A member of the Free Syrian Army opens fire on a government forces helicopter… (AFP/ )
BEIRUT — A rebranded version of Iraq’s al-Qaeda affiliate is surging onto the front lines of the war in neighboring Syria, expanding into territory seized by other rebel groups and carving out the kind of sanctuaries that the U.S. military spent more than a decade fighting to prevent in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the four months since the Iraqi al-Qaeda group changed its name to reflect its growing ambitions, it has forcefully asserted its presence in some of the towns and villages captured from Syrian government forces. It has been bolstered by an influx of thousands of foreign fighters from the region and beyond.
The group, now known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, is by no means the largest of the loosely aligned rebel organizations battling to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and it is concentrated mostly in the northern and eastern provinces of the country. But with its radical ideology and tactics such as kidnappings and beheadings, the group has stamped its identity on the communities in which it is present, including, crucially, areas surrounding the main border crossings with Turkey.
Civilian activists, rival rebel commanders and Westerners, including more than a dozen journalists and relief workers, have been assassinated or abducted in recent months in areas where the Islamic State has a presence.
Most of the cases are being kept quiet for fear of jeopardizing the victims’ release, but the escalating pace of disappearances is turning already-dangerous parts of rebel-held territory into effective no-go areas for many Syrians as well as foreigners, deterring aid efforts and media coverage and potentially complicating future attempts to supply more-moderate factions of the rebel Free Syrian Army.
A rapid ascent
With multiple groups competing for influence, the Islamic State cannot be held responsible for all the incidents that have occurred in Syria. Jabhat al-Nusra, the original Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, which has resisted efforts by the Islamic State to absorb it, maintains a robust presence in many parts of the country. Criminal gangs also have taken advantage of the vacuum of authority to carry out kidnappings for ransom, mostly of Syrians.
But at a time when the Islamic State is undergoing a revival in Iraq, killing more people there than at any time since 2008 and staging a spectacular jailbreak last month that freed hundreds of militants, the push into Syria signifies the transformation of the group into a regional entity. The U.S. military — which referred to the organization as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) — claimed it had subdued AQI by the time the United States withdrew from Iraq in 2011.
Evidently it did not, said Bruce Hoffman, director of security studies at Georgetown University, who thinks Syria is even more strategically significant for the group than Iraq. Syria’s location — the country shares borders with Turkey, Israel, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon — gives al-Qaeda a foothold in the heart of the Middle East, Hoffman said.
“There are a lot of reasons to worry that Syria will emerge as an even more powerful variant of what Afghanistan was more than 30 years ago,” he said.
Nonetheless, the Islamic State’s rapid ascent and aggressive methods have put it at odds with more-moderate rebel factions and with local communities, calling into question how long the group can sustain its role. In the eastern provincial capital of Raqqah, which has emerged as the Islamic State’s biggest stronghold, clashes with more-moderate rebel units erupted twice over the weekend, killing at least 13 rebel fighters and civilians, according to residents.
Meanwhile, residents there have been staging near-daily protests demanding the release of people thought to have been abducted by the Islamic State, foremost among them a renowned Italian Jesuit priest, the Rev. Paolo Dall’Oglio, who spent decades living in Syria before he was expelled last year for his opposition sympathies. His whereabouts have been unknown since he arrived in Raqqah late last month to attempt to open an interfaith dialogue with the Islamic State.
Others who have been abducted in Raqqah include the head of the newly formed provincial governing council, a top official with the humanitarian assistance arm of the main Syrian Opposition Coalition and the local commander who led the capture of Raqqah from government forces in March.
“They kidnap anyone who opposes their point of view,” said a Raqqah activist who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of safety concerns.
The Islamic State also coexists uneasily in many places with Jabhat al-Nusra, which it sought to absorb in April. Jabhat al-Nusra’s leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, is a Syrian who fought with al-Qaeda in Iraq, then returned in 2011 to set up a Syrian counterpart. He rebuffed the merger attempt.