By: Chris Kozak
The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has begun to expand its presence in the Syrian central corridor which stretches from the Jordanian border through Damascus to the central cities of Homs and Hama. The “central corridor” is highly-contested key terrain for both the Syrian regime and its armed opposition, while ISIS presence has generally been limited in the area until recently. As one major exception, ISIS maintained a notable foothold in several opposition-held areas of Damascus in early 2014 before retreating due to pressure from local rebel groups. A small ISIS contingent, largely overlooked, endured quietly in the southern suburbs of Damascus throughout late 2014. Over the past two months, ISIS has once again escalated its military and public relations activities in this area, threatening to divert both regime and rebel resources away from active fronts in the Damascus area in order to contend with the ISIS threat.
ISIS in the Damascus City Suburbs
ISIS presence in the Damascus suburbs in January 2015 consists of the remnants of a former ISIS network which exerted influence throughout the eastern and southern areas of the city in late 2013 and early 2014. By the start of 2014, ISIS militants maintained headquartersin the towns of Mayda’a and Mesraba in the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta area as well as in the southern neighborhoods of Yalda and Hajar al-Aswad. ISIS forces in this sector reportedly included several hundred fighters, making it one of ISIS’s last major strongholds in western Syria following the expulsion of ISIS fighters from northern rebel-held areas of Idlib and Aleppo Province in early January 2014. ISIS in Damascus endured for a longer period, apparently taking advantage of shifts in the battle for Damascus to solidify its position within rebel-held areas.
In February 2014, the regime concluded ceasefire agreements with several rebel-held neighborhoods in south Damascus in preparation for an upcoming assault on the eastern neighborhood of Mleiha. ISIS exploited this lull to expand its presence into several of the neighborhoods involved in the ceasefire, including Babbila, Beit Sahem, and the Yarmouk refugee camp. This suggests that ISIS leveraged the ceasefire agreements to exploit rebel drawdowns and to tap into grievances of disillusioned opposition fighters – and later surviving Damascus Sunni populations discontented with the regime’s failures to honor the terms of the truces – in order to cultivate a base of support in these neighborhoods. This is a contrast to how ISIS was operating elsewhere in Syria at the time. ISIS had lost its northern positions in Idlib and Aleppo on the basis of a lack of popular support. ISIS had simultaneously forcibly seized control of Raqqa, from which it projected direct force in eastern Syria throughout the year. By contrast, ISIS in Damascus initially worked to avoid open confrontation with collocated rebel groups.
However, ISIS forces in Damascus proved unable to maintain positive relations with local residents and other armed opposition groups. Between March and June 2014, ISIS militants were repeatedly accused of conducting a number of kidnappings and assassinations targeting rebel commanders and civilian activists throughout eastern and southern Damascus. In one noteworthy incident, ISIS militants even killed a former ISIS Shari’a judge who had been placed under the protection of prominent Islamic Front group Jaysh al-Islam. These escalating tensions corresponded with an apparent countrywide trend of strained relations which had begun with ISIS’s expulsion from northwestern Syria. In early April, for example, ISIS launched an offensive against JN and other opposition groups in Syria’s eastern Deir ez-Zour Province, making significant gains leading up to the fall of Mosul and signaling ISIS willingness to expand at the expense of other armed groups.
Simmering tensions came to a peak following the fall of Mosul to ISIS forces on June 10, 2014. ISIS’s stunning victories in Iraq and operations in Deir ez-Zour framed a narrative of ISIS expansionism which rebels likely feared would pose a direct threat to their control in the suburbs of Damascus. Even limited ISIS activities behind opposition frontlines could disrupt the integrity of key battlefronts, including the ongoing rebel defense of Mleiha and the Jaysh al-Islam-led rebel offensive called “Breaking the Walls of Damascus,” launched on June 13. ISIS also increased its public messaging in Damascus following the fall of Mosul, including one incident in which two ISIS militants wearing SVESTs were detained distributing leaflets in the rebel stronghold of Douma on June 23. This posturing suggests that ISIS advances on other fronts bolstered the group’s confidence in the capital.
These developments likely spurred the June 24 announcementof the Eastern Ghouta Unified Courthouse by sixteen rebel factions, including Jaysh al-Islam, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), and Ahrar al-Sham. Two days later, on June 26, the Unified Courthouse issued a statement demanding that ISIS militants dissolve their organization and turn themselves over to Eastern Ghouta court within 24 hours. ISIS refused to comply with these orders, sparking heavy clashes between ISIS and these groups, including several alleged ISIS VBIED attacks against the rebel stronghold of Douma. Following ISIS’s declaration of a caliphate on June 29, opposition groups quickly dedicated resources towards eliminating ISIS from rebel rear areas in Eastern Ghouta. An operation spearheaded by Jaysh al-Islam drove ISIS forces from the town of Mayda’a on July 1 and seized the town of Mesraba on July 10, eliminating overt ISIS presence in Eastern Ghouta. Surviving ISIS members likely fled northeast to the nearby Qalamoun region, relocated to ISIS-held neighborhoods in southern Damascus, or went into hiding to serve as potential “sleeper cells” within rebel-held terrain.
As ISIS forces successfully consolidatedtheir control over eastern Syria in the summer of 2014, violent conflict between ISIS and other rebel groups spread to southern Damascus. ISIS militants stormed the headquarters of the “Aisha Umm al-Mu’mineen” Battalion (affiliated with Jaysh al-Islam) in the neighborhood of Yalda on July 17, 2014 and detained the leader of the battalion as well as the Islamic Front commander for southern Damascus and the heads of two other rebel brigades. Jaysh al-Islam, Jabhat al-Nusra, the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Movement, and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF) rapidly mobilized against ISIS, forcing ISIS out of its strongholds in Yalda and Beit Sahem into the adjacent neighborhoods of Hajar al-Aswad, al-Qadam, and Tadamon. Following further clashes, the ISIS commander in southern Damascus – a Yalda resident named Abu Sayeh Tayara – agreed to withdraw his remaining 250 fighters to the Hajar al-Aswad neighborhood in late July. This deal was reportedly formalized in early September 2014, when ISIS forces in southern Damascus signed a non-aggression pact with surrounding rebel groups in order to focus on combating the Syrian regime.
Successful regime advances in Eastern Ghouta, such as the seizure of Mleiha on August 14, may have catalyzed rebel willingness to postpone taking on ISIS in southern Damascus. However, opposition forces continued to impose a loose blockade around Hajar al-Aswad amidst sporadic assassination attempts against rebel commanders operating in the vicinity of the neighborhood. Since mid-2014, there have been a number of assassinations in the Damascus area – and throughout Syria – targeting rebel leaders with no firm attribution. However, the location and context of these attacks suggest that ISIS may have been the primary perpetrator in southern Damascus, as the elimination of opposition leadership would serve to disrupt organized resistance to future ISIS expansion out of Hajar al-Aswad.
From September to November 2014, ISIS forces in Hajar al-Aswad maintained a low profile. However, in the face of increasing battlefield pressures across its primary control zones in Iraq and Syria – including a steady stream of coalition airstrikes900keyterrainappears to have ordered the reinvigoration of other fronts (including Anbar Province in Iraq and Eastern Homs Province in Syria) in order to regain momentum. In line with this trend, ISIS militants in southern Damascus launched a public relations campaign to reassert their presence in the area. Following the rumored announcement of an ISIS ‘emirate’ in Hajar al-Aswad on November 24, 2014, previously existing official media accounts affiliated with ISIS “Wilayat Dimashq” [State of Damascus] which had become dormant following ISIS’s expulsion from Eastern Ghouta began to publish new reports detailing the organization’s military activities against regime forces along the southern front of the neighborhood. One post on December 4 allegedly depicted nearly 200 residents of “southern Damascus” pledging bay’ah (allegiance) to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In further posts throughout the month of December, ISIS also highlighted its governance activities in the neighborhood, including literacy classes, street beautification, drug enforcement, and military-religious training camps for children.
ISIS’s decision to promote these forms of positive messaging at this time, despite the organization’s long-standing presence in Hajar al-Aswad, suggests that ISIS forces in southern Damascus are prepared to reinvigorate their activities in the region in early 2015. Notably, on December 31, 2014 ISIS claimed to expand into the al-Zain neighborhood located between Hajar al-Aswad and Yalda – marking the group’s first overt presence outside of Hajar al-Aswad since September 2014. These activities also threaten to reactivate the southern Damascus front as a front line, disrupting the system of sieges and ceasefires utilized by the regime to redeploy valuable resources towards successful operations against rebels in Eastern Ghouta, such as the seizure of Mleiha and Adra.
ISIS in Rif Dimashq
Within the same timeframe as ISIS’s promotion of its activities in Hajar al-Aswad, another ISIS grouping emerged in the al-Lajat area of Rif Dimashq (sometimes referred to as Outer Ghouta), along the Damascus-Suwayda highway southeast of the Damascus International Airport. On November 20, Jaysh al-Islam stated that a group of fighters who had recently pledged allegiance to ISIS attacked a joint Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham headquarters in the Bir al-Qassab region of Rif Dimashq, killing two Jaysh al-Islam members and kidnapping several Ahrar al-Sham members. Four days later, unconfirmed reports stated that ISIS-affiliated militants attacked a checkpoint manned by local tribal fighters in far-northeastern Dera’a Province along the Damascus-Suwayda highway. Unknown gunmen also clashed with regime positions in the nearby Ber Haman area in the northeastern countryside of Suwayda. The exact origins of the pro-ISIS fighters operating in this region remain unclear. One unconfirmed report suggests that the militants consist of a group of armed Bedouin smugglers led by a defector from Jaysh al-Islam named Mohammed al-Mukkahal, while another indicated that the faction is composed of defected rebel fighters led by Lt. Abu Uday of the FSA-affiliated Liwa al-Mughawir. All accounts agree, however, that ISIS expanded into Rif Dimashq by securing a pledge of allegiance from some portion of a group of local fighters – demonstrating ISIS’s ability to exploit rebel discontent despite close proximity to key rebel centers of gravity.
Rebel factions in Rif Dimashq quickly moved to neutralize ISIS presence in the area. On November 26, 2014, JN deployed a heavily-armed convoy to the al-Lajat area in response to the emergence of “ISIS sleeper cells” in the vicinity – signifying JN’s interest in protecting its core areas in Dera’a Province from ISIS incursion. Five days later on December 1, Jaysh al-Islam, JN, Ahrar al-Sham, and Jaysh al-Aswad al-Sharqiya, as well as recipients of Western anti-tank weapons Shuhada Ahmed al-Abdo and Feilaq al-Rahman, announced the formation a unified leadership council and a joint military operations room for the eastern Qalamoun region bordering Rif Dimashq. Jaysh al-Islam once again spearheaded rebel anti-ISIS operations and launched an offensive against Bir al-Qasab with the assistance of reinforcements from Jaysh al-Aswad al-Sharqiya. Meanwhile, ISIS Wiliyat Damascus released images of a small convoy entering the Bir al-Qasab region – corroborating unconfirmed reports that approximately thirty ISIS foreign fighters had traveled across the desert from Albu Kamal in eastern Deir ez-Zour Province to support the ISIS faction present in Rif Dimashq.
On December 17, 2014, a Jaysh al-Islam spokesman stated that rebel forces had driven ISIS militants to the southern outskirts of Bir al-Qassab. On December 22, Jaysh al-Islam claimed that ISIS fighters had been removed entirely from the al-Lajat region. Yet despite these reports, ISIS media accounts continued to post photos depicting ISIS members engaging in clashes in Bir al-Qassab, destroying allegedly idolatrous shrines in the region, and conducting religious outreach in several areas along the northern outskirts of Suwayda Province. The latest ISIS statements regarding Bir al-Qassab, released on December 29, purport to show efforts to “mend fences” with local residents through public outreach – indicating that ISIS still maintains at least some measure of military presence and popular support in the region.
Recent ISIS efforts to expand its influence in the central corridor of western Syria are not limited to the environs of Damascus. Throughout December, ISIS reportedly secured bay’ah from several rebel groups occupying positions in key pieces of opposition-held terrain. For example, the commander of the Islamist-leaning “Asoud al-Islam” Battalion (based out of Telbisa in the rebel-held countryside north of Homs city) declaredallegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in early December, although this move prompted nearly 400 out of 500 fighters to leave the battalion. In the southern province of Dera’a, meanwhile, rumors emerged on December 14 indicating that at least some portion of the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade had pledged allegiance to ISIS – inciting several days of clashes with JN which were resolved through mediation at the “Dar al-Adl” Shari’a court. In other parts of the country during this time, tribal rebel brigades with alleged links to ISIS – including Uqab al-Islam in eastern Hama Province and Liwa al-Touba in southern Aleppo Province – also conducted overt activities against both regime and rebel forces in their areas of operation.
Over this same time period, ISIS-affiliated militants with a historical presence in western Syria have also intensified their activities. In the Qalamoun Mountains, a zone where ISIS fighters have previously cooperated closely with JN and other factions to both resist regime offensives and conductoperations inside of Lebanon, ISIS Shari’a officials reportedly delivered messages to several rebel battalions on December 10 demanding that they pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in preparation for the establishment of an ISIS “emirate” in the region within the next forty-five days. This ultimatum likely came in response to recent JN attempts to unite rebel groups in the Qalamoun Mountains, a move which would threaten future ISIS expansion in the region. Meanwhile, in the Eastern Qalamoun, ISIS militants detainedFSA-affiliated Liwa Mughawir commander Uraba Idris on December 18 after he allegedly refused to pledge allegiance to al-Baghdadi. Idris’ arrest sparked clashes between ISIS and rebel forces near the desert town of al-Quryatayn during which ISIS deployed a U.S. TOW missile system possibly captured from vetted moderate Syrian rebels. These overt actions by ISIS suggest that ISIS has also been developing its presence in the Qalamoun region over the past several months. This area of ISIS expansion must therefore be explored in greater detail.
The close temporal proximity of these renewed ISIS activities along the Syrian central corridor means that they are likely linked. If their ideals of a caliphate are to be achieved, ISIS’s long-term campaign design in Syria must eventually address the problem of securing critical regime and rebel terrain in western Syria. In the face of curbed military momentum due to ongoing challenges on the battlefields of Iraq and eastern Syria, ISIS appears to be pursuing an expansion strategy which prioritizes the use of its ideological appeal and military resources to encourage defections from within rebel ranks – enabling the organization to expand its borders in the short-term without necessitating the physical movement of large numbers of fighters. Although the defections of minor opposition brigades may appear opportunistic and ineffectual when confronted with pressure from other rebel groups, these actions potentially provide ISIS with already-deployed forward units which can play a number of important roles in shaping the ISIS campaign for western Syria by building ties with local populations, encouraging further defections through close contact with other rebel forces, and harassing rival centers of power within opposition ranks.
ISIS’s current motto is “Baqiya wa Tatamaddad” [“Remaining and Expanding”]. The ideological and morale-boosting benefits of extending ISIS’s borders through defection are also significant. By exploiting discontent among rebel groups and civilian populations weary of the stalemated status quo, ISIS may promote itself as the ‘true’ champion of the Syrian people. The execution video of U.S. aid worker Peter Kassig, for example, prominently featured the beheadings of a group of Syrian Arab Army officers in a dramatic representation of ISIS positioning itself as a counter-regime force. In a sign that these appeals may be gaining some limited traction, residents of the rebel-held neighborhood of al-Wa’er in Homs city held demonstrations on January 2, 2015, calling for ISIS militants to “break the siege” of the area and replace rebel forces which have proven unable to “defend civilians.” ISIS short-term strategy in western Syria will likely continue to leverage these latent feelings to develop zones of permissible terrain throughout the central corridor of Syria.
However, ISIS’s strategy of ‘soft power’ expansion faces a number of challenges. As demonstrated by the exodus of fighters from Asoud al-Islam, ISIS likely does not possess sufficient available physical resources or relational goodwill at this time to attract meaningful support from larger mainstream rebel blocs. ISIS will also confront active hostility from powerful entrenched rebel factions in western Syria who view ISIS as an ideological threat or a rival for power. In the Damascus suburbs and Rif Dimashq, for example, the presence of ISIS-affiliated groups faced concerted resistance from a regional opposition powerbroker – Jaysh al-Islam – with clear antipathy towards ISIS encroachment on its terrain. ISIS expansion efforts also spurred the creation of unified rebel structures, such as the Eastern Qalamoun Operations Room or the Mujahideen Shura Council in the same region, which intensify rebel unity and serve only to increase the difficulty of obtaining future defections.
In many areas of Syria, the spoiler role against ISIS expansion in the central corridor would likely be played by Jabhat al-Nusra. Despite rumors of a potential rapprochement between JN and ISIS in Syria as well as apparent continued local-level cooperation with ISIS affiliates, JN has not hesitated to neutralize ISIS cells perceived to be a threat to its core interests. JN fighters participated in operations against ISIS in the Yalda neighborhood of southern Damascus as well as in the al-Lajat region of Rif Dimashq. JN members – under the leadership of the notoriously anti-ISIS spiritual leader Abu Maria al-Qahtani – also conducted the majority of the fighting against the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade in Dera’a Province based on unconfirmed reports suggesting that the group had ties to ISIS. Likewise, on December 23, JN seized the headquarters of Liwa Uqab al-Islam – a group with assessed ties to ISIS – in Qasr ibn Wardan, eastern Hama Province, following sporadic clashes between the two parties. In the absence of expanded ISIS military support, future rebel formations pledging allegiance to the Islamic State will likely be similarly overwhelmed.
Finally, the increasing prominence of ISIS activities along the central corridor raises thorny questions for the U.S.-led coalition campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. For one, ISIS’s ability to find willing defectors among rebel ranks in core opposition support zones presents the risk that Syrian opposition forces participating in the train-and-equip program may work in close proximity to ISIS-affiliated groups or simply defect to ISIS altogether. ISIS’s expansion through affiliates and defections also poses definitional targeting questions regarding the nature of the Islamic State similar to those raised by ISIS’s international “wilayats” [states]. Conducting strikes against ISIS outside of eastern Syria would put coalition forces in direct conflict with the Syrian regime and at best would witness U.S. aircraft unambiguously aiding President Bashar al-Assad. However, failing to address ISIS presence in western Syria may enable ISIS to establish a foothold in terrain critical to the end-state of the Syrian conflict while diverting the resources and attention of the moderate opposition.