Now that the possibility of a US missile strike in Syria has faded, US attention has been diverted to other matters in the Middle East, namely, negotiations with Iran. However, the diminished threat of intervention combined with a weak UN Security Council Resolution has led to a significant loss of US influence among the Syrian opposition. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), one of two al-Qaeda branches operating in Syria, has capitalized on this influence vacuum by attempting to establish its dominance within rebel-held territory. In response to an ascendant ISIS and general frustration with US foreign policy, opposition fighting groups are beginning to form Islamic coalitions independent of the US-backed Syrian National Council. US policymakers will now have to deal with a stronger al-Qaeda presence and less capacity to bolster anti-regime forces.
After the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime on August 21, it appeared inevitable that the United States would conduct missile strikes against regime assets. This was diverted by the adoption of a Russian-made plan to eliminate all chemical weapon stockpiles in Syria. The result was UN Security Council Resolution 2118, which is intended to enforce and implement the destruction of the regime’s stockpiles. However, Russian opposition to a Chapter VII resolution (the authorization of force) has created an image of US weakness. If Assad does not comply with Resolution 2118, then the United States would have to seek the Security Council’s approval for a second resolution that would allow a military response. This resolution could easily be vetoed by Russia, Assad’s largest foreign supporter. Because the United States now needs “the Assad regime, as a contractual party, to get rid of the chemical weapons,” as well as dropping its long held policy that “Assad must go,” it is sending a message to the Syrian rebels and their Arab nation backers that the US will seek a negotiated way out at their expense. The Syrian opposition feels, according to one source, “not for the first time, completely disillusioned with the United States for a promised intervention that got un-promised overnight.”
Capitalizing on this is the larger of two active al-Qaeda franchises, ISIS. The organization is actively employing a long-term expansionist strategy with two primary operations. The first is opening many fronts against not only the Syrian regime, but also the Turkish military, Kurds, various rebel groups, and in some cases the other al-Qaeda franchise operating in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN). This operation’s purpose is to purge its territories of rivals. The second operation has been to consolidate ISIS’s control in areas away from the frontlines. This is done by adopting
a strategy of dropping back—taking rear positions—as rebels with the FSA alliance leave for front lines to fight government forces, allowing ISIS to build a presence in towns and villages left without security or services… As the U.S. threat receded, emboldened ISIS militants ramped up efforts to win local support… They are telling them: ‘We told you that you can’t depend on America for freedom. Don’t be fooled—you only have us.’
If ISIS can establish itself among Sunni Syrians away from the frontlines, they will be able to severely reduce the chances of a scenario similar to the Awakening, a Sunni tribal revolt against al-Qaeda in Iraq that occurred in the al-Anbar province of Iraq in 2006. Additionally, many of the “attacks on rebel groups may be designed to forestall the very possibility of such an awakening.”
The Syrian opposition is reacting to ISIS operations and disillusionment with the US by restructuring themselves. While a few former Free Syrian Army (FSA) units have been merging with groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, many groups, particularly in the north and east, have rebranded themselves as Islamist and are forming coalitions. The first of these coalitions, the Islamic Alliance, formed in Aleppo in late September and “aims to fight to establish an Islamic state under Shari’a law in Syria [and] it also rejects the Syrian National Coalition.” This was followed shortly thereafter by the Army of Islam, a coalition of 12 fighting groups in the Damascus area (Although it has been highly publicized as 50 fighting groups, 38 of these were actually subsidiaries of the organizing rebel group, Liwa al-Islam). The Army of Islam essentially replaces the FSA as the dominant rebel force in the city. And on October 2 another coalition farther east in Deir Ez-Zour, the Army of the People of the Way of the Prophet, formed out of four former FSA brigades. This restructuring of rebel groups seems to be orchestrated behind the scenes by Saudi Arabia, even as the Gulf nation overtly expressed their “frustration with the weak response by Western allies… when they took the unprecedented step of canceling their speech at the UN General Assembly.” The formation of the rebels into Islamist alliances represents not only a significant loss of influence that the United States had before August 21, but also displays the gap created in the Saudi-US relationship.
In the short term, we can expect that Syrian rebel groups will continue to break away from the US-backed Syrian National Coalition and form Islamist coalitions. While it is still too early to tell if these new organizations will give the rebels an advantage over Syrian regime forces, Islamic coalitions do represent a significant challenge to ISIS and its expansionist strategy. It is likely that fighting between the al-Qaeda branch and its rivals will escalate in the short term. The outcome of this infighting will have a major effect on US national security interests in the area. Should ISIS succeed in its campaign, the Sunni enclave within Syria could become a pre-9/11 Afghanistan.
Given this current situation, the US should adopt policy options that reduce ISIS control in Syria. Options include relaxing the vetting requirements to give aid to rebels (especially as many rebel militias are taking on non-secular, Islamist characteristics), giving logistic and intelligence support to rebel groups fighting ISIS, and attempting to repair the damaged relationship with Saudi Arabia. These options would not only halt ISIS strategy, but would regain lost influence among the Sunni rebels and their financiers. Additionally, the US should allocate more resources to Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and the Kurds to create a stronger containment strategy.