ISIL warns of expansion into southern Syria ‘within days’

Rebels talk of ISIL having 'sleeper cells', both within Al Nusra and moderate factions, with fighters secretly loyal to ISIL giving them information and preparing to rise up when ordered to do so.

Turkish tanks guard the Syrian border after mortar shells hit Turkish territory in Suruc district, near Sanliurfa, on Monday. Sedat Suna / EPA
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AMMAN // The statement was brief and direct. ISIL announced its planned expansion into Deraa, demanded cooperation from rebel groups in southern Syria and threatened anyone daring to stand in its way.
ISIL already dominated the north, east and west, the army of president Bashar Al Assad was being broken, and US-led efforts to destroy the group through airstrikes and arming of proxy forces would fail, the statement boasted.
"We call on you [the sons of Deraa], and address you heart to heart to stand by us and we warn everyone who directs his gun on other mujaheddin that they will be shamed and disgraced," the statement said.
ISIL would be there "in a matter of days".
The announcement, undated but apparently issued this month, rapidly circulated among moderate rebels fighting on the southern front and was quickly dismissed as a fake.
The language didn't match up to that typically used by ISIL, rebel commanders said, and was probably the work of an over-ambitious online fan of ISIL or some social-media propagandist from any one of the scores of warring factions in Syria, trying to sow fear and discord.
Nonetheless, the statement touched a raw nerve and highlighted growing alarm among moderates and their western and Gulf backers, as well as within the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al Nusra, over the rising power of ISIL and its attempts to extend its influence to the battlegrounds south of the Syrian capital.
The US, Gulf states and Jordan began military action against ISIL and affiliated groups last week, hoping to weaken what has become one of the most powerful factions in a civil war that has killed more than 190,000 people, led to millions being displaced from their homes and which has drawn in proxy forces supported by regional and world powers.
As many as 12,000 fighters from 74 countries are believed to have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq, many of them with ISIL, in what is the largest such mobilisation of foreign fighters since Afghanistan's war against the Soviet Union.
Moderate rebels and Al Nusra – both foes of ISIL – remain the major players in southern Syria, while ISIL has its powerbase in eastern Syria and western Iraq.
However, while ISIL is still widely considered weak in the south, moderate rebel factions proved unable to halt the rapid rise of Al Nusra this year and there are lingering fears that, now in the ascendancy, ISIL may be able to repeat that feat.
It is trying, according to rebels and analysts, and there are signals that ISIL is actually seeping into the southern zone.
Estimates from some moderate rebel sources put ISIL as having fewer than 75 fighters in the vast southern area between Damascus and the border with Jordan. But the group has generated enough anxiety that, according to rebels familiar with Al Nusra's operations, the Al Qaeda affiliate has tasked one senior commander, Abu Maria Al Qahtani, with suppressing ISIL and preventing it from both infiltrating Al Nusra's ranks and from winning over Al Nusra fighters to join its cause.
Al Nusra has launched an intelligence operation against ISIL members within its ranks, according to rebel commanders. Different rebel sources said 40 members of Al Nusra in southern Syria were arrested by the group's internal police, under the orders of Al Qahtani, on August 31 after trying to join ISIL.
Although Al Nusra remains highly secretive, moderate rebels with contacts in the group say it has made dozens of similar arrests within its ranks since June,
"It is a strategic concern to us that ISIL wants to spread into new places like the southern front," said a senior rebel commander with a moderate faction in southern Syria.
"ISIL has tried to get into the south more than once but they have clashed with different groups, including Nusra – Al Qahtani has made it his business to fight ISIS."
Rebels talk of ISIL having "sleeper cells", both within Al Nusra and moderate factions, with fighters secretly loyal to ISIL giving them information and preparing to rise up when ordered to do so.
Rebel commanders say Assad regime intelligence agents are working to encourage ISIL in the south, hoping that it will divide and weaken what has been a fairly coherent and successful opposition force.
"[President Bashar Al] Assad would be happy for us to spend our time fighting ISIL instead of fighting his troops so of course he hopes to see ISIL on the southern front and his agents have helped infiltrate ISIL cells into our area, but we have managed to stop them gaining a foothold so far," said a rebel fighter.
Less dramatically, different rebel groups often have similar ideologies and close interrelationships, and a pragmatic willingness to work with contradictory allies in order to win their war against the Syrian regime, whether that be Israel or extremist groups.
And rebel commanders admit there is a latent sympathy for Al Qaeda-influenced groups among some rank and file fighters and civilians, who view it as an effective fighting force and admire it for standing up to Iranian intervention in Syria, where the conflict is increasingly being drawn in sectarian terms, pitting Sunni against Shiite.
Two leading rebels involved in western- and Gulf-backed operations in southern Syria, including the zone around southern Damascus, said there had been efforts by ISIL to get fighters in close to the capital within the last two months.
In one case, an ISIL unit of 80 fighters entered a rebel-held area on the outskirts of Damascus but was pushed out by moderate rebels.
Rebels familiar with the workings of the secret Military Operations Command (MOC) in Amman, which is staffed by western and Gulf military officers, say it has been closely monitoring for signs of ISIL presence on the southern front.
"If ISIL is seen as a successful model for rebels there are fears [in the MOC] that fighters will want to join it or emulate the way ISIL works if they are strong on the ground," said one of the rebels.
"The MOC has been trying to give enough support to groups to stop them joining [ISIL], and it has been able to do that so far but it is a constant worry. [ISIL] has resources, it has money and weapons and that can be enough to gain it support and new recruits. Fighters often go where the weapons are, or where they can get a salary and food."