What has been established about the presence of the Islamic State of Iraq inside Syria?
IMAGE: The Islamic State of Iraq flag in a rally in the Tariq al-Bab section of Aleppo
Headlines over the weekend proclaimed a division within the Syrian insurgency, to the point of “war”, involving the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant.
Sparked by an incident on Thursday in which the ISIL killed an FSA commander at a checkpoint in Idlib Province, the stories escalated to the proclamation of “Al Qa’eda” was trying to take control from “moderate” insurgents. Indeed, an “analysis” in Britain’s Daily Telegraph never even mentioned the “Islamic State of Iraq”, jumping to “Al-Qaeda may have licence to commit many more atrocities before it outstays its welcome”.
The drama was compounded by weekend rumors dressed up as “news”, such as assertions of clashes over a vital checkpoint in Aleppo, and by muddled analyses — Joshua Landis handed over his prominent “Syria Comment” site to a confused, confusing, and speculative piece about the relationship between ISIL and the “al-Qa’ida aligned” Jabhat al-Nusra faction.
So what has been established?
1. The Islamic State of Iraq’s declaration this spring that it was taking command of the actions of Jabhat al-Nusra was firmly rejected by JAN. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qa’eda, subsequently wrote letters affirming JAN’s autonomy.
2. However, the ISIL pursued an expansion of its operations, recruiting fighters — including many from JAN — and trying to establish an infrastructure for its activities. In the most prominent example, it tried to establish “offices” in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.
3. As ISIL has pursued the expansion, there have been clashes over control of supplies.
4. In northern Syria, the ISIL has been successful in establishing control in the town of al-Dana, where the Islamic State of Iraq waged a battle against other insurgent groups, in which dozens of fighters were reportedly killed.
There have been shows of support for ISIL in other towns, such as Azaz, and in the city of Raqqa — the largest single location controlled by insurgents in Syria — there have been protests for and against the faction.
The ISIL has also carried out individual acts of its “justice”. For example, in Raqqa last week, it seized journalist Mohamed Matar, and it was filmed burning seized hashish in the area.
5. A long article in Damascus Bureau, published on Friday, portrays an “Islamic Emirate” in Jarablos near the Turkish border, in which the Islamic State of Iraq and Jabhat al-Nusra have been involved.
However, the piece returns us to questions rather than answers. For rather than pointing to a conclusion of triumph or defeat for the ISIL, it shows how a number of factions — including, in this case, Kurdish groups — continue to be involved in the contest for power in post-Assad territory.
A report from Al Jazeera English on Sunday on the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant: