There was a relatively unusual sight in the Syrian town of Tel Abyad on January 2nd, Al Qaeda had a parade. The sight of forty or so black clad men with machine guns, you might have thought was intended to terrify, but the local people seem to have taken it all in their stride. Young people can be seen riding bikes and motor scooters along the parade route, as local people photograph the balaclava wearing fighters with cell phones and iPads. It is unclear whether these men are local fighters, foreign jihadis or a mixture of both, but they are definitely a presence that has at least the tacit acceptance of the local population in this Sunni area of Syria. The civil war in Syria is of course brutally grinding on, the latest estimate is that at least 130,000 people have died in the conflict which has seen the use of chemical weapons – an incident that nearly forced the West’s hand to intervene.
Syria has the same Sunni Shia split at the centre of its conflict that Iraq had, but where a Shia majority was ruled by a Sunni minority in Iraq, the opposite is true in Syria. Had the West intervened in Syria, they could have found themselves in the impossible position of fighting essentially alongside al-Qaeda associated groups.
The men parading in Syria are officially the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an Al Qaeda associated group, who were formerly led by the utterly brutal Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was eventually killed by US forces in Iraq in 2006. Whether this association is due to an equally fascistic and medieval interpretation of Islam, or direct communication is unclear. The former is definitely true, the latter much less likely. The remaining long term leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, probably isn’t able to communicate easily, unless of course he’s sitting comfortably in a compound on the other side of Abbottabad from bin Laden’s place, in which case he may well still be active but not joining any parade soon.
ISIL is currently at war again in Iraq as well as Syria. They are currently fighting for control of Anbar province in Iraq, and were reportedly close to having control of Fallujah this weekend. In 2006 they had such control over Anbar province that fuel taxes were paid directly to them each time an Iraqi filled up with gas. The death toll in Iraq was 9,000 last year, the highest total in five years, and the tenuous coalition between Iraq government forces and local militias is barely capable of keeping the upper hand over ISIL.
The ISIL may in fact have a much more powerful ally than previously thought, Turkey. Turkey has been fighting a long and reportedly brutal war against it’s Kurdish minority, who also live in northern Iraq and eastern Syria. The Kurds now allege that the heavily fortified border between Syria and Turkey has been opened to the militant groups to attack the Kurds. The concern is that if a deal between Turkey and ISIL takes place, providing them with money and arms, ISIL will become a much more powerful force in the region. There may be more Al Qaeda on parade in the future too.
By Andrew Willig