Fidaa Itani

The Islamic State returns
to northern Syria

The Syrian opposition's inability to effectively counter the regime or the Islamic State has become predictable

An image made available by Jihadist media outlet Welayat Raqa on June 30, 2014, allegedly shows a member of the IS (Islamic state) militant group parading with a long-range missile on a street in the northern rebel-held Syrian city of Raqa (AFP Photo/HO/Welayat Raqa)

“The Islamic State [IS] will return to the Syrian-Turkish border in the north by the end of the Eid al-Fitr holiday.” – Syrian central coordination officer at the military operations center, June 2014


“Some are trying to link the Syrian revolution to the ongoing conflict in Iraq and this will further complicate the Syrian cause. We will not reach a solution as long as Iraq is ablaze, and the pretext for such a link is the IS.” – Syrian adviser and activist operating between Turkey and Jordan, July 2014


“We were unable to counter the regime’s progress towards the industrial zone, as our forces were on alert in the north to face the IS.” – Egyptian Jihadist officer fighting with Syrian factions, July 2014


The Islamic State has anticipated all prospective political solutions in Iraq that might result in its being expelled by the Sunni population or in limiting its role and preventing it from acting with impunity even though it had been allowed to confront former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Iraqi clans have announced on several occasions that they will not confront the IS before the crisis in government is resolved and their demands are met.


In anticipation of these solutions, the jihadist group has headed once again to the Syrian-Turkish border. Espionage circles within some Syrian revolutionary forces knew this would occur following the Fitr holiday, and they had enough time to prepare, mobilize and coordinate. But, as usual, nothing was done to prevent the return of the IS.


The IS is now targeting the border between the governorates of Aleppo and Idlib, a zone that includes the border crossings of Bab al-Salameh, near the Syrian town of Aazaz (Kilis and Gaziantep in Turkey) and Bab al-Hawa, which is close to Atma and Saramda (Reyhanli in Turkey). This will not be too difficult an operation if the current situation of fighting factions remains unchanged and if they continue to refrain from firing anti-tank rockets at advancing Syrian regime tanks. If there is no foreign support, request or insistence, regime tanks are left alone, provided they are not advancing on villages controlled by this or that faction.


The IS has many supporters in the villages upon which it is advancing. It left some of them only in February and March of 2014, two months into the campaign to eradicate the IS from the northern and western countryside of Aleppo and Idlib. Many sleeper cells are still waiting to join the IS in many regions, such as Kafr Hamra, Andan, Tell Rifaat, Aazaz and Darat Ezza, to name just a few.


Hundreds of IS fighters have found refuge within Jabhat al-Nusra as well as amongst Islamist factions protecting foreign jihadists from the wrath of local populations. These fighters are deployed in many of the villages from which the IS has been expelled. They have taken down the IS flag and raised the Nusra Front banner, and are temporarily operating under its leadership pending an IS return to their regions. The Syrian population is still seeing IS fighters moving around al-Dana, speaking in English and driving cars with Nusra Front flags.


Moreover, IS security infiltration into the rebel factions has taught them that the rebellion has no preparations for the upcoming confrontation and that these factions do not even know what they want anymore, apart from administering liberated regions in Syria and continuing to protect the front lines they maintain against the Syrian regime and the IS. However, it seems that both sides are convinced that this kind of border protection leads to little strategic benefit as it does not prevent major attacks. They are also convinced that there will not be many major military operations, and that the few they expect will take place in regions such as Saraqeb in Idlib and againt the base of the 111th Regiment, in the western countryside of Aleppo, due to the presence of specific factions that originated there.


The IS is also aware of the slackness and lack of confidence of the various factions. For instance, Jaysh al-Mujahideen was formed a few days following the Islamic State’s expulsion from the north and fought its first battle against it. But it is now plagued by feuding and rivalries pitting it against other anti-IS factions. To defy the Noureddine al-Zanki Brigades, it welcomed Osbat al-Ansar under the leadership of Saleh Hanano (who was killed a few weeks ago), even though Hanano was loyal exclusively to The Islamic State. Liwa al-Tawhid, which is currently operating as part of the Islamic Front, can barely muster enough guards to guard its own stations, let alone protect its various frontlines, knowing that one of its largest positions is the Infantry School right across the Aleppo industrial zone.


Also present in the region are the Saudi-financed Hazzm Movement, which is now receiving acceptable fighting gear and boasts an reasonable level of training; and the Qatar-financed Jaysh al-Mujahideen, the allegiance of which shifts constantly and is subject to fractures, not to mention that military operation centers do not approve their financing or support.


Various components of the Islamic Front, including Ahrar ash-Sham, Suqur al-Sham and Liwa al-Tawhid, disagree on almost everything. Liwa al-Tawhid displays Muslim Brotherhood leanings while Salafist-leaning Ahrar ash-Sham sometimes tries to emerge as a moderate group, despite entire factions refusing to fight the IS earlier this year.


The border region is also home to the Nusra Front, the financial situation of which has become dire, prompting its members to join the IS; and to the Noureddine al-Zanki Brigades, which are financed by the military operations command center and has started to get acceptable military training.


When the IS regains control of the border area, the aforementioned forces and the countryside of Idlib and Aleppo will be caught – along with millions of local residents – in a crossfire between the regime forces, which will accompany IS progress with shelling and limited progress to the south, especially in Aleppo, and the IS, which will give people a choice between allegiance to it and death. Meanwhile, the border would still be sealed and the south set ablaze by Hezbollah-supported Syrian regime troops.


In the first days of battles against the IS, there will always be one fighting faction that will swear an early allegiance to the caliphate, whether overtly or covertly, and hand over the areas it controls to the regime in the south or the IS in the north. There will be a massacre-in-waiting for the Kurds in Afrin and fighting will set the Shiite villages of Nabal, Zahra and Fouaa aflame. This is all because some within the opposition, whether domestically or abroad, do not know how to take on the political management of Syrian regions, or do not want to.


The Islamic State is returning to northern Syria, but there is still enough time – as some officers say – to regain the initiative. 

The IS has many supporters in the villages upon which it is advancing. (AFP Photo/HO/Welayat Raqa)

We were unable to counter the regime’s progress towards the industrial zone, as our forces were on alert in the north to face the IS.” – Egyptian jihadist officer fighting with Syrian factions, July 2014