During the last couple of months, two very similar military campaigns have simultaneously been going on in Syria and Iraq, while the Syrian offensive with Russian air support against the militants in east Aleppo has been reviled as an assault against humanity, the military campaign in Mosul by the Iraqi armed forces and Shi’a militias with American air support has been lauded as the struggle for “liberation” by the mainstream media.
Although the campaign in Mosul is against the Islamic State while in east Aleppo the Syrian regime has launched a military offensive against the so-called “moderate rebels,” but the distinction between Islamic jihadists and “moderate” militants is more illusory than real.
Before it turned rogue and overran Mosul in Iraq, the Islamic State used to be an integral part of the Syrian opposition against the regime and it still enjoys close ideological and operational ties with other militant groups in Syria. Keep in mind that although turf wars are common not just between the Islamic State and other militant outfits in Syria, but also among the rebel groups themselves; however, the ultimate objective of the Islamic State and the rest of militant outfits in Syria is the same: that is, to overthrow the Shi’a majority regime of Bashar al-Assad.
It is not a coincidence then that when the regime was on the verge of winning a resounding victory against the militants holed up in east Aleppo, the Islamic State came to the rescue of its brothers-in-arms by opening up a new front in Palmyra from where it had been evicted in March. Consequently, the regime has to send reinforcements from Aleppo to Palmyra in order to defend the city and thus the momentum of the military offensive in east Aleppo has stalled.
It defies explanation that while the US has announced the Phase II of the military campaign against the Islamic State in Syria and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have amassed north of the Islamic State’s bastion in al-Raqqah, instead of buttressing its defenses against the SDF in the north, the Islamic State has launched an offensive against the Syrian regime in the south? In order to answer this perplexing question, we need to revisit the ideology, composition and objectives of the Islamic State in Syria.
Unlike al Qaeda, which is a terrorist organization that generally employs anticolonial and anti-West rhetoric to draw funds and followers, the Islamic State and the majority of militant groups in Syria are basically anti-Shi’a sectarian outfits. By the designation “terrorism” it is generally implied and understood that an organization which has the intentions and capability of carrying out acts of terrorism on the Western soil.
Though the Islamic State has carried out a few acts of terrorism against the Western countries, such as the high profile Paris and Brussels attacks, but if we look at the pattern of its subversive activities, especially in the Middle East, it generally targets the Shi’a Muslims in Syria and Iraq. A few acts of terrorism that it has carried out in the Gulf Arab states were also directed against the Shi’a Muslims in the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia and Shi’a mosques in Yemen and Kuwait.
Many biased political commentators of the mainstream media deliberately try to muddle the reality in order to link the emergence of the Islamic State to the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the Bush Administration. Their motive behind this chicanery is to absolve the Obama Administration’s policy of supporting the Syrian opposition against the Syrian regime since the beginning of the Syrian civil war until June 2014 when Islamic State overran Mosul and Obama Administration made an about-face on its previous policy of indiscriminate support to the Syrian opposition and declared a war against a faction of Syrian opposition: that is, the Islamic State.
Moreover, such spin-doctors also try to find the roots of Islamic State in al-Qaeda in Iraq; however, the insurgency in Iraq died down after “the Iraq surge” of 2007. Al-Qaeda in Iraq became an impotent organization after the death of Abu Musab al Zarqawi and the subsequent surge of troops in Iraq. The re-eruption of insurgency in Iraq has been the spillover effect of nurturing militants in Syria against the Assad regime, when the Islamic State overran Fallujah and parts of Ramadi in January 2014 and subsequently captured Mosul in June 2014.
The borders between Syria and Iraq are quite porous and it’s impossible to contain the flow of militants and arms between the two countries. The Obama Administration’s policy of providing money, arms and training to the Syrian militants in the training camps located at the border regions of Turkey and Jordan was bound to backfire sooner or later.
Notwithstanding, in order to simplify the Syrian theater of proxy wars for the sake of readers, I would divide it into three separate and distinct zones of influence. Firstly, the northern and northwestern zone along the Syria-Turkey border, in and around Aleppo and Idlib, which is under the influence of Turkey and Qatar.
Both of these countries share the ideology of Muslim Brotherhood and they provide money, training and arms to the Sunni Arab jihadist organizations like al-Tawhid Brigade, Nour al-Din Zenki Brigade and Ahrar al-Sham in the training camps located at the border regions of Turkey.
Secondly, the southern zone of influence along the Syria-Jordan border, in Daraa and Quneitra and as far away as Homs and Damascus. It is controlled by the Saudi-Jordanian camp and they provide money, weapons and training to the Salafist militant groups such as al-Nusra Front and the Southern Front of the so-called “moderate” Free Syria Army in Daraa and Quneitra, and Jaysh al-Islam in the suburbs of Damascus.
Their military strategy is directed by a Military Operations Center (MOC) and training camps located in the border regions of Jordan. Here let me clarify that this distinction is quite overlapping and heuristic at best, because al-Nusra’s jihadists have taken part in battles as far away as Idlib and Aleppo.
And finally, the eastern zone of influence along the Syria-Iraq border, in al-Raqqah and Deir al-Zor, which has been controlled by a relatively maverick Iraq-based jihadist outfit, the Islamic State. Thus, leaving the Mediterranean coast and Syria’s border with Lebanon, the Baathist and Shi’a-dominated Syrian regime has been surrounded from all three sides by the hostile Sunni forces: Turkey and Muslim Brotherhood in the north, Jordan and the Salafists of the Gulf Arab States in the south and the Sunni Arab-majority regions of Mosul and Anbar in Iraq in the east.
The bottom line is that although the American efforts to stall the momentum of the Islamic jihadists’ expansion in Iraq appears to be sincere, but the Western powers and their regional allies are still pursuing the duplicitous policy of using the Syrian militants, including the Islamic State, to destabilize the Assad regime in Syria.
Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based attorney, columnist and geopolitical analyst focused on the politics of Af-Pak and MENA regions, energy politics and Petroimperialism.