troops want to use the village as a platform for attacks against the Syrian opposition forces that still hold territories in Rankous. “They have requested that we send out the women and children away from the middle of town because they plan to enter. Some of the women did flee into the woods and then Syrian planes dropped barrel bombs on them,” the source told NOW.


As the opposition tries to shift strategy, the Syrian regime continues to fight in critical zones. Apart from Deir Ezzor, the Syrian army bombed regions of Aleppo controlled by ISIS at the beginning of the week. At the same time, the regime is fighting to keep the Lebanese-Syrian border clean of opposition forces.


“The regime is not probably going to increase its confrontations because it’s already given up on the east and that’s where ISIS is located,” Sayigh told NOW. “It doesn’t have to worry immediately about ISIS and it can focus on its own core areas.”


Nadine Elali contributed reporting.


Myra Abdallah contributed translation.

Opposition fighters prepare to storm an ISIS headquarters in Aleppo. (AFP Photo/Zakariya al-Kafi)

“Generally speaking, the Syrian opposition lacks the ability to confront ISIS in all areas.”