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09/20/2013

Syria, Al Qaeda & the ISIS

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Rebel fighters in Aleppo, Syria, use an interesting decoy. MUZAFFAR SALAM/REUTERS

 

What is the ISIS?

Expect to hear more about this organization as the horror in Syria continues. Although the group was formed in April, recent events are distinguishing the ISIS from other groups fighting forces loyal to the Assad regime.

ISIS stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (sometimes referred to as Syria or the Levant), and it is the newest and likely most-experienced Al Qaeda franchise in Syria.

Al Qaeda has been skilled in taking advantage of Syria's chaos and in some areas fighters were welcomed by rebels, who may not agree with the group's global ideology but appreciated the military support when opposing the well-equipped forces supporting President Bashar al Assad.

The ISIS even went on a "charm offensive," reaching out to war wearing neighbourhoods with street festivals instead of hardline doctrine. 

As U.S.-based analyst Aaron Zelin, author of a new in-depth analysis of the group for the Washington Institute For Near East Policy, told the Star's Mitch Potter: “It’s pretty clear that ISIS has learned hard lessons about not shoving a conservative interpretation of Sharia law down people’s throats."

“This is exactly the same organization that is Al Qaeda in Iraq, same leadership structure, everything,” he said. “But unlike Iraq, they are being much smarter about outreach, especially this past summer. Events like pie-eating contests, aimed at children, together with significant successes in battle against Assad forces, show a kind of soft-power outreach."

But the hearts-and-mind agenda seemed to change Wednesday, when the group took control of the Turkish border town of Azaz, fighting not Assad loyalists, but the Free Syrian Army rebels who held the region.

By Friday, according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, the ISIS and rebels had agreed to a truce, but tension remains.

What this recent division and reconciliation all means is still unclear, except for the obvious: if rebel groups are fighting each other they are not fighting the Assad regime.

But as the BBC's Paul Woods notes, in the long term this could work to the Free Syrian Army's advantage. If the U.S. and Western governments are able to see clearer distinctions between FSA rebels and Al Qaeda-linked groups, they may be more willing to support the FSA. (Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had recently warned his followers not to fight alongside secular rebels with ties to the West).

For more on this rebel vs. rebel debate, read The National's Hassan Hassan with his latest analysis in Foreign Policy Magazine: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/09/18/rebel_vs_rebel_syria_jihadists_groups?print=yes&hidecomments=yes&page=full

 

Michelle Shephard is the Star's National Security correspondent and author of "Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Grey Zone." She is a three-time recipient of Canada's National Newspaper Award. Follow her on Twitter @shephardm

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