By Vijay Prashad. This article was first published on Frontline.

The influence of radical Islamists like the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham has been growing along the desert road that straddles Iraq and Syria.

ON BOTH sides of the fragile border that divides Syria and Iraq runs Al-Hamad, the great Syrian desert, a large semi-arid plain. It runs from the outskirts of Baghdad through the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi into Syria, where it proceeds beneath the historical territory of the Kurds to the Syrian cities of Deir ez Zur and Raqqa. Across the desert, and along the Euphrates river, run pipelines that draw gas and oil from the depths to the cities that ring it. Otherwise the desert is quiet, and empty.

Since the United States’ invasion and occupation of Iraq (2003-11), the desert road between Iraq and Syria has functioned as the base for all manner of radicalisms—the insurgency against the U.S. forces that encompassed the Baathists, Iraqi army soldiers and Sunni tribesmen. Like a parasite, Al Qaeda-oriented fighters made their appearance along this road under the command of its hardened emir, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. These fighters would do their battle in Iraq and then flee into Syria to regroup.

Anointed by Osama bin Laden, al-Zarqawi brought his narrow view of jehad to bear on the region—pushing his fighters to go after not only the U.S. troops but also Shia civilians (whom al-Zarqawi and his followers called Rafidah, or defectors from the camp of Abu Bakr, the first Caliph). The particularly brutal manner in which al-Zarqawi and his Al Qaeda branch dealt with Shia Iraqis disgusted many people. Large sections of the Sunni tribes in Anbar province, which borders Syria, joined the U.S.-financed Awakening (Sahwa), or Sons of Iraq movement, to combat Al Qaeda in Iraq. With al-Zarqawi’s death in 2006, Al Qaeda in Iraq largely vanished.

Islamic State of Iraq

As the civil war in Syria entered its second year, in 2012, Al Qaeda returned to this roadway that straddles Iraq and Syria. In the town north of Baghdad where al-Zarqawi was killed, Baqubah, the remnants regrouped and began a series of deadly car-bomb attacks across the country, notably in Baghdad. The Iraqi army (and before them the U.S.) had limited success against what called itself the Islamic State of Iraq.

It was not easy to track down the small cells whose tentacles had begun to reach into the heart of Iraqi society. Car bombs, mortar attacks and sniper fire characterised the violence, which created nervousness amongst Iraqis. The bombs targeted Shia and Christian religious sites and neighbourhoods. The Islamic State went after poets and doctors, women in university and trade union leaders (they would later target “DJing technology”). Mass support for the Islamic State of Iraq was low, with the Sunni tribes still opposed to them.

When Nouri al-Maliki’s second government (2010-present) began to govern along greater sectarian lines than its first turn at power, this turned off many of the Sunni tribal leaders. A few days after the U.S. withdrew its troops in 2011, al-Maliki’s government went after the leaders of the largely Sunni Iraqiya Party, which was part of his ruling bloc. It accused Iraqiya leader and Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi of murder, leading the Iraqiya deputies to withdraw their support for al-Maliki, who was able nonetheless to maintain his power. The generally colourful leader of the Iraqiya Party, Saleh al-Mutlaq, called al-Maliki a dictator.

Grievances of various kinds dissolved increasingly into the Shia-Sunni divide, and many Sunni tribesmen in the Anbar region and elsewhere listened once more to the opportunistic agents of the Islamic State of Iraq. Its influence would grow in the years to come.

Bilad al-Sham

As the rebellion in Syria metastasised into a terrible civil war, the Islamic State in Iraq saw an opportunity. It already knew the road that led to Raqqa, for it was along this highway that its fighters had run for safety when the U.S. troops levelled Fallujah in 2004. In January 2012, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced the formation of Jabhat al-Nusra (J.N.), its arm in Syria. He appointed Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani to run that part of the Al Qaeda franchise and provided the J.N. with finances and fighters. By the time the J.N. advanced along the Raqqa road, the Syrian Army of Bashar al-Assad’s government had withdrawn from the region. It had ceded the north-west to concentrate its firepower around Damascus and in the south-west. The J.N. seized small towns in the governorates of Deir ez Zur—which abuts the Iraqi border—and Aleppo. It ran these towns with what would later appear to be a light touch: with the establishment of services that had vanished as the Syrian state collapsed. J.N. also collaborated with the myriad battalions that had emerged in the higgledy-piggledy world of civil strife.

A year later, matters would alter significantly. The Islamic State of Iraq made significant inroads into Iraq’s Anbar province, where dissatisfaction with the government of al-Maliki was at an all-time high. Confidence in this newfound popular sympathy moved al-Baghdadi to declare a new geography for the region—no longer would the nation states of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon be seen by his Al Qaeda as separate entities where the fight had to be conducted within national boundaries. He renamed his organisation the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS; Dawla al-Islamiyya fi-l’Iraq wa Sham, “Daesh” being the Arabic acronym). The second term, al-Sham, is resonant of Bilad al-Sham, the Greater Syria that stretches from the Mediterranean to the frontiers with Iran.

Al-Baghdadi annexed Jabhat al-Nusra by April 2013 and enhanced the ISIS’ military capability by breaking out fighters who had been imprisoned across Iraq (the most spectacular jailbreak was of 500 fighters from Abu Ghraib prison). Al Qaeda’s putative emir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, wrote a letter to al-Baghdadi in June, asking him to sever these ties. Al-Baghdadi refused.

Tension between Jabhat al-Nusra and the new ISIS continued through the remainder of 2013, with commanders at the local level uncomfortable with directions from Iraq and with the entry of thousands of new fighters, many of them Iraqi but many also part of the global arsenal of radical Islamists. In Raqqa, for instance, the radical Islamist commander Abu Sa’ad al-Hadrami would fight under the ISIS banner, renounce it for his Jabhat al-Nusra colours, and then return to the ISIS depending on the circumstances.

In these regions, the popular rebellion against the Assad government remained intact but had been effectively sidelined by the armed struggle. The main elements of that struggle were defectors from the Syrian armed forces that developed into the Free Syrian Army, the many smaller battalions attached to charismatic personalities, and a growing radical Islamist set of armed groups that would either join the tide of Jabhat al-Nusra, the ISIS or else would chafe at their hegemony.

Whatever the internal disagreements, in 2013 joint actions by Jabhat al-Nusra and the ISIS across the north of Syria led to two main developments: the further withdrawal of government troops from the region and the growing decline of the Free Syrian Army’s influence. When the Free Syrian Army and its external political handlers met with U.S. and European politicians at the end of the summer of 2013, Jabhat al-Nusra and the ISIS launched an operation called Expunge the Filth; the “filth” was the Free Syrian Army and its allies. Ruthless fighting across northern Syria allowed the ISIS to gain ground in a spectacular fashion. It soon dominated many of the cities, including parts of the great liberal city of Aleppo. By mid-October, the International Crisis Group reported that the ISIS was “the most powerful group in northern and eastern Syria and was benefiting from control of oilfields”.

Hungry lions

“We have armies in Iraq and an army in Syria,” proclaimed the ISIS, “full of hungry lions who drink blood and eat bones.” The camp of radical Islamists who dominated the armed rebellion against the Assad government differed in their tactics. The bulk of the radical Islamist battalions believed that it was proper to collaborate with the secular wing, including the Free Syrian Army, and that it was not proper to specify any future vision for Syria. The ISIS, under al-Baghdadi’s leadership, declared an Islamic state, went after anyone who did not agree with its vision, and ruled the population with brutality.

More than anything else, as the United Nations- and Arab League-brokered meetings in Geneva loomed in January 2014, the outside backers of the rebellion (the U.S. and the Europeans) were embarrassed and terrified by the ISIS. The U.S. government suspended its logistical support for the rebels when the ISIS overran the headquarters of Free Syrian Army leader General Salim Idriss and when it took the border posts with Turkey. Tension between the U.S. and the Gulf Arab sheikhs who had supported the Islamic State broke out into the open.

To deal with this problem, the ISIS had to be destroyed both in Iraq and in Syria. On the Iraq front, the U.S. opened a dialogue with the government of al-Maliki to provide the Iraqi military with drones and Hellfire missiles. The Iraqi army would begin operations against the ISIS in Fallujah and Ramadi to squeeze its fighters onto the roadways where they would be open to aerial assault. Undaunted, the ISIS declared on January 3 that Fallujah was now an Islamic state. The Iraqi military forays at the edges of the town have not—at the time of this writing— yielded any simple results.

In Syria, the opposition has tried to regroup in the face of the threat of a resurgent Syrian Army which has taken back many of the towns along the Lebanese border and threatens to recover Aleppo in the face of the ISIS surge. A series of new umbrella groups had been formed, only to lapse into obscurity. In November 2013, with funds from Saudi Arabia and encouragement from the U.S., the radical Islamists who did not belong to the ISIS formed the Islamic Front—drawing in battalions such as the Ahrar al-Sham.

Later in the year, other battalions formed the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front (December) and the Mujahideen Army (January 2014). Almost in coordination with the Iraqi army, these formations began their own assault on the ISIS, with the Islamic Front’s leader Hassan Aboud telling Al Jazeera on January 3 that the ISIS “denies reality, refusing to recognise that it is simply another group. They see themselves as a state. They need to drop this illusion that they have come to believe as an established fact.” The uprising against the ISIS had spectacular success, with its fighters departing from many towns along the Syria-Iraq road.

A source in Raqqa who has closely observed the ISIS-Islamic Front tussles says that there are two reasons for what appears to be the retreat of the ISIS. First, it is “unpopular for its brutality”. As the ISIS retreated, prisoners it had held said that torture had been routine. “We wished to be bombed so that we could be killed rather than kept alive in their prisons,” said one of them. The ISIS killed most of the prisoners it held in Aleppo. The brutal killing of Dr Hussein al-Suleiman, a leader of the Ahrar al-Sham militia in Bab al-Hawa, in December provided fodder for an offensive that had been long in the planning.

Fear of the ISIS continues. When rebels in Kafr Nabal —between Hama and Idlib—protested against the Assad government, they did so for the camera with their faces uncovered; protests against the ISIS, however, had to be done with faces masked for fear that if it retook the town it would extract worse vengeance than the Assad government, which itself sets a fairly high standard for violence.

The second reason was that the ISIS had been overextended from the Azaz crossing with Turkey to the outskirts of Baghdad. Logistical lines had become weak with pressure from the Kurdish fighters along the road, and the ISIS was simply not able to recruit enough fighters from northern Syria to sustain its advance. As pressure from the al-Maliki government picked up in Iraq, many of the ISIS fighters had to retreat to hold their bases near Ramadi and Fallujah, abandoning their gains in Syria. A source in Raqqa claims that what we see in northern Syria now is not a defeat of the ISIS so much as a tactical retreat.

If the Iraqi army and the new Syrian rebel platforms are able to maintain the pressure, they will likely squeeze the ISIS to the point where its fighters might begin to defect. But the entrails of the Syrian conflict do not encourage such optimism. In the midst of this new campaign, tribesmen in Homs (Syria) pledged their allegiance to the ISIS, who released propaganda photographs of their fighters in Anbar Province (Iraq) with SAM-7 surface-to-air missile launchers. Car bombs in Hama on January 9 augured the entry of that brutal tactic used by the ISIS into the Syrian conflict to sow chaos in rebel-held areas. Raqqa—“a city of ghosts”, says an activist—remains threatened by the ISIS, which continues to fight in Raqqa’s countryside, especially to hold the town of Tal Abyad, near Turkey.

Meanwhile, near Aleppo’s airport, the Syrian Army of the Assad government sits in wait. It has watched this conflict with satisfaction. Having taken the road that runs along the Lebanese border, and having significantly closed down the threat from the south-west, the Syrian Army seems to be biding its time before it advances into Aleppo and towards Raqqa. The Syrian Army’s brass has been in contact with the military leadership in Egypt and Iraq throughout the civil war.

One of the reasons for the coup in Egypt was that its military would not countenance the Syrian policy of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsy (he wanted to allow Egyptians to go into the fight in Syria). Close coordination between these armed forces to beat back the rise of radical Islamism in northern Syria is to be expected. Outcomes are harder to fathom.

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Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor, and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest books are Struggle Makes Us Human: Learning from Movements for Socialism and (with Noam Chomsky) The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power.