Rossitsa Deleva, an analyst focusing on MENA and a Special Envoy to Syria for the Bulgarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Nickolay Mladenov (2012-2013) talked to us about the on-going civil war in Syria and the rise of ISIS.

Inside Syria

Syria is a divided and broken state. The country is divided into three parts: one that is under the control of Assad; one that is under Da’ish control and one controlled by al-Nusra Front and different radical Islamist rebels as well as the Free Syrian Army. Recently, we observed the rise of an Islamist radical group called Jaisha al-Islam with Zahran Aloush as its leader. This group operates in the Damascus area and has recently recruited and trained 1700 new members. Aloush’s group is responsible for the kidnapping of Syrian human rights activists such as Razam Saichune. They are located several kilometres from the entrance of Damascus. There are reports that this group is backed by Turkey and certain Gulf Countries which means that it has become a major player. Recently, part of the Islamist rebels moved towards the coast of Latakia and the city of Qerdaha,the home town of the Assad family. The Northern city of Idlib is considered to be in the hands of the Syrian rebels.

On Assad’s side, there are rumours that, following the death of Rustum Ghazaleh, a senior intelligence chief, the regime has been shaken. In some areas of Homs there is fighting between different pro-Assad groups.

The international response

Recently, the Secretary of State John Kerry stated that Assad should leave. The European Union has, de facto, for a long time preferred to stay aside. Iran, however, will still insist on Assad’s participation in the transitional government. There are at least several reasons for this. Firstly, they consider the Assad family vital because they can secure a safe corridor for military supplies to Hezbollah in Lebanon. If there is no such corridor, the Party of God (Hezbollah) could become a regular political party in Lebanon. Secondly, Assad is viewed by Iran as the only one that can consolidate the Shia minority in Syria, which is important for Iran. This is the reason why for the entire duration of the war Assad was crashing any formidable figure that might replace him in the future.

Nevertheless, there will not be a peaceful solution with Assad staying in power. In the past four years I have had a lot of interviews with different opposition figures from various political backgrounds (Islamists, nationalists, liberals, leftists, etc.) and they all agree that they would prefer some radical group before Assad.

ISIS – the back story

ISIS did not appear out of the blue and it did not suddenly take control of large territories of Iraq and Syria. ISIS has been around for a long time and its roots go very deeply. As an organization, ISIS originated from Al Qaida’s group in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq. Abu Mohammad al-Julani, a member of the Islamic State of Iraq established al-Nusra Front in Syria in 2011. Later on, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi formed ISIS in Syria, differences over ideology and strategy between the two groups appeared. These differences became public through a statement of Al Qaida’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri after al-Baghdadi refused his order to leave Syria and return to Iraq. Subsequently, al-Baghdadi created the caliphate and his main priority was to sustain the Islamic State by strengthening its economy. This practical issue is very significant for the quick logistical and military success of ISIS. According to many news reports ISIS’s financial assets reach more than 2 billion with money secured from oil fields in Eastern Syria, banks in Iraq, and military supplies captured in Mosul. In addition, ISIS’s ability to operate as a real army lies in the fact that their military council is composed of officers from Saddam Hussein’s army.

The countries where ISIS is expanding are Iraq and Syria. In these two states, the Sunnis have suffered marginalization, humiliation, killings and brutality by pro-Iranian Shia regimes. In both countries, the state did not offer any security to their citizens. On the contrary, the sectarian rhetoric practiced by the community and political leaders added to the Sunni-Shia rift.

In Iraq, the former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was unable to engage in dialogue with the Sunni tribes who helped fight al-Qaida. This led to the fall of Fallujah into ISIS hands. After the US’s withdraw in 2011, these tribes went into an open revolt against Maliki. Also, the international coalition in Syria did not stop Assad from bombing rebels in areas where ISIS is not in control. The fact that the West ignored Assad’s brutality did not help reassure the Sunnis. On the other hand, it would be very naïve to only blame the original leaders and Western powers for the rise of ISIS. The Arab communities themselves are very much responsible. ISIS flourished in these two countries because of the sectarian rhetoric practiced by the people everywhere.

The international community and the ISIS crisis

The international community for the last four years is not demonstrating the ability to resolve the crisis in Syria. In fact, it was left at the hands of regional powers such as the Gulf States, Turkey and Iran. With the start of the Iranian nuclear negotiations, the Sunnis in the region felt that they are ignored. Nevertheless, the nuclear plan has never been the main issue for the region. The main problem is the domination of Iran and the Iranian proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen.

On the other hand, the West never backed the liberal and the national projects in these countries and preferred to stay aside. In reality, these people and projects share the same values as the West. They respect minorities and have a peaceful vision of their future and their countries. In fact, they are a threat to both the regime and the radical groups.

The Caliphate project

Recently, several ISIS maps, that include areas that have been under historical Caliphates, came to our attention. They include places such as Spain or Greece where today the majority of the population is not even Muslim. ISIS, as well as other Sunni Jihadist groups, hopes that the entire world will come under their domination. But the important question is: what are ISIS’s short to medium term goals and how do they plan to achieve them?

The Caliphate project is a unique enterprise. Its ultimate goal is to overthrow the Western nation state model and the post WWII international system. The so called Caliphate looks like a colonial project where Da’ish seeks to incorporate non-neighbouring territories. In Iraq and Syria, the areas over which they have taken control are not all neighbouring. So groups in different locations can hypothetically conquer territories and, having pledged bayat (a note of loyalty) to the ISIS self-proclaimed Caliph, can expand the Caliphate. ISIS’ slogan and hope is to survive and expand.

Another particularity of ISIS is that the organisation uses foreign fighters in a unique way. Al-Qaida mainly recruits foreign fighters to plan and then execute attacks in the West or other countries. While Da’ish has no problem with recruiting foreign fighters for the implementation of terrorist attacks, the organisation can also order these recruits to build up capacities for expansion back home. It is very much possible to use them in order to infiltrate al-Qaida branches and cells in the context of the brother war against al-Qaida for domination over the global Jihadi movement.

ISIS’s colonial caliphate project found grounds in Sinai and Eastern Libya, but it may also flourish in some poorer European cities with Muslim population. Like many Jihadist strategists have proposed in the past, ISIS would hope to set off a chain reaction that could lead to destabilisation and chaos. We have already seen failed attempts to establish Sharia zones in England.

Besides the Islamic state’s radical ideology and narrative, one of the biggest sources of its strength comes from its economic independence. Due to the spoils of war and criminal enterprises, they are far less reliant on private donors than al-Qaida. This is important because the Islamic State has its own funding and can use it to offer money to potential affiliates. It is a new centre that can give resources to the periphery. ISIS’s economic independence is fundamental to the organisation’s expansion.

Da’ish needs the West to focus more on their homelands instead of paying attention to the security of the Middle East. This could be done through recruiting more Western fighters in the ranks to conduct terrorist attacks in the West. By creating a distraction for the West ISIS is continuing its plan to take over more territories and resources in the MENA region.

Where will ISIS seek to expand its influence?

Last year’s address, delivered by ISIS’s self-proclaimed caliph al-Baghdadi, was very much fuelled with the usual Jihadi rhetoric. He mentioned specific areas where Muslims are suffering. This could be a clue to areas where the group looks to expand its influence or at least compete with al-Qaida. For example, Baghdadi specifically noted the suffering of Sunnis in Burma, the Philippines, Indonesia, Kashmir, Bosnia, Palestine, Egypt, East Turkistan (which is in China), Iran, France, Tunisia and the Central African Republic. Da’ish has the support of a foreign fighter network not only in Iraq and Syria but also in the Philippines, Indonesia, Bosnia, Palestine, Egypt, Iran, France and Tunisia. Therefore, if one hopes to look into areas that are not in surrounding countries to Iraq and Syria, these are potentially more immediate targets.

Closer to Iraq and Syria, ISIS hopes to expand its reach by linking with neighbouring territories. For example, recently ISIS announced publicly its presence in the Qalamoun region on the Lebanon-Syria border for the first time. The organisation is also claiming responsibility for an attack in Beirut. But if the group hopes to expand into Lebanon, it will have to compete with al-Qaida’s Abdullah Azzam Brigades which have years of recruiting experience in the country. Similarly, when it comes to Jordan, the support for Da’ish is not very significant. The supporters are a minority segment in the broader Jihadi current. In fact, they are closer and more supportive of al-Nusra Front in Syria compared to ISIS.

The biggest achievement for ISIS (beyond targeting Israel) would be provoking violence against the Sunni regime and claiming territory in Saudi Arabia. The majority of Saudis that have gone to fight in Syria and later on, in Iraq, have joined Da’ish rather than al-Nusra Front. Furthermore, a lot of Sunni citizens joined ISIS because the organisation was initially an al-Qaida affiliate in Iraq. Later on, some of the Islamic State of Iraq members went to fight with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen. There are reports that a number of foreign fighters have returned to the Kingdom in order to provide the so called soft support from the inside. Infiltrating Saudi Arabia will be a victory for ISIS.

But the pearl in the crown for Da’ish, with which the organisation will become a real player, is the involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian fight. In fact, there is currently support for Da’ish in Palestine. Similar to Hamas’s rise in the aftermath of both the first and the second Intifadas, it is possible that the consequence of a third Intifada is the rise of ISIS.

This article is based on an interview, taken on 5 March 2015 by Georgi Totev and Louisa Slavkova

Edited by Iva Kopraleva