AMMAN Dec 5 Armed with machine guns, black-clad
al Qaeda fighters drove their pick-ups calmly into the northern
Syrian town and took over its imposing agriculture ministry
They beheaded a sniper from a rival rebel unit, displayed
his head in the main square and put roadblocks on major routes.
Not a shot was fired in the takeover, in which informants,
including a preacher from a local mosque, played key roles.
The scene in Termanin, recounted by an activist who
witnessed it last week, is being repeated in towns along the
border with Turkey and at road junctions further inside Syria
that have fallen out of President Bashar al-Assad's control.
Whether through weakness or a desire to focus on Assad,
rebel units are making way for the Islamic State in Iraq and the
Levant (ISIL), an al Qaeda affiliate led by foreigners hardened
by guerrilla warfare in Iraq, Chechnya and Libya.
The landgrab has given radical jihadists a large territorial
base in the heart of a Middle East convulsed by the civil war
raging in Syria since 2011.
While constant conflict and shifting alliances mean Syria is
a long way from becoming a centre for global jihad, Western and
Arab states backing moderate opponents of Assad are alarmed.
The ISIL is taking over supply lines to rebel areas and
attracting members of less organised opposition units by its
efficiency, undermining efforts by Washington to contain it
ahead of talks in Geneva on a possible peace deal, opposition
sources and Middle East security officials say.
As well as an end to Assad's rule, a key aim of such a deal
would be to establish a government and moderate army capable of
fighting off the ISIL, a Middle East-based diplomat said.
"Realistically it will be very difficult. We could be
looking at a proxy sectarian war - whether Assad stays or goes -
in which the ISIL will be a major player."
LESSONS FROM LIBYA
Asked about the group's goals, an ISIL commander in the town
of Armanaz in northern Syria who had fought in Libya said it is
fighting for "the downfall of the tyrant Bashar" but also
seeking to impose Islamic law.
Learning lessons from the 2011 war in Libya, he said ISIL
was more determined to hold on to territory under its control.
"Our mistake as mujahideen is that we were preoccupied with
fighting Gaddafi and did not pay enough attention to how to hold
on territory," said the commander, who goes by the nickname
al-Jazaeri, or the Algerian.
In a sign of concern over ISIL's gains, the United Arab
Emirates, a staunch U.S. ally, convened a meeting last week for
dozens of tribal leaders from the oil-producing region of east
Syria bordering Iraq's Sunni heartland.
The ISIL and the Nusra Front, a smaller affiliate of al
Qaeda seen as less intent on spreading jihadist ideology, occupy
most oil fields in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, although
they lack the ability to operate the wells.
The UAE meeting aimed to gauge the possibility of setting up
a force similar to the Sahwa movement that fought al Qaeda in
Iraq and rolled back some of its influence, opposition sources
said, although neither the tribes nor the Islamists appear ready
for a sustained fight.
"There have been some clashes over oil but the ISIL has
sought not to mess with the tribes. At the same time the tribes
are seeing how the ISIL likes to chop heads and they too are not
keen on a confrontation," one of the sources said.
Areas under ISIL control include towns across the northern
Syrian provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, parts of the eastern
provincial capital of Raqqa and, to a lesser extent, of central
Syria and the southern province of Deraa.
In some of these it is trying to implement a rigid Islamist
social agenda and has also won new recruits, attracted more by
its effectiveness than its ideology, local activists say.
In the al-Rouge plain in Idlib, bordering Tukey, Hassan
Abdelqader said ISIL has set up training camps for local
recruits and has distributed head to toe veils in areas
southeast of Idlib city to be worn by women there.
In al-Bab in Aleppo province, where Abu Mouawiya, an ISIL
commander, is the effective governor, the group has enforced an
Islamist school curriculum imported from areas under al Qaeda
control in Yemen, activists said.
They said thousands of poor Sunnis from rural Idlib and
rural Aleppo have joined the ISIL in the last few months,
including fighters who had left Nusra and the Free Syrian Army
-- the Western-backed force that aims to unite moderate rebels.
A Free Syrian Army report prepared for the U.S. State
Department and quoted by the Washington Post said the ISIL has a
backbone of 5,500 foreign fighters, including 250 Chechens in
Aleppo, and 17,000 recruited locally.
The local recruits are rural Sunnis, the majority group at
the forefront of the uprising which grew from a crackdown on
protests against four decades of rule by the Assad family.
The Assads are from the Alawite offshoot of Shi'ite Islam
backed by Iran and Hezbollah, while the Sunni rebels are
supported by Gulf heavyweights and Turkey, but inter-rebel
clashes have blurred the conflict.
In some areas ISIL works with rivals from Nusra and the
Western backed Free Syrian Army while in others it fights them.
A new alliance comprising big Islamist brigades also has a mixed
relationship with ISIL.
In southern Damascus, ISIL has joined Nusra and other
brigades in defending opposition neighbourhoods from advances by
Assad's forces backed by Iraqi and Lebanese Shi'ite militia.
Just months before, ISIL had attacked Nusra positions,
taking advantage of an air strike by Assad's forces that killed
three Nusra commanders, local rebel sources said.
Nusra, ISIL and Free Syrian Army units also cooperate in the
northeast, where they are fighting what they consider a land
grab by Kurdish PYD militia. The PYD says it is defending the
population against al Qaeda.
In areas along the border with Turkey in Aleppo and Idlib,
where the presence of Assad's forces is limited, ISIL has been
more assertive in taking over territory from the moderate Free
Syrian Army and other hardline Islamist units.
Activist Firas Ahmad, who witnessed the takeover of
Termanin, said it was typical.
"They have informants who identify a weak target in a town.
They also capture the bakery and put roadblocks at the main
roads, ensuring that they control food and movement."
This brings ISIL revenue as well as supplies destined for
the other brigades.
"The executions are designed to make maximum impact," said
Ahmad, pointing to amateur video showing the ISIL executing the
leader and several members of Ghurabaa al-Sham, a moderate Free
Syrian Army unit, in Atarib.
Members of a rebel-run police station near Hazano town were
spared a similar fate after the station was stormed by ISIL,
Ahmad said. "The police chief and staff surrendered as soon as
the attack started and declared their allegiance to the ISIL."
Last month the ISIL took three pick-up trucks equipped with
anti-aircraft guns that had crossed through the town of Atma,
and came close to taking other trucks carrying thousands of U.S.
supplied combat food rations, activists said.
An opposition figure who attended a meeting with U.S.
officials about logistics said: "The Americans are furious at
the degree of ISIL reach over supply lines. Privately they are
blaming the Turks for opening their borders in such a way that
facilitated the infiltration of al Qaeda."
Turkey has been an outspoken supporter of rebels fighting
Assad and has assisted them by keeping its border open, but
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and other officials have
strongly denied this amounts to support for his al Qaeda foes.
Abdallah al-Sheikh, an activist in Atma, said Turkish
soldiers have been intercepting supply conveys and seizing them
or turning them back in the wake of the recent ISIL advances.
"The end result is that the ISIL is harming the overall
military struggle and doing Assad a service," Sheikh said,
adding that signs of a popular backlash against ISIL and the
group's interference in people's lives are beginning to emerge.
In the last few days, Sheikh said, the ISIL had been forced
to withdraw from the nearby village of al Qah after armed
skirmishes with local residents.
(Editing by Dominic Evans and Philippa Fletcher)