The dominant jihadist force fighting Bashar Assad’s army in northern Syria, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), is in the process of pulling the bulk of its fighters out of the country and across the border into Iraq.
Their new mission is to fight for the foundation by ISIS of Al Qaeda’s first independent state in the heart of the Middle East, DEBKA Weekly’s exclusive military and counterterrorism sources reveal. Click here to see the exclusive dynamic map from DEBKA Weekly (http://www.debka.com/static/maps/1.htm).
Around 10,000-15,000 fighters are on the move, the biggest Al Qaeda drawdown from a war zone since the US invasion of Afghanistan put them to flight 12 years ago.
The ISIS project is vitally and internationally important in two respects: Not only are Iraq and Syria in al Qaeda’s sights, but also potentially the countries on the periphery of the evolving Islamist entity, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Furthermore, the forces marching out of Syria for their new mission are a mishmash of foreign jihadis rallied by a global call-up campaign to fight the Assad regime. They may hail from the United States, Russia, China, Britain, Eastern Europe, Central Asia and many Muslim lands. According to our sources, more than 1,000 are American and West European citizens.
Their next mission centers on Al Qaeda-Iraq’s bid for statehood.
The exodus of the fierce and well-armed ISIS force from Syria will quickly change the face of the Syrian conflict. Al Baghdadi’s new initiative also bears heavily on the future, influence and authority of Al Qaeda’s central command headed by Ayman Al Zawahiri.
The ISIS exodus gives Assad a major war advantage
For most of the nearly three-year old Syrian civil war, Assad kept the door ajar for Islamist terrorist fighters to enter the country and fight alongside Syrian rebels. He needed them to support the point he was trying to make to a world outraged by his brutality that he was up against terrorists rather than domestic opposition to his rule.
Some Western countries with large Muslim minorities, such as Britain and France, were complicit in that they turned a blind eye when radical members of their Muslim communities went off to fight in Syria, hoping to distance the threat of terrorist violence from their shores.
But the jihadist chickens are coming home to roost as battled-hardened ISIS fighters cross into Iraq for an endeavor that could deeply destabilize a volatile region.
Their leader Al-Baghdad denies leaving the Syrian wing, Jabhad al-Nusra-JN, in the lurch and alone with the Free Syrian Army rebels.
But the JN, which is made up mainly of radical Syrian Muslims fed up with the Muslim Brotherhood, faces a tough choice: The impetus of truce-making between rebel commanders and army officers catching on in Syria’s battle arenas – which our sources spotted some weeks ago – is likely to force the Nusra Front into joining this trend.
The ISIS walkout has therefore given Assad a major advantage in the war.
A jihadist state straddling W. Iraq and NE Syria
Al-Baghdadi’s caliphate is planned to take in territory straddling western Iraq and northeastern Syria. His plan is ambitious:
In Iraq, he has his eye on the western province of Anbar, which abuts on the Iraqi-Syrian-Jordanian border junction, the important Sunni towns of Falujja, Ramadi and Tikrit and regions south of the Euphrates River.
If the local Sunni tribal chiefs, who once supported al Qaeda until they were mobilized by the US army, support the ISIS goal, their combined strength can ward off resistance by the Iraqi army, and go forward to gobble up land extending from the northern outskirts of Baghdad in the south and stopping at the border of the autonomous Kurdish Republic in the north. There, the highly-trained Kurdish peshmerga army presents a formidable obstacle to any outside incursions.
Al Baghdadi, while abandoning northern and western Syria, is leaving small contingents in the eastern towns of Deir E-Zor, Abu Kamal and Al-Hassakeh. He aims to steal these oil-rich regions from Syria and attach them to his new State of Al Qaeda.
The Iraqi terrorist chief approached his final objective with caution. His Islamic State of Iraq and Sham forces never fought major battles against the Syrian army or any rival rebel group. Its commanders were directed to wait for enemy forces to be worn down before attacking them.
This tactic gave ISIS easy victories with low casualties and cleared the way for their rapid takeover of strategic points and roads.
This left ISIS free to grab oilfields, refineries, grain silos and big factories, and so acquire the assets and revenue for funding its operations and awarding its members regular paychecks.
Local residents chose not to resist this takeover as they came to rely on their new bosses, Al-Baghdadi’s officers, for their livelihood.
Al Baghdadi defies Zawahiri, deepens al Qaeda split
The fissure in al Qaeda surfaced Saturday, Nov. 9, in a message Zawahiri broadcast over Al Jazeera TV. He said the leader of the Islamic State in Iraq, Abu Bakr Baghdadi had “made a mistake by establishing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant without asking for our permission or even informing (Al Qaeda’s) central command.
In an attempt to lay down the law, Zawahiri went on to say:
“The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant is to be abolished, while the Islamic State of Iraq-ISIS will continue to function.” He added that the jihadist Al-Nusra Front would continue to function as “an independent branch of A-Qaeda that reports to the general command, while activities of ISIS would be limited to operations inside Iraq.”
DEBKA Weekly’s counterterrorism sources report that the “general command” leader’s injunctions were ignored by Al Baghdadi, who continued to move his forces out of Syria regardless. This was a mark of defiance by which he stripped Zawahiri of authority over the commanders and forces involved in establishing Al Qaeda’s State in Iraq.
The movement’s division into two camps is rooted in a profound ideological and tactic dichotomy dating back to the differences between Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden up to his death in May 2011.
Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s first lieutenant and later successor, argued strongly against al Qaeda aiming for large-scale terrorist targets like the United States. Instead, he favored each Al Qaeda branch concentrating on overthrowing the local regime.
Erasing Sykes-Picot colonial borders
Al-Baghdad’s operational vision is broader. He wants to annul the 100-year old Sykes-Picot Agreement, known also as the Asia Minor Agreement, the secret document signed in 1916 by France and Britain with Russian assent, to carve up the Middle East into colonial entities between them if the Triple Entente defeated the Ottoman Empire in World War I.
That agreement determined the borders of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon up to the present day.
The Iraqi terrorist chief argues that eradicating those borders will also purge the region of the last vestiges of infidel colonial rule, including American imperial influence. A space will then be left free for the true followers of Islam to take over and rule.
Al Baghdadi believes his military strength is sufficient to achieve this goal.
One reason for his defiance of Zawahiri is his ambition to be the absolute ruler of the new Al Qaeda state and movement. If he succeeds, he will transfer the central command from its current location on the Afghan-Pakistan border to the desert regions spanning Iraq and Syria.