Hassan Hassan writes: For the past three years, ISIL has tried to establish a footing in southern Syria. It tried in the mountainous Qalamoun region near the Lebanese border, but it was expelled after intermittent clashes with Al Qaeda and Hizbollah. Its attempts to co-opt forces near Damascus did not get far either, particularly as rebels preemptively clamped down on the group’s fledgling cells there.
Following its failure to grow organically, it opted last year for a pincer strategy to link up its pockets of control between Palmyra and Homs to ones in Damascus’s north east, such as Dumayr. That effort also failed since its territory in the Homs desert was largely cleared by the pro-government forces in April. The group was also expelled from the Palestinian Yarmouk camp after a brief takeover in April last year.
But there is now bad news. In Deraa, ISIL may see not only an opening but that the opening could be the first of its kind in the whole of Syria since the group was formed in April 2013.
Last month, three local groups in Deraa formed Jaysh Khaled bin Al Walid. ISIL announced the merger on Friday. The groups — namely the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade (YMB), Islamic Muthanna Movement (IMM) and Mujahideen Group – operate mainly in western Deraa. Last Thursday, the US state department designated the YMB as a terrorist group.
For ISIL, the south in general is strategically and symbolically important. Deraa borders Israel and Jordan and has historical resonance. The new formation is named after the historical Muslim figure, Khaled bin Al Walid, who commanded a key battle in the Yarmouk Basin against the Byzantine empire in the 7th century.
Nowhere in Syria has ISIL succeeded in growing organically as it has done in Deraa. This is a remarkable development especially since the Southern Front has been hailed as a good example of international support to the opposition. [Continue reading…]