Ayman Sharrouf

ISIS expansionism will
burn Qalamoun

After sustaining heavy losses in Iraq, it seems that ISIS now wants to take Qalamoun.

A Syrian regime tank burns in Qalamoun. (AFP/Sam Skaine)

Since fighting stopped August in the town of Arsal, which lies adjacent to Syria’s Qalamoun region on Lebanon’s eastern border, many changes have taken place. When armed opposition groups began to carry out sophisticated operations against Hezbollah and Syrian Army positions in the area, all eyes turned to the border region.


Fought by the Lebanese army on one side and a number of armed groups—most notably the Al-Nusra Front—on the other, the Arsal clashes put the Qalamoun region under the spotlight. Since then, stories have begun to emerge from a number of sources about what is happening in the area. What the true situation points to though, is the existence of a new front primed to explode at any moment in a battle that will involve an increased number of forces.


Rather than simply pitting armed opposition groups against Hezbollah and the Syrian army, this front will be further expanded by the arrival of ISIS, under direct orders from its chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. After sustaining heavy losses in Iraq, where he has had to retreat from many areas, it seems the ISIS leader now wants to take possession of Qalamoun.


Until around a month ago, the Nusra Front was the strongest opposition faction in the area. After Baghdadi’s decision, ISIS in Qalamoun began a gradual transformation from one small group—a brigade of around 60 fighters led by Ahmad Jumaa whose arrest by the Lebanese Army caused the outbreak of the Arsal clashes—to an efficient force that is working its way in to the eastern and western Qalamoun mountains.


Today, in the areas of Iraq and Syria under its control, ISIS employs “management of savagery,” one of three principles it uses to keep its subjects in check. This strategy has made ISIS seem like an unstoppable force in the eyes of its rivals and enemies. “Management of savagery,” from killing, beheading and stoning to various other violent techniques, has made fear creep into the hearts of many an enemy on battlefield. ISIS members believe this will help the group to expand, especially when it comes to crossing Syrian territory.


In any case, several months ago after the end of the Arsal clashes, Baghdadi decided to expand into Qalamoun. In addition to Jumaa’s small battalion, groups of fighters arrived in the western Qalamoun from the Homs countryside. ISIS then spread out in the area, and gained pledges of allegiance from a number of Free Syrian Army battalions.


Several small groups in the area tell of a state of fear that prevails during battles; they say the terror ISIS has instilled has been very effective in helping the group advance, whether through subduing its enemies by force, or extracting pledges of allegiance without fighting—which has happened on more than one occasion.


An FSA fighter says the fact that delivery of “supplies and aid to the FSA has been cut off since the battle of Yabrud [in May] is what caused this submissiveness. ISIS [has been able] to advance in an area that wasn’t under its control where the locals don’t believe in it or what it’s promoting.”


Since then, ISIS has worked its way into Qalamoun and clashed several times with the FSA. Around two weeks ago, the group attacked its first FSA base, detaining Liwa Maghaweer commander Arraba Idris and killing a number of his men. Many people said ISIS had killed Idris after he refused to pledge allegiance to the group, but this proved to be no more than supposition when Idris was released a few days later. Some people believe ISIS released Idris after he pledged allegiance to the group, which could prove to be true.


According to one FSA commander, it is impossible for ISIS to release a detainee who fights against it, as these people are considered heretics by the group. This makes Idris’ release seem very suspicious, unless the group is trying to buy time in Qalamoun and doesn’t want to start a full scale battle with the opposition before thoroughly preparing itself. Another strange thing, the FSA commander says, is the widely spread rumors that the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade has pledged allegiance to ISIS, which the brigade has neither confirmed nor denied. Coupled with what happened to Idris, the situation doesn’t look reassuring and it seems as if something is being prepared for Qalamoun.


Recently, ISIS has tried to push its expansion into Qalamoun by working in small groups and carrying out quick operations against Nusra and the FSA. This is what happened in Ain al-Fijeh, a small town in the Barada Valley between Bloudan and Zabadani, where several ISIS fighters were wounded and one was killed before the group withdrew from the area. The same thing happened at many other locations in the border area.


The most difficult obstacle facing ISIS in its attempt to take control of Qalamoun is still the Nusra Front. After the FSA withdrawal that followed the battle of Yabrud, Nusra took control of most of Qalamoun and has maintained a strong presence in barren areas. In the western Qalamoun in particular, unlike the FSA, Nusra is still being heavily supported by Qatar, which has recently made a rapprochement with the other Gulf States. Consequently, Nusra is the strongest faction in Qalamoun. This is understood by Baghdadi, who wants to reach Damascus.


Accordingly, Baghdadi has sent three new Emirs to Qalamoun and more recently a former Iraqi army commander to supervise operations. The Caliph, who knows the Nusra Front is the faction holding back his advance, sent his Emir in the Qalamoun to Nusra’s Emir Abu Malek al-Talli. Baghdadi’s Emir asked al-Talli to pledge allegiance to ISIS but al-Talli refused. Well informed sources say that the meeting did not go well. The Emir of Sudanese origin sent by Baghdadi is known for his fiery temper, and his vicious tendencies are said to exceed those of many members of the jihadist group, which has already won infamy for the savagery of its fighters.


There are people working to overstate the role played by Baghdadi and his Qalamoun groups. Yes, they are present, as field commanders fighting with both Nusra and the FSA admit. However, according to these commanders ISIS doesn’t have as many combatants in the area as some have stated. These rumors, they say, are meant to “frighten fighters and make them pledge allegiance to the group. It’s a tactic ISIS uses in many places.”


This is substantiated by the clash in Ain al-Fijeh, which showed that ISIS has split up in to small groups and is starting numerous clashes with the FSA to make itself look like a large force. This is meant to make extracting future pledges of allegiance easier. These allegiances will then be used to launch the real battle to occupy Qalamoun.


For now, ISIS has a real presence, but not as large a presence as has been suggested. The group’s fighters, which number no more than 600, are divided in to groups in the western and eastern Qalamoun, and do not control specific positions. Their presence is concentrated in the wasteland areas around the towns of Assal al-Ward, al-Marra and Flita. They also have a small presence in the area around Arsal.


At Baghdadi’s orders, they were joined by fighters from outside Qalamoun, especially from the Homs countryside. Then there are new groups from Raqqa that are also travelling via Homs, and groups moving from Deir Ezzor on the Iraqi border across the semi-desert and the Bir Qasab area. This will enable the latter groups to reach Daraa, and from there, begin to enter the southern front through a wide open door and surround Damascus, after their withdrawal from the area around Baghdad.


This situation doesn’t belie the fact that ISIS actually has much less influence than the media portrays. The word in Qalamoun today is that the Nusra Front is still the strongest faction, and controls the entire front in cooperation with a number of FSA groups. Most prominent among them is Jaysh al-Islam, which was a powerful force before it moved some of its fighters to the besieged eastern Ghouta suburbs in Damascus. Other groups working with Nusra include the al-Rahman Corps, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh Usud al-Sharqiyyah and the Ahmad al-Abdo Martyrs Brigades. All of them have come together in the joint operations room for the eastern Qalamoun and its outlying areas. They entered their first battle with ISIS in the Mahassa area, and expelled the group’s members.


For now, ISIS is trying to establish its presence. The Nusra Front is its main rival, represented by al-Talli, who has remained steadfast despite the pressure thanks to the support of a well prepared force capable of entering any confrontation. The FSA with its numerous factions also has a role to play, even if it has not been given any support for more than a year. The coming days will be filled with events and battles. As well as ISIS, the armed opposition will have to face the regime and Hezbollah.


Assad’s forces have opened Baghdadi’s supply lines and facilitated the transit of his fighters so that Qalamoun can be turned in to the next Aleppo countryside, i.e. a theatre for confrontation between ISIS and the opposition. Qalamoun is not what is used to be, and behind the border someone is waiting for the announcement of zero hour to unleash a fire that will burn everything in its path.

A Syrian regime tank burns in Qalamoun. (AFP/Sam Skaine)

Baghdadi has sent three new Emirs to the Qalamoun and more recently a former Iraqi army commander to supervise operations.

  • Beiruti

    So Assad is facilitating the supply of ISIS in Qalamoun?? That seems suicidal unless there is some really bazaar conspiracy going on between Assad and Baghdadi.

    January 2, 2015