ISTANBUL, Turkey — Syrian rebels who have been locked in a bitter internal war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) worry that its sudden success in Iraq will catapult it to the forefront of global jihad — making it a magnet for recruits across the region and the globe. As one rebel spokesman put it, referring to ISIS’s surging popularity: “ISIS will look like Christ the Redeemer.”
“Big victories mean more weapons, more money — and more supporters,” said the spokesman, who works for a powerful rebel coalition called the Islamic Front and goes by the nickname Abdurrahman al-Halaby. “Especially in Syria, where people feel totally disappointed in the international community.”
Halaby said he was in regular discussions with friends who were considering quitting more moderate rebel groups in favor of ISIS. “Moderate opposition factions are losing their members every day to ISIS, because ISIS has money, and it has ways to play on the emotions of oppressed people,” he said.
Another rebel commander with the same coalition, who fights under the nom de guerre Abu Abdullah, attributed ISIS’ success in Syria, which paved the way for its recent string of victories in Iraq, to the fact that it is well-funded, highly organized, and its members fearless. “The regime fears us, but ISIS doesn’t,” Abu Abdullah said, speaking by phone from a hospital near the Turkish border with Syria, where he was visiting rebels wounded in recent battles with ISIS. “The difference is very simple: ISIS is fighting for an ideology.”
Now that its ideology — centered on building a state based on a hardline fundamentalist interpretation of Islam — looks closer to reality, with ISIS controlling a vast swath of territory spanning Syria and Iraq, rebels say the group will become even more motivated. And they warn that even more fighters will join its ranks, motivated by its recent success and the influx of cash and weapons pilfered from Iraq.
Even before its recent string of victories in Iraq, rival rebels — who launched a war on ISIS in early January in response to its brutal tactics — considered the group to be uniquely well-financed, organized, and armed. A recent report in the Guardian, based on an Iraqi government investigation, revealed the details of a shockingly professional operation, with well-placed sources across the Iraqi government and close to $1 billion in assets, much of it via revenue streams from antique smuggling to commandeered oil fields. With last week’s capture of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, ISIS reportedly gained another $425 million in cash from the banks. It also received a windfall of weapons abandoned by the fleeing Iraqi army, much of it donated by the U.S. government as part of its post-war program to train and equip Iraqi forces.
Omar Abu Laila, spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army in eastern Syria, where battles between ISIS and rebel forces have been especially intense in recent months, called ISIS’ gains in Iraq a “rescue” — allowing them to recoup lost weapons and, with a series of reported prison breaks in Mosul, seasoned fighters. Much of these gains were now pouring back across the Iraqi border into Syria, he said. “So now there is a huge threat to Syria in this regard.”
One easy way for ISIS to appeal to new recruits, rebels and analysts tracking the conflict say, will be the fast-growing sectarian nature of the conflict in Iraq. Disenfranchised Sunni groups have already linked up with ISIS against the hardline sectarian government of Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite prime minister. Maliki’s top ally, its Shiite neighbor Iran, has reportedly rushed to his aid, sending specialized military units, which Iran has denied. And now the Obama administration has stepped into the mix, hinting that it may work with Tehran on a plan to come to Maliki’s defense, though it ruled out military cooperation on Monday. “Iran and the West are [with Maliki and] against all Sunni Muslims — this is what all people believe,” Halaby said. “If you want to face both of them then you have to be with ISIS.”
ISIS appears eager to incite sectarian war in Iraq — over the weekend, its supporters enthusiastically posted photos and video of ISIS fighters performing a mass execution of Shiite Iraqi soldiers. And Maliki seems poised to respond with just that — painting the fight in Iraq as an existential one for the country’s Shiites. That narrative plays into the sectarian one already present in Syria, where the rebels are battling a regime dominated by the Alawite sect of Shiite Islam, backed by intensive support from Iran. As if on cue, the regime bombed ISIS bases inside Syria on Sunday, rebels said — seeming to signal that it, too, was rolling up its sleeves for the sectarian fight.
U.S intelligence officials have estimated ISIS’ fighting strength at between 7,000 and 10,000 — far smaller than the Iraqi army it sent running last week. Yet ISIS was also bolstered by the diverse mix of Sunni groups, from powerful tribes to Saddam Hussein-era military officers, fighting alongside it. If a sectarian conflict continues to swirl, it would put ISIS at the forefront of not just of an extremist surge, but a Sunni resistance.
“If the Shiites of Iraq are sending out signals that this is a fight for their survival rather than a fight about the survival of Iraq, then it becomes, ipso facto, a fight for survival for the Sunnis as well,” said Feisal Istrabadi, a former Iraqi ambassador to the U.N. and the director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East at Indiana University. “So whether these people formally join ISIS out of ideology or [because] the Shiites are about to carry arms becomes a distinction without any operational difference. You can’t have a one-way existential battle. People will join the fight whether they’re joining ISIS or not.”
News reports often describe ISIS as “al-Qaeda-linked” or “al-Qaeda-inspired.” But since the two groups split early this year in a tactical feud over Syria they have become bitter enemies, with al-Qaeda’s local affiliate even joining more moderate rebels in their anti-ISIS war. Now Iraq has given ISIS the chance to step out from al-Qaeda’s shadow and make a case for itself as the new top dog in global jihad.
“People like to back a winner,” said Aaron Zelin, who tracks extremists at the Washington Institute. “The fact that they’re having all these victories and setting up this proto-state — it has major appeal. It shows that they talk the talk and also walk the walk.”
“Whether this will last is obviously a question,” Zelin added. “But there will be many people who see this idea becoming a reality, and they’ll want to live in this state, and they’ll want to fight for it and help to build it.”