IRBIL, Iraq – When the fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria swept aside Iraqi security forces in just two days of fighting to seize control of much of northern and central Iraq, it appears they also took control of the initiative in their fight in neighboring Syria, where they’ve seen recent successes against rivals who once considered them allies.
The gains in Iraq, analysts and experts say, not only included huge amounts of weaponry and ammunition that also could be used in Syria but also provided a powerful message to members of other Syrian militant groups that ISIS was a group on the ascent. That, experts say, is likely to bring it new recruits from Syrian rebel groups whose ideology is really not much different from ISIS’.
Aaron Zelin, who edits the Jihadology blog and studies Syrian rebel groups, said that was particularly true of the Nusra Front, an al-Qaida affiliate that’s been at the forefront of rebel successes against forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Ahrar al-Sham, one of the primary groups that form the Islamic Front rebel coalition.
“There’s not a lot, if any, ideological difference between ISIS and the Nusra Front or Ahrar al-Sham,” he said. “So defections are occurring.”
How that will affect the war to topple Assad is still to be seen. ISIS’ goal of establishing an Islamic state takes precedence over toppling Assad, though the Syrian leader, in ISIS’ view, must go, too. But defections to ISIS’ side will make the dividing line starker between rebel groups that are acceptable to the United States and those that are not. In the end, the least militarily capable rebels may be the ones who aren’t affiliated with ISIS.
“The Islamic Front in general is under considerable pressure right now from a number of directions inside and outside of Syria,” said Charles Lister, who studies Syrian rebel groups as a researcher at the Brooking Institute in Doha, Qatar. One of its key components is Ahrar al-Sham, whose ideology makes its members susceptible to joining ISIS.
ISIS, which began its existence as an al-Qaida affiliate battling the American occupation of Iraq, has transformed into a self-sustaining proto-caliphate intent on destroying not only its state enemies in the region – Iraq and Syria – but also any groups that don’t precisely adopt its ideology and tactics. Since January, it’s been locked in combat not just with the U.S.-backed moderate Free Syrian Army but also with Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham.
While ISIS initially lost some territory in central Syria, it also received an influx of recruits, including almost all the experienced foreign jihadis who were fighting alongside Nusra, including primarily Chechen units and a Saudi group.
Lister said ISIS was well positioned to capitalize on the notoriety and publicity surrounding its success in Iraq and that might lead to more power in Syria.
“The spectacular nature of ISIS’ offensive and successes in Iraq has caught the attention of huge numbers of potential recruits around the world,” he said. “The cycle of success is amplifying for ISIS: They gain more ground, get more publicity and more recruits,” according to Zelin.
Meanwhile, warning of the “existential threat” posed by Sunni militants, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Monday the United States is prepared to take military action even if Baghdad delays political reforms, noting that the risks of letting the insurgency run rampant poses dangers beyond Iraq’s borders.
But he stressed military action would not be in support of the present Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Kerry, on a few hours’ visit to Baghdad, urged Iraq’s leaders to quickly set aside divisions as the only means of stopping the vicious Sunni insurgency and said Iraq’s future depended on choices Iraq’s leaders make in the next days and weeks.
“The future of Iraq depends primarily on the ability of Iraq’s leaders to come together and take a stand united against ISIS,” Kerry told a news conference.
“Not next week, not next month, but now,” he said. “It is essential that Iraq’s leaders form a genuinely inclusive government as rapidly as possible.”
– The Associated Press contributed to this report.