The Islamic State’s Westward Expansion
… Several armed Bedouin groups joined ISIL…
OE Watch Commentary: On 3 December the Lebanese daily, al-Safir, published an article titled, “Islamic State Threat Imminent in Daraa.” The article, which was republished in English by the news website al-Monitor, is excerpted here. As the title implies, it argued that rebels in Daraa Province face an imminent and dangerous Islamic State (IS) incursion. Daraa is the only Syrian province where rebels have made serious gains against the Syrian military and prevented the IS from establishing a significant foothold. Indeed it is the closest thing to a bright spot for moderate rebels: the Syrian government is on the retreat, rebels control a large swath of territory, and major inter-rebel violence has been averted. Its proximity to both Israel and Jordan makes Daraa Province regionally important.
Over the past few months rebels have overrun several government positions in Daraa, putting them close to knocking on Damascus’s southern door. The sudden emergence of an IS threat in this area, according to many in the opposition, is a Syrian government machination aimed at rolling back rebel gains. For instance, the second accompanying article, taken from the All4Syria opposition news website, discusses negotiations in early November between the government and the IS for the latter to relocate from the outskirts of Damascus to Daraa. The aim, the author suggests, would be to provoke coalition strikes in Daraa and ease the threat against Damascus. Others claim that the Syrian government hopes to use the IS bogeyman to scare the Druze of Suweida Province into arming themselves and engaging rebels in Daraa. Regardless of the mechanism, the takeaway is that most, if not all moderate opposition groups see the government’s hand in the IS’s westward expansion.
The current chatter on IS expansion revolves around the hamlet of Bir Qassab, located in the arid steppe southeast of Damascus, in the northern corner of Suweida Province. Little more than around half a dozen small buildings, Bir Qassab lies along a smuggling route that is the rebel pipeline to the East Ghouta, through which fighters, weapons and goods flow across the desert and into the besieged suburbs of Damascus, as noted in the third accompanying article. A small group of local smugglers, allegedly numbering fewer than 80, pledged allegiance to the IS and began arresting and attacking fighters of mainstream Islamist groups operating in the area. The fourth accompanying excerpt gives some details on the group’s leaders. These events were of particular concern to Jaysh al-Islam, which had already launched a successful offensive against IS fighters in the East Ghouta last summer.
The IS thrives in environments of fragmented power, and their emergence near Damascus and Daraa, regardless of who is behind it, may be a harbinger of growing volatility. The group’s westward expansion from its Euphrates strongholds may be subtle and diffuse, but that does not make it any less real. End OE Watch Commentary (Winter)
Source: Abdullah Suleiman Ali. “IS Threat Is Imminent in Daraa,” al-Safir. 3 December 2014. http://assafir.com/Article/1/387659 (translation via: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/security/2014/12/syria-daraa-islamic-state-alliance-eradicate-terrorism.html).
Jabhat al-Nusra leaders expressed their concerns regarding the intentions of the Islamic State (IS) to enter Daraa. The news was reiterated in the command rooms of many armed factions, with information indicating that MOC Operations Center drew a red line to forbid IS from entering the city, which is especially fragile… The Jordanian intelligence, a main party in the MOC, fears that IS groups in Bir al-Qasab might meet some sympathizers or people who pledged their allegiance to the organization in Daraa. As a result, the al-Bukamal scenario in Deir ez-Zor — which fell in the hands of IS overnight after the leaders of Jabhat al-Nusra pledged their allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — risks being repeated.
Source: Fawwaz Tello. “Bashar al-Assad Negotiates for ISIL to Go from Southern Damascus to Daraa,” All4Syria. 11 November 2014. http://www.all4syria.info/Archive/178173
All4Syria obtained verified information from a reliable source within al-Hajjar al-Aswad south of Damascus on ongoing talks between ISIL leaders from eastern Syria and the Syrian regime to ensure the safe passage of ISIL fighters from al-Hajjar al-Aswad to Daraa Province, as the regime’s wants, or to the east of Syria, as ISIL wants. With this the regime aims to avoid the possibility of coalition airplanes entering Damascus’s airspace to strike ISIL, which would hinder regime warplanes and artillery from shelling Damascus and the East and West Ghouta. Furthermore this would help justify coalition and regime warplanes shelling Daraa, which would benefit regime forces which are on the retreat in Daraa. Thirdly, this would open the door for similar negotiations with other groups in order to retake southern Damascus.
Source: Rami Suweid. “Rural Damascus: The Opposition Gathers for a Decisive Battle against ISIL,” al-Arabi al-Jadid. 12 December 2014. http://www.alaraby.co.uk/politics/40580d07-194e-4a43-b63c-3da8e92bb094
… [Bir Qassab] helps secure the rebel supply line toward Damascus’s East Ghouta, which [rebels] control… ISIL pre-empted the rebel announcement … of a unified command meant to coordinate military operations against them… by buying off some of the small groups affiliated with the opposition, with the goal of bringing them into their ranks and for the first time declaring their clear and open presence in rural Damascus… “Several armed Bedouin groups joined ISIL,” according to a local source. These groups have been in the area for a long time and are active in smuggling and transporting military defectors across the Syrian Desert to areas under the control of ISIL and the opposition.
Source: “The IS in Rural Damascus: Will the Ghouta Be Condemned to Death?” alsouria.net, 11 December 2014. http://goo.gl/rRiAtx
[Our correspondent] noted that this group has no more than 80 people and is led by a defected Lt. Col. named “Abu Motasem,” while a man called “al-Mukahil” is the military leader of a group that was known as the “Faithful Young Men” (al-Shabab al-Sadiqin). He added that “Abu Motasem” was initially under the command of the Rural Damascus Military Council. He is a man of multiple loyalties, having joined Jabhat al-Nusra, fought with the Free Syrian Army, and now pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. As for al-Mukahil, according to Abu Ahmed, a local FSA leader, “Al-Mukahil was at odds with various local factions, and the IS were the only ones willing to protect him.”