ISTANBUL — With Iraq’s security forces having fled the country’s northern provinces and abandoned the region to extremists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Syrian rebel leaders are calling on the United States to “stand with us” in the fight against the terror group and provide the weapons needed to defeat them.
“We can’t separate what’s going on in Iraq from what’s going on in Syria.,” said Muhammad Nour al Khallouf, who has been the acting defense minister for Syria’s opposition coalition since mid-May. “The whole region is connected to one another, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Gulf. The collapse has begun in Iraq, and no one knows where it will end.”
ISIS, as the Islamic State is known, captured Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, last week, and now controls Iraq’s Nineveh province, which borders Syria. For more than a year, ISIS has controlled Syria’s Raqqa province and moved its forces and supplies through the region. Until Wednesday, when an opposition group in Deir el Zour province reported that Syrian government planes had bombed an ISIS convoy moving toward Iraq, there have been few signs that ISIS had faced challenges from forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
ISIS was generally considered an ally by rebels in the battle to topple Assad until January, when moderate rebel factions, angered by ISIS’s brutal tactics and draconian rule in areas it controlled, went on the offensive, pushing ISIS from Idlib province in the country’s north.
Intense fighting between ISIS and other rebel factions is raging in eastern Syria, where ISIS says it has eliminated the World War I-era border that separates northern Iraq from eastern Syria.
“It is normal and necessary that our American friends and the western community start thinking seriously that what’s going on in Syria might happen in the future in Lebanon and Jordan,” Khallouf told McClatchy in a telephone interview. “They must work to put an end to this.”
President Barack Obama said Friday that the United States is considering assisting the Iraqi government in its battle against ISIS, but ruled out sending in ground forces. He also conditioned any assistance that is provided, including air strikes, on reconciliation between Iraq’s Shiite Muslim-led government and the country’s minority Sunni and Kurdish ethnic groups _ a goal of U.S. policymakers that has been unmet for years.
Obama also said that ISIS’s ability to gain a foothold in Syria is “part of the reason why we have been so concerned about it” and “part of the reason why we’ve been supporting the Syrian opposition there.”
Khallouf said that he believed that the U.S. would now step up its support of the Free Syrian Army as the U.S. concern over ISIS and other extremist groups rises.
“For the first time, I feel there’s a kind of seriousness to support the FSA,” he said, without going to detail. He said the challenge the FSA faces is enormous.
“Syria is full of different terrorist groups,” he said, listing ISIS, the Nusra Front, al Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, and a host of other Islamist groups. “We need a huge amount of supplies to get rid of all kinds of other groups,” he said.
A member of Syria’s ruling Alawite sect who rose to be a brigadier general in Assad’s military, Khallouf blames Syrian ally Iran for the rise of ISIS, even though Iran is a Shiite-ruled theocracy and ISIS is dominated by Sunnis who are fiercely anti-Shiite. By Khallouf’s assessment, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, although an ally of Iran and Assad, has at Iran’s behest deliberately allowed predominantly Sunni Nineveh province to fall to the Islamists.
Western observers generally disagree with that analysis, and see ISIS as a distinct entity with an agenda of its own in both Syria and Iraq. But ISIS’s ability to extend its influence in both Syria, where Iran is the principle backer of the Assad regime, and in Iraq, where ISIS had occupied portions of Anbar province for a year before its rapid march last week, raises questions of both incompetence and possible collusion.
“I assure you that Assad will not attack ISIS, because ISIS is a part of Assad’s regime,” Khallouf said. He also asserted there had been “good coordination between the security and intelligence of the (Assad) regime and Maliki,” he said. “They work as one security team.”
He said that ISIS had taken over Mosul “temporarily” as a prelude to policy shifts that would enable Assad to claim he was making “war against terrorism.” Many in the Syrian opposition say Assad will eventually turn on ISIS and ask for Western support _ the aim of which Khallouf said is for the West to “forget about the terrorism of the Assad regime.”
But while the Assad regime claims to fight terror, he said the Free Syrian army “will fight terror to the end.”
If there are strange bedfellows on the side of the Assad government, the same applies to the Syrian opposition.
Take the Nusra Front. The United States blacklisted Nusra at the end of 2012, identifying it as another name for al Qaida in Iraq, ISIS’s predecessor organization. It revised the designation this year to recognize that Nusra and ISIS are now separate organizations, with Nusra answering to al Qaida while ISIS has broken with al Qaida.
In Deir el Zour in eastern Syria, Nusra is the principal group fighting ISIS. But Nusra is also battling pro-Assad forces, raising the question of whether the exiled Syrian Opposition Coalition and the Free Syrian Army, its fighting force, are allied with Nusra or opposed to it.
Khallouf explained the relationship by saying not all Nusra fighters follow al Qaida.
“There is an al Qaida organization, and all the world is endeavoring to get rid of it,” he said, acknowledging that part of Nusra “belongs to al Qaida as an international organization.”
“However,” he added, “there are some members of Nusra who have no connection with the al Qaida organization, and they are fighting the regime and ISIS.”
He predicted that those Nusra fighters won’t pursue al Qaida’s agenda of Islamist rule once Assad is forced from office. Instead, they’ll go home and pursue their previous trades and professions.
“They are fighting only in Syria,” he said.