Exclusive Report: Attention Shifts to Nusra Front after ISIS Setback in Its Stronghold

Exclusive Report: Attention Shifts to Nusra Front after ISIS Setback in Its Stronghold

Thursday, 5 July, 2018 - 11:30
An ISIS militant in Raqqa (Reuters)
London - Ibrahim Hamidi
On this day, four years ago, a video of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was leaked showing him in a visit to a mosque in Mosul a few days after the organization’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, announced an alleged “caliphate” based on intimidation, repression and atrocities in western Iraq and eastern Syria.

Today, the organization has regressed and its areas of control have declined. At the end of 2017, ISIS lost control over Mosul and Raqqa, which it had declared as its capital.

The fourth anniversary of ISIS’ announcement has a special meaning in Syria. It marks the organization’s decline, especially during the last year. It also comes in parallel with the end of main chapters in the Syrian moderate and Islamic opposition, whether in Damascus Ghouta or in the Homs countryside.

Debate in Washington over the future of the US-led coalition forces in the liberated areas of north-eastern Syria is raging after President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw some 2,000 Special Forces troops in next November. Attention, however, is now focused on Idlib, home to some 10,000 non-Syrian members of al-Qaeda, which is considered by Washington as the nest of ISIS and Al-Nusra Front.

Four years ago, ISIS was controlling half of Syria’s 185,000 square kilometers. The organization was exerting its power in the governorates of Deir Ezzor, Homs, Sweida and Daraa, after the formation of eight “states” which include, the “state of Damascus, the state of Aleppo, the state of Raqqa, the state of Kheir, the state of Homs, the state of Badia, the state of Euphrates and the state of Baraka.”

Those were distributed in nine provinces, including Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, Hama, Al-Hasakah, Damascus countryside and Sweida.

Areas controlled by ISIS constituted nine times the size of Lebanon. The organization has wiped out the Syrian-Iraqi border, and founded the “Euphrates state”, which included areas along the border.

A major turning point in Syria was the end of 2013, when the Free Army factions were betting on a US-Western intervention against Syrian regime forces after the latter’s use of chemical weapons in Ghouta in August 2013. But the US-Russian deal, which resulted in a program to dismantle the chemical arms, forced the factions to move from the center towards the extremist organizations.

A development changed the opposition factions’ priorities at the end of June. A spokesman for ISIS, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, announced on June 29 that the so-called Islamic state decided to declare Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the “Imam” of the Muslims. The name of Iraq and Damascus was abolished from the organization’s official papers and transactions to become only "IS".

ISIS has further intensified its terrorist and intimidation activities. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) recorded the violations of the organization, which included the execution of 5,191 civilians, fighters, members of the regime’s forces, loyalists and members of the organization, within 48 months of announcing its caliphate on June 29, 2014 until June 28, 2018. Those included 2,900 civilians, comprising 106 children who were shot, killed, decapitated, stoned, or burned.

The terrorist organization committed three massacres in the provinces of Deir Ezzor, Aleppo and Hama. It has also executed more than 930 Sunni Arab citizens of the Shu'ayat tribe in the eastern suburb of Deir Ezzor, and 223 Kurdish civilians, who were killed by shooting and white weapons in the town of Ein al-Arab (Kobani) and the village of Burkh Boutan in the southern countryside of the city.

In addition, 46 civilians were executed by the organization in the village of Maboujeh, which is inhabited by citizens of the Ismaili, Sunni and Alawi communities in the eastern countryside of a peaceful city. Those were burned, massacred and shot.

The statistics of the Observatory included the execution of 386 fighters from the fighting battalions, the Islamic battalions, Al-Nusra Front and the Syrian Democratic Forces, in addition to the execution of 574 ISIS members, some of whom were accused of “espionage in favor of foreign countries and attempt to escape.”

In the wake of the expansion of ISIS and its terrorist attacks in western countries starting in 2014, western capitals began to think about a response. But the impasse was the refusal to cooperate with the regime's forces. Some western countries accused the regime at the time of being “attractive to terrorism” and responsible for the largest number of deaths, currently estimated at half a million, and leaving 13 million people homeless, including 6 million refugees outside Syria.

After deliberation and consultation, two steps were agreed: first, to form an international coalition led by the United States and to launch a massive operation in the summer of 2014, with a membership of 77 countries; and second, to rely on local forces other than the regime’s forces, mainly the Kurdish People’s Protection Units.

Over time, and in response to various criticisms, the “People Protection Units” were expanded to become the “Syrian Democratic Forces” with the addition of Arab factions that fought ISIS in its capital, Raqqa, bringing the number of fighters to more than 25,000.

With the direct military intervention of Russia in September 2015, the problem of coordination between the Russian and the US armies was raised. Military negotiations between Washington and Moscow began in May 2017, months after President Trump’s arrival at the White House, which resulted in the establishment of a direct channel of communication between the two armies to prevent a clash during the fight against ISIS.

Four years after its emergence, it is possible to speak about the decline of the ISIS and its collapse as a result of the coalition attacks in cooperation with the Syrian Democratic Forces on the one hand, and the attacks of the regime forces and its allies on the other, which reduced the organization’s control to 3 percent of the Syrian territories.

The Observatory said that the last year was the “worst” for ISIS, as the organization’s economic and financial resources have severely declined.

But attention has begun to shift towards the northwest. The dilemma here is that there are 2.5 million civilians, including about one million displaced from other parts of the country, including tens of thousands of opposition fighters. Russia says there are between 15,000 and 20,000 extremist fighters, while the US says there are 10,000 -12,000 foreign fighters of al-Qaeda.

The US military began early last year to strike the villages of Idlib and Aleppo, targeting hundreds of militants from al-Qaeda and its Kharasan group or leaders of Al-Nusra Front and the Fatah Army. But Moscow has asked Washington to stop the bombing because Idlib is within its area of control, which is located west of the Euphrates River, and the US airspace is limited to the east of the river.

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