Militant leaders from the Islamic State group and al-Qaida gathered at a farm house in northern Syria last week and agreed on a plan to stop fighting each other and work together against their opponents, a high-level Syrian opposition official and a rebel commander have told The Associated Press.
Such an accord could present new difficulties for Washington’s strategy against the IS group. While warplanes from a U.S.-led coalition strike militants from the air, the Obama administration has counted on arming “moderate” rebel factions to push them back on the ground. Those rebels, already considered relatively weak and disorganized, would face far stronger opposition if the two heavy-hitting militant groups now are working together.
IS — the group that has seized nearly a third of Syria and Iraq with a campaign of brutality and beheadings this year — and al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, known as the Nusra Front, have fought each other bitterly for more than a year to dominate the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The Associated Press reported late last month on signs that the two groups appear to have curtailed their feud with informal local truces. Their new agreement, according to the sources in rebel groups opposed to both IS and Nusra Front, would involve a promise to stop fighting and team up in attacks in some areas of northern Syria.
Assuming this is true, it’s bad news for the Syrian moderates, or for any superpowers who might be planning on, let’s say, arming and training those moderates to go after ISIS and eventually Assad. But how bad remains to be seen. You may have missed it, but Nusra has been whupping moderates around Idlib pretty well lately even without ISIS’s help, so practically I’m not sure how much worse things could have gotten for them anyway. Does Nusra have enough to offer ISIS to make a substantial difference in the fight against the Kurds in Kobani? That’s also not clear. On the other hand, a deal like this would presumably mean that coalition air power can now treat Nusra and ISIS as indistinguishable, which could mean a whole lot more sorties against Nusra targets, though whether that will make any difference is, again, unclear.
There’s also the possibility that these reports are incomplete, inaccurate, or downright invented. The AP’s sources presumably come from among the same Syrian “moderates” who have been on the losing end of Nusra’s Idlib campaign and who, therefore, have a vested interest in convincing the U.S. to start hitting Nusra harder.