Hassan Hassan
Hassan Hassan
Former Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme
ISIS will continue to reap the benefits of confused priorities until all the parties agree to work towards one goal under one strategy.
People search for survivors amidst the rubble of a house after a reported attack by Syrian government forces in Aleppo on 27 July 2015. Photo by Getty Images.People search for survivors amidst the rubble of a house after a reported attack by Syrian government forces in Aleppo on 27 July 2015. Photo by Getty Images.

The coalition against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) appears to have finally turned its attention to the Syrian front in the fight against the extremist group.

Turkey joined the air campaign over the weekend. On 16 June, air strikes inside Syria forced ISIS to flee the border town of Tal Abyad, north of Raqqa – a significant defeat for the group.

Also, preparations by the rebels’ various foreign backers for the US-led training programme seem to be in their final stages: British troops are reportedly on their way to Saudi Arabia to train Syrian rebels. A plan for Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other countries to provide trainers is nearly complete.

Divided priorities

Much seems to be happening behind the scenes in the way the coalition thinks about ISIS. This increased attention to the Syrian front could be bad news for the extremist group, if those countries know how to harness the advantages they have.

However, if the coalition continues to be divided over basic priorities, the effort might backfire. A good example of this is Turkey’s air campaign over the weekend, which apparently focused on targeting Kurdish fighters affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) rather than ISIS.

A statement by Brett McGurk, the US special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS, suggested that this was not what the US and Turkey had agreed upon: 'There is no connection between these air strikes against PKK and recent understandings to intensify US-Turkey cooperation against ISIS.'

That is not a good start. Different countries in the anti-ISIS camp have different priorities. For Turkey, defeating ISIS remains a lower priority than preventing Syrian Kurds from establishing the infrastructure for a future state in the north and the downfall of the Assad regime. Ankara is unlikely to change its priorities on ISIS unless there is understanding about these other issues. Also, the West is more interested in fighting ISIS than the Assad regime. But they require the help of Syrian rebels, who are more interested in the reverse.

The importance of Aleppo

With such a divided coalition, who needs enemies? ISIS will continue to reap the benefits of such confused priorities until all the parties agree to work towards one goal under one strategy. That is possible and it starts in Aleppo.

Over the past few months, a momentum has been building among the Syrian rebels to fight ISIS: for the first time since it was established in early 2014, the usually-quiet Syrian Islamic Council issued a fatwa in June to fight ISIS. In the same month, a large coalition of rebels on the ground met in Antakya and concluded that fighting ISIS was a priority for all the rebels. Even Jabhat Al Nusra’s leader made it clear that ISIS was an enemy in an interview with Al Jazeera.

More recently, two groups believed to be close to ISIS, operating secretly in Deraa and Idlib, have increasingly engaged in hostilities against the rebels in those areas.

On Saturday, a group known as Jund Al Aqsa assassinated Mazin Qassoum, a popular rebel fighter and a founder of Faylaq Al Sham, one of the main anti-Assad groups in Idlib.

In Deraa, Liwa Shuhada Al Yarmouk released a video in which its members raised ISIS flags and slogans in a public event. These incidents increase tensions between ISIS and the rebels, after almost a year of rare clashes.

What prevents an all-out war between the rebels and ISIS, similar to the clashes in early 2014 that led to the defeat of ISIS in Idlib and much of Aleppo, is that the two sides tend to operate in different areas. Even though the rebels consider the fight against the Assad regime as a priority, they also view ISIS as a threat. They preemptively moved to uproot ISIS cells in several areas in southern Syria, and pushed back an ISIS attack in Aleppo’s northern countryside last month.

The best hope for the international coalition is that the rebels find it a logistical necessity to mobilize against ISIS, which could only happen if the rebels come face to face with the group. That scenario can be realized if the rebels control Aleppo and face ISIS in Minbij and Al Bab, two of ISIS’s key strongholds.

Unless the foreign backers of the opposition decide to enable the rebels to seriously push against the Assad regime in Aleppo, the fight against ISIS in Syria will lead nowhere.

This scenario could address the concerns of many of the differing countries in the anti-ISIS coalition, including those that fear the abrupt collapse of the Assad regime.

The takeover of Aleppo will probably change the conflict dynamics dramatically, but will not necessarily affect the regime’s fate. It can help the rebels deal a heavy blow to ISIS without seriously harming the regime.

This article was originally published in the National.

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