We have identified the Islamic State as the current center of gravity in the Middle East, driving geopolitical developments in the region. This assessment is based on the fact that no country or coalition is likely to defeat IS because of the significantly diverging interests of the various players in the anti-IS camp. This situation has become more complicated with the death last week of the leader of Saudi Arabia’s main Syrian proxy group, which opposes the Bashar al-Assad regime and is considered a moderate rebel force by the Saudis.
Although the current the focal point of the fight against the Islamic State in Syria is the battle between the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in the areas where Kurdish and IS territory overlap, this will not help to uproot IS from its Syrian strongholds. The Kurds operate in a limited area in the country’s north and northeast and, therefore, eliminating IS strongholds will require a Sunni Arab force active in other parts of the country. And since most Arab rebel militias are of one Salafist-jihadist persuasion or another, the struggle against IS is dependent upon relatively moderate Salafist-jihadists – those who do not seek a caliphate and pursue their political goals within the confines of the Syrian nation-state.
However, one such group, Jaysh al-Islam, which controls territory in the eastern suburbs of the Syrian capital and is Saudi Arabia’s main Syrian proxy, was hit last week with the death of its leader. On Dec. 26, the largest Sunni Arab rebel militia, Ahrar al-Sham (a Salafist-jihadist outfit), along with its main ally, Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaida’s branch in Syria), issued eulogies for Zahran Alloush, who was killed in an alleged Russian airstrike on Dec. 25. The Saudis have been promoting Jaysh al-Islam as a moderate rebel force. Seven months before his death, Alloush, in an interview with the McClatchy news organization, his first for an American media outlet, distanced himself from his earlier stern opposition to democracy and sectarian vitriol for the Shia. In addition, Ahrar al-Sham participated in a conference organized by the Saudis for Syrian rebel groups in December, but pulled out because of disagreements over Saudi attempts to form a unified opposition.
Ahrar al-Sham’s disagreement with the Saudis and its alliance with Jabhat al-Nusra underscore the difficulties that the Saudis are facing in trying to bring together an anti-IS coalition of Salafist-jihadist actors. Separately, they also face competition from Qatar and Turkey, which are closely allied with Ahrar al-Sham and even Jabhat al-Nusra. This is why the killing of Alloush has weakened the Saudi position even further. Riyadh had been hoping that Jaysh al-Islam, with its unique position of controlling territory in close proximity to Damascus, would give Saudi Arabia leverage in the war against the Bashar al-Assad regime and, more importantly, in the coming Syria negotiations in Geneva on Jan. 25.
While Jaysh al-Islam quickly appointed a successor to Alloush, the Saudi proxy has been weakened given that its dead commander was a prominent player in the Syrian rebel landscape and had served as political and military leader of not just his own group but a wider alliance of Salafist-jihadist rebels opposed to both the Assad regime and the Islamic State. From the point of view of Assad and his allies, Alloush’s death is a key step towards their goal of eliminating a threat to the heart of the regime. By eliminating Alloush, they also undermined the international efforts to form a viable partnership between anti-IS Salafist-jihadists.
For the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian backers, it is critical that the West not distinguish between IS and other nationalist jihadist forces, such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam. Russian and Iranian officials have singled out both these groups as part of the terrorist enterprise based in Syria. But this is not just propaganda from Damascus, Moscow and Tehran. The international community, even though it is entertaining the idea of working with these moderate Salafist-jihadist outfits, remains extremely apprehensive about these groups. And the issue is not just their alignment with al-Qaida’s Syrian branch, but also their goal of making Syria a jihadist state, though not a caliphate.
These groups are also not as interested in fighting the Islamic State as they are in toppling Assad. From their point of view, taking Damascus is the ultimate goal and fighting the Islamic State is a secondary issue. Even their backers in Riyadh, Doha and Ankara are pressing the United States and the West to recognize that the Islamic State cannot be effectively dealt with unless Assad is toppled.
Between the Islamic State’s strong position in eastern Syria and western Iraq (despite recent losses) and these Salafist-jihadist forces’ focus on toppling the regime, Saudi Arabia is caught between transnational jihadists who seek a supranational caliphate, as is the case with Islamic State, and nationalist-jihadists who seek an Islamic state limited to Syria. What makes this situation even more dangerous is the anti-IS camp’s reliance on the latter type of jihadists to effectively fight against the Islamic State.