Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in August 2011 to April 2013, the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front were a single organization that chose the banner of “Jabhat al-Nusra.” Although the current al-Nusra Front has been led by Abu Mohammad al-Julani he was appointed as the emir of al-Nusra Front by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State, in January 2012.
Thus, Al-Julani’s Nusra Front is only a splinter group of the Islamic State, which split from its parent organization in April 2013 over a leadership dispute between the two organizations. In March 2011, protests began in Syria against the government of Bashar al-Assad. In the following months, violence between demonstrators and security forces led to a gradual militarization of the conflict. In August 2011, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was based in Iraq, began sending Syrian and Iraqi jihadists experienced in guerilla warfare across the border into Syria to establish an organization inside the country.
Led by a Syrian known as Abu Mohammad al-Julani, the group began to recruit fighters and establish cells throughout the country. On 23 January 2012, the group announced its formation as Jabhat al-Nusra. In April 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released an audio statement in which he announced that al-Nusra Front had been established, financed and supported by the Islamic State of Iraq. Al-Baghdadi declared that the two groups were merging under the name “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.” The leader of al-Nusra Front, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, issued a statement denying the merger and complaining that neither he nor anyone else in al-Nusra’s leadership had been consulted about it.
Al-Qaeda Central’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, tried to mediate the dispute between al-Baghdadi and al-Julani but eventually, in October 2013, he endorsed al-Nusra Front as the official franchise of al-Qaeda Central in Syria. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, however, defied the nominal authority of al-Qaeda Central and declared himself as the caliph of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Keeping this background in mind, it becomes amply clear that a single militant organization operated in Syria and Iraq under the leadership of al-Baghdadi until April 2013, which chose the banner of al-Nusra Front, and that the current emir of the subsequent breakaway faction of al-Nusra Front, al-Julani, was actually Al-Baghdadi’s deputy in Syria. Thus, the Islamic State operated in Syria since August 2011 under the designation of al-Nusra Front and it subsequently changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in April 2013, after which it overran Raqqa and parts of Deir al-Zor in the summer of 2013. And in January 2014, it overran Fallujah and parts of Ramadi in Iraq and reached the zenith of its power when it captured Mosul in June 2014.
The Baathist Command Structure:
Excluding Al-Baghdadi and a handful of his hardline Islamist aides, the rest of Islamic State’s top leadership is comprised of Saddam era military and intelligence officials. According to an informative Associated Press Report , hundreds of ex-Baathists constitute the top and mid-tier command structure of the Islamic State who plans all the operations and directs its military strategy.
Although al-Baghdadi has not publicly appointed a successor, two of the closest aides who have emerged as his likely successors over the years are Iyad al-Obaidi, his defense minister, and Ayad al-Jumaili, the in charge of security. The latter had already reportedly been killed in an airstrike in April in al-Qaim region on Iraq’s border with Syria. Therefore, the most likely successor of al-Baghdadi would be al-Obaidi. Both al-Jumaili and al-Obaidi had previously served as security officers in Iraq’s Baathist army under Saddam Hussein, and al-Obaidi is known to be the de facto deputy of al-Baghdadi.
More to the point, it is an indisputable fact that morale and ideology play an important role in the battle, and well-informed readers must also be aware that the Takfiri brand of most jihadists these days. Looking at the Islamic State’s astounding gains in Syria and Iraq in 2013-14, a question arises that where do its recruits get all the training and state-of-the-art weapons that are imperative not only for hit-and-run guerrilla warfare but also for capturing and holding large swathes of territory?
The Syria experts of foreign policy think tanks also appeared quite “worried” when the Islamic State overran Mosul that where did the Islamic State’s jihadists get all the sophisticated weapons and especially those fancy Toyota pickup trucks mounted with machine guns at the back, colloquially known as “the Technicals” amongst the jihadists?
According to a revelatory December 2013 news report  from a newspaper affiliated with the UAE government which supports the Syrian opposition, it is clearly mentioned that along with AK-47s, RPGs and other military gear, the Saudi regime also provides machine gun-mounted Toyota pickup trucks to every batch of five jihadists who have completed their training in the training camps located in the border regions of Jordan.
Once those militants cross over to Daraa and Quneitra in southern Syria from the Jordan-Syria border, then those Toyota pickup trucks can easily travel all the way to Raqqa and Deir al-Zor and thence to Mosul and Anbar in Iraq. Moreover, it is clearly spelled out in the report that Syrian militants get arms and training through a secret command center known as the Military Operations Center (MOC) based in the intelligence headquarters’ building in Amman, Jordan that has been staffed by high-ranking military officials from 14 countries, including the US, European nations, Israel and the Gulf Arab States to wage a covert war against the government in Syria.
Notwithstanding, in order to simplify the Syrian theater of proxy wars, it can be divided into three separate and distinct zones: that are, the Syrian government-controlled areas, the regions administered by the Syrian Kurds and the areas that have been occupied by the Syrian opposition. Excluding Idlib Governorate which has been occupied by the Syrian opposition, all the major population centers along the western Mediterranean coast are controlled by the Syrian government: that includes, Damascus, Homs, Hamah, Latakia, and Aleppo, while the oil-rich Deir al-Zor has been contested between the regime and the Islamic State. The regions that are administered by the Syrian Kurds include Qamishli and al-Hasakah in northeastern Syria, Kobani along the Turkish border and a Canton in northwestern Syria, Afrin.
Excluding the western Mediterranean coast and the adjoining major urban centers controlled by the Syrian government and the Kurdish-controlled areas in the north of Syria along the borders with Iraq and Turkey, the Syrian opposition-controlled areas can be further subdivided into three separate 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 these countries share the ideology of Muslim Brotherhood and provide money, training and arms to Sunni Arab militant organizations, such as al-Tawhid Brigade, Zenki Brigade and Ahrar al-Sham in the training camps located in the border regions of Turkey in collaboration with CIA’s MOM (a Turkish acronym for military operations center).
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 Salafist Saudi-Jordanian camp and they provide money, weapons and training to the Salafi-Wahhabi militant groups, such as al-Nusra Front and the Southern Front of the so-called “moderate” Free Syria Army (FSA) 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, as I have already described.
Here, let me clarify that this distinction is overlapping and heuristic, at best, because al-Nusra’s jihadists have taken part in battles as far away as Idlib and Aleppo, and pockets of opposition-held areas can be found even in the regime-controlled cities, including in the capital, Damascus. Thirdly, the eastern zone of influence along the Syria-Iraq border, in Raqqa and Deir al-Zor, which has been controlled by a relatively maverick Iraq-based jihadist outfit, the Islamic State, though it had received funding and weapons from Turkey and the Gulf Arab States before it turned rogue and overran Mosul and Anbar in Iraq in early 2014.
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 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.
Syria’s Pro-Assad Militias
According to reports, Syria’s pro-Assad militias are comprised of local militiamen as well as Shi’a foreign fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and even the Hazara Shi’as from as far away as Afghanistan and Pakistan. And similarly, Sunni jihadists from all over the region have also been flocking to the Syrian battlefield for the last seven years. A full-scale Sunni-Shi’a war has been going on in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen which will obviously have its repercussions all over the Islamic World where Sunni and Shi’a Muslims have coexisted in relative peace for centuries.
Moreover, unlike al Qaeda which generally employs anti-colonial and anti-Zionist rhetoric to draw funds and followers, the Islamic State and the majority of Sunni Arab 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.
Although the Islamic State has carried out a few acts of terrorism against the Western countries, 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.
Regarding the Syrian opposition, a small fraction of it has been comprised of defected Syrian soldiers who go by the name of Free Syria Army, but the vast majority has been comprised of Sunni Arab jihadists and armed tribesmen who have been generously funded, trained, armed and internationally legitimized by their regional and international patrons. The Islamic State is nothing more than one of the numerous Syrian militant outfits, others being: Al Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, al-Tawhid brigade, Jaysh al Islam etc. All the Sunni Arab militant groups that are operating in Syria are just as fanatical and brutal as the Islamic State. The only feature that differentiates the Islamic State from the rest is that it is more ideological and independent-minded.
The reason why the US has turned against the Islamic State is that all other Syrian militant outfits only have local ambitions that are limited to fighting the Assad regime in Syria, while the Islamic State has established a global network of transnational terrorists that includes hundreds of Western citizens who have become a national security risk to the Western countries. More to the point, since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in August 2011 to June 2014 when the Islamic State overran Mosul and Anbar in Iraq, an informal pact existed between the Western powers, their regional allies and the Sunni militants of the Middle East against the Shi’a Iranian axis comprised of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Iran’s Lebanon-based proxy, Hezbollah. In accordance with the pact, Sunni militants were trained and armed in the training camps located in the border regions of Turkey and Jordan to battle the Shi’a-dominated Syrian government.
This arrangement of an informal pact between the Western powers and the Sunni jihadists of the Middle East against the Shi’a Iranian axis worked well up to August 2014 when the Obama Administration made a volte-face on its previous regime change policy in Syria and began conducting air strikes against one group of Sunni militants battling the Syrian government, the Islamic State, after the latter overstepped its mandate in Syria and overran Mosul and Anbar in Iraq, from where the US troops had withdrawn only a couple of years ago in December 2011.
After this reversal of policy in Syria by the Western powers and the subsequent Russian military intervention on the side of the Syrian government in September 2015, the momentum of Sunni militants’ expansion in Syria and Iraq has stalled, and they now feel that their Western patrons have committed a treachery against the Sunni jihadists’ cause, that’s why they are infuriated and once again up in arms to exact revenge for this betrayal.
If we look at the chain of events, the timing of the recent spate of terror attacks against the European targets has been critical: the Islamic State overran Mosul in June 2014, the Obama Administration began conducting air strikes against the Islamic State’s targets in Iraq and Syria in August 2014, and after a lull of almost a decade since the Madrid and London bombings in 2004 and 2005, respectively, the first such incident of terrorism took place on the Western soil at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, and then the Islamic State carried out the audacious November 2015 Paris attacks and the March 2016 Brussels bombings, and this year, three horrific terror attacks have taken place in the United Kingdom within a span of fewer than three months.
A number of Islamic State affiliates have recently sprung up all over the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia regions that have no organizational and operational association, whatsoever, with the Islamic State proper in Syria and Iraq, such as the Islamic State affiliates in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya and even Boko Haram in Nigeria now falls under the rubric of the Islamic State. Can we classify any ragtag militant outfit as the Islamic State merely on the basis of ideological affinity and “a letter of accreditation” from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi without the Islamic State’s Baathist command structure and superior weaponry that has been bankrolled by the Gulf’s petro-dollars?
The Western political establishments and their mouthpiece, the mainstream media, deliberately and knowingly fall for such stratagems because it serves the scaremongering agenda of vested interests. Before acknowledging the Islamic State’s affiliates in the region, the Western mainstream media also similarly and “naively” acknowledged al Qaeda’s affiliates in the region, too, merely on the basis of ideological affinity without any organizational and operational association with al Qaeda Central, such as al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula, al Qaeda in Iraq and al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb.
Recently, the Islamic State’s purported “terror franchises” in Afghanistan and Pakistan have claimed several terror attacks against the Shi’a and Barelvi Muslims who are regarded as heretics by Takfiris. But to contend that the Islamic State is responsible for suicide blasts in Pakistan and Afghanistan is to declare that the Taliban are responsible for anarchy and militancy in Syria and Iraq. Both are localized militant outfits and any purported affiliate of the Islamic State without its Baathist command structure and superior weaponry would be just another ragtag, local militant outfit. The distinction between the Taliban and the Islamic State lies in the fact that the Taliban follow Deobandi sect of Sunni Islam which is native to South Asia and the jihadists of the Islamic State mostly belong to the Wahhabi denomination.
Secondly, and more importantly, the insurgency in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan is a Pashtun uprising which is an ethnic group native to Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan, while the bulk of the Islamic State’s jihadists is comprised of Arab militants of Syria and Iraq. Conflating the Islamic State either with al-Qaeda or with a breakaway faction of the Taliban is a deliberate deception intended to mislead public opinion in order to exaggerate the security threat posed by the Islamic State.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy and position of Regional Rapport.