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.