The strengthening Islamic group Isis could hold the key to peace in Syria

A sustained campaign both sides of the border would weaken Isis and al-Qa’ida

Share

This time last year the name Isis was better known as that of the ancient Egyptian goddess of fertility rather than a group of jihadist fighters engaged in extreme violence and instilling fear even by the bloody standards of Syria’s savage civil war.

Those following events in the region certainly know about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria now. This extension of al-Qa’ida has emerged as the most powerful and effective among the rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Heavily armed, with a sizeable contingent of foreign jihadists, it had overrun some of the most well-defended of the regime’s military bases. And, at the same time, it had killed or driven out much of what was left of the moderate opposition.

Isis now also provides the shock troops of a resurgent al-Qa’ida in Iraq, leading the offensive in Anbar province and capturing large parts of Falluja and Ramadi, places synonymous with the insurgency against US forces during the occupation. Such is the worry about this that the US had rushed over Hellfire missiles and drones, with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki asking for more.

Back in northern Syria last autumn, after a break of several months, I was taken aback by the sheer dominance of Isis. It had supplanted Jabhat al-Nusra as the leading Salafist group, taking over towns, imposing the harshest form of Sharia law, commandeering aid distribution and using food to spread its influence.

At the time, however, they were in temporary retreat. The Syrian regime had crossed Barack Obama’s “red line” by the use of chemical weapons at Ghouta; air strikes were imminent and Isis was convinced that the US would take the opportunity to have a swipe of Tomahawks at them as well. We saw them moving their men, weapons and hostages away for their bases, in some instances all the way to Iraq.

The American military action did not, of course, take place. We watched the same convoys return and, in the time since then, expand their fiefdom in Syria, mainly at the expense of other rebel khatibas, or brigades, rather than the regime. At the same time, their presence in Anbar, where they are fed and watered and through which they got a lot of their supplies, had grown rapidly with the blessing of Ayman al-Zawahari, the successor of Osama bin Laden, with whom they have had an uneasy relationship at times in the past.

But are we, in fact, seeing a major strategic mistake by Isis? Have they overreached themselves? Occupying cities, as they are doing in Anbar, may be of symbolic value and generate publicity, but they are taking, and will continue to take, heavy casualties, especially in a conflict where state forces are prepared to accept a high level of collateral civilian casualties in carrying out ground and air assaults.

Isis has been forced to reinforce its fighters in Anbar from those in Syria. But there, for the first time since they began to hold sway, the group has been attacked by the rebels they had previously marginalised. The first reports of these could be treated with a degree of scepticism; these groups had been long on talk and short on military muscle in the past. But fighters I have spoken to in the more credible of these khatibas insist that they are taking the fight to Isis and will continue to do so.

This has been lent credence by an unprecedented exposure of weakness from Isis itself. They have complained of betrayal by fellow fighters in the jihad, of being stabbed in the back, their members have been killed, taken prisoner. If this continues, came the warning, they will leave Aleppo allowing the regime to retake the half of the city currently outside its control.

There have been at least a half-dozen places where Isis has come under fire. The Syrian Opposition Council, a cobbled together umbrella group of those in the “mainstream” opposed to President Assad, has been emboldened enough to declare that the Free Syrian Army, its military arm, will prosecute the campaign against “al-Qa’ida, which is a threat to the Syrian people and humanity as a whole”.

A sustained campaign both sides of the border will certainly weaken Isis and al-Qa’ida. But there are caveats. In Iraq, the Americans need to use their new leverage with Mr Maliki and his Shia-centred government to address the justified resentment in the Sunni communities at his policies which the Islamist extremists have exploited. The tribal militias will have to be reactivated and paid, which Baghdad has ceased doing.

In Syria there are doubts on just how long the other rebels would be able to maintain pressure on Isis. The second most powerful Islamist brigade, the Al Nusra Front, has so far remained “neutral” in this battle. It will be highly important which way they go. It has a far larger proportion of Syrians, rather than foreigners, in their ranks than Isis – young men who, the people in Aleppo and Idlib believe, can be assimilated back into society if and when the current madness ends.

 

Then there is the issue of whether President Assad’s forces would seek to take advantage of the situation to push forward? If they do so, the rebels may decide to patch over their differences to face the threat. Would the Russians, with their own problems with Islamist terrorism, try to stop the regime it sponsors from taking such action?

Lastly, with the battle lines being redrawn, Geneva II, the face-to-face talks between the Damascus regime and the opposition scheduled for later this month, may not be just a talking shop, as some have feared, but an opportunity to form alliances. Isis, and the need to deal with them, may provide the first hesitant steps towards peace sometime in the future.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Field Smart Meter Engineer - Gas and Electric - Dual Fuel

£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises in the installa...

Recruitment Genius: Programme Manager

£30000 - £35500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Recruitment Genius: Provisioning Specialist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Provisioning Specialist is required to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Apprenticeships

£10000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an outstanding opportunity for 1...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Two out of five marriages end in divorce but filling in the paperwork wrong can prove very costly  

Divorce is bad enough without the legal process around it making it so much worse

Simon Kelner
A portrait of Russell Brand by Nathan Wyburn using Birds Eye Mashtags, rice, peas and fish fingers  

If Russell Brand ever decided to vote, then he would vote for the Green Party

Lee Williams
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum