The influence of jihadist groups is rapidly expanding in both Syria and Iraq. Following an extremist agenda and using brutal tactics, the Syrian regime may benefit most from the militants' violent campaign.
The news came as a shock: the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) Islamist group reportedly killed about 50 hostages, including journalists, humanitarian helpers and other civilians, earlier this week. The alleged executions are the most recent example of the weeks-long reign of terror by ISIL and other Islamist groups in Syria's northern and eastern regions.
The murders are said to have taken place in the Syrian Kadi Askar district near Aleppo, which is partly in the hands of jihadists. The aim is to include the region in an Islamic State, as seen in the group's name, that would encompass the lands of present-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
Massive jihadist presence
About 100,000 Sunni extremists are currently in Syria, divided into about 200 different groups. While some fight against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, they are mainly fighting for a future Islamic State, and they all have of different views on the exact nature of such a state. The al-Nusra Front with its approximately 15,000 fighters is the largest single group; with about 7,000 militiamen, ISIL has fewer troops, but they make up for numbers with extreme violence.
The group has repeatedly been accused of kidnapping, torturing and finally killing civilians and members of rival groups.
ISIL is steered from Iraq, where the insurgents expanded their power base over the past weeks. The jihadists seized the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in Anbar province last week and have held them in a stand-off with Iraqi army troops gathering outside the cities.
Taking advantage of hardship and poverty
Should they choose or be forced to leave the Iraqi cities, some of the extremists could easily move into Syria, according to Stephan Rosiny, a Middle East expert at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies.
"The Syrian-Iraqi border runs along hundreds of kilometers of desert, that's an area that can hardly be monitored," he said, adding that many jihadists crossed the border into Syria after the US invasion in Iraq. "Since 2011, they've been moving in the opposite direction, from Iraq to Syria."
The insurgents have been taking advantage of the population's hardship in both countries. In Iraq, they focus on the alienation felt by Sunnis living under the government of Shiite President Nouri al-Maliki. Their propaganda is especially successful in the regions along the border with Syria, where the tense security situation has made the people prone to taking matters into their own hands or leaving them to armed groups like ISIL. Initially, the people put up with the group's religious extremism in exchange for relative security.
In Syria, too, several jihadist groups contributed to upholding the public order in the midst of the war, at least partially. They also helped supply the population with the bare necessities. But here, too, the groups' militant ideology and violence caused the people to turn their backs on the militants. "That's how opposition by other Sunni groups emerged in Syria and in Iraq," Rosiny said.
According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, fighting between rival groups has cost more than 270 lives since the end of last week. Al-Jazeera reported that the violent clashes among groups opposed to the Syrian government caused a leader of the Nusra Front, known as Abu Mohammad al-Golani, to urge an end to the infighting in a rare video recording.
Golani proposed forming an Islamic legal council to resolve feuds among the rebels and called for the militants to return to their shared goal of fighting Assad's forces, saying everyone is needed to push forward the jihad in Syria.
Consequences for the Syria peace talks
The spread of terrorism plays into the hands of the Syrian and Iraqi governments. It allows Iraq's president to refute accusations that he mainly serves the interests of the Shiite population. The Assad regime uses the massive presence of the jihadists to denounce the entire opposition as "terrorists."
The "Al-Hayat" daily said both governments intentionally let the jihadists cross into their states, "That is the easiest way to put the issue of terrorism on the agenda of the Syria Peace Conference, rather than the question of how to get rid of tyranny."