The fall of Aleppo to a consortium of Iranian-built militias backed by Russian airpower and special forces constitutes not only a loud victory for Damascus but also a quieter one for ISIS, or the Islamic State, which mounted a surprise attack that retook the ancient city of Palmyra.
The contrast could not have been starker or a more clear vindication of one of ISIS’s longest-running propaganda tropes: the “infidels” and “apostates” will do nothing to save Sunni Arabs from the pillage, rape, and barrel bombs of the Russians, Alawites, and Shia. But Aleppo’s fall also buttresses one of the lesser-scrutinized claims made by ISIS’s former spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, shortly before his demise.
In May, months before he was taken out by a U.S. airstrike, Adnani issued what would turn out to be a final communiqué refuting a common Sunni criticism of ISIS, namely that the group’s takeover of Sunni towns and cities invariably brought only devastation. See Fallujah and Ramadi. For Adnani, however, such devastation was never the fault of ISIS, as rival jihadist enterprises had discovered at their peril.
“If we knew that any of the righteous predecessors surrendered a span of land to the infidels, using the claim of popular support or to save buildings from being destroyed or to prevent bloodshed, or any other alleged interest,” he said, “we would have done the same as the Qa’idah of the Fool of the so-called Ummah.” Only steadfastness, even in the face of overwhelming odds, would restore Sunni dignity.
Thanks to Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—not to say Barack Obama—Adnani now gets to play the posthumous prophet. Rather than die fighting for Aleppo, the Free Syrian Army (and its Western backers), plus rival Islamist or jihadist groups such the Syrian al Qaeda franchise Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, negotiated the terms of their surrender through a series of failed and humiliating “ceasefires” and evacuations, which are in fact forced population transfers. And Aleppo was still pulverized.
The loss will be compounded by the sectarian context. Aleppo fell to what Der Spiegel correspondent Christoph Reuter once aptly called the “first international Shia jihad in recent history,” led by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and relying largely on a patchwork of guerrilla fighters from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Iraq. This is precisely what Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian founding father of ISIS, wanted. He once described the Shia as “the insurmountable obstacle, the prowling serpent, the crafty, evil scorpion, the enemy lying in wait, and biting poison… Whoever takes the time to look carefully at the situation will realize that Shiism is the greater danger threatening us and the real challenge we must confront.” And the only way to confront this enemy in Iraq was to render Sunnis hopeless that anyone else would, by attacking the Shia so that the Shia took revenge by attacking the outnumbered Sunnis.
In Syria, the Zarqawi thesis is even more relevant, as the country is a Sunni majority one and is now subject to occupation by a minority. And as bad as the physical collapse of the symbolic citadel of Syria’s revolution is, worse still is the chauvinist triumphalism attending it, which plays directly into the Zarqawi strategy.
Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, one of the Iraqi militias which the United Nations accused of murdering 85 civilians, including women and children, broadcast a song on an affiliated Iraqi TV channel. “Aleppo is Shia,” it ran. In his Friday sermon, delivered in Tehran, Ayatollah Mohammad Emami Kashani declared the “liberation” of the city from “infidels”—using more or less the same language of sectarian incitement that ISIS reserves for the Kashani’s coreligionists. In this case, the cleric was declaring all 150,000 Sunnis who’d been besieged for months in East Aleppo, and now driven from their homes, godless. Even he must be aware of the lasting repercussions of such imprecations.
Rhetorical provocation has also been met by the visual kind. Images circulating on social media to show Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s spymaster and head of the expeditionary Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, treading the rubble in Aleppo in an unmistakable show of who was really responsible for the siege and recapture. (Bashar al-Assad, the nominal sovereign of “all of Syria,” is nowhere to be seen on this hollowed-out and Iranian-occupied battlefield.) Any of these photographs could easily grace the forthcoming issue of Rumiyah, ISIS’s propaganda magazine.
Already, there are videos of Syrian children vowing to return and retake Aleppo when they grow up. One child has accused the rebels of betraying Aleppo through their division and urged them to unite and exact vengeance.
Yet the likely agents of revenge may well end up being the hardline jihadists, which the U.S. government now claims, absurdly, to have lost 50,000 combat-ready personnel in the last two and a half years of war. (The earliest CIA estimate of ISIS’s order of battle, in 2014, was between 22,000 and 30,000, and so we must now be into “negative ISIS” numbers, as one U.S. army colonel witheringly told us last week.)
Whatever remains of ISIS’s garrisons, only a few thousand are currently holding their ground in Mosul, where the Iraqi and U.S.-led operation to liberate that provincial capital has stalled and where a staggering 50 percent of Iraq’s elite counterterrorism strike force, the Golden Division, has sustained casualties. This are an integrated corps of professional regulars—Sunnis, Shia, and Christians—doing the heavy lifting against the caliphate. And if this rate or attrition continues, the Golden Division will be rendered combat-ineffective within a month. That would either put the entire battle for Mosul on hold indefinitely or force Baghdad to rely on less reliable units, such as the Shia which have recently become official arms of the Iraqi state.
Meanwhile, a mere 50 to 200 ISIS fighters managed to overtake the Assad-Putin-Khamenei axis in Palmyra, just as East Aleppo was being stormed by it.
As The Daily Beast reported, citing pro-regime sources, ISIS’s swift return to the scene of its former defeat was facilitated through bribery. The jihadists evidently paid off a corrupt leader of the National Defense Forces, an Iranian-built proxy militia, who looked the other way as the blitzkrieg began. According to Khaled al-Homsi, a native of the city who closely tracks developments there, all of Russia’s military deployment withdrew a few days before the assault began, possibly for redeployment to Aleppo. Somewhat bolstering this claim is a recent Wall Street Journal report that several hundred Russian Spetsnaz, or Special Forces—units similar to those deployed for the illegal seizure of Crimea in 2014—have been on the ground in Aleppo for weeks, where, in the words of one Moscow-based think tank specialist, they’ve “taken on a combat role.”
The recapture of Palmyra gave the lie that Assad’s coalition was focused on battling the worst of the worst extremists in Syria. But it’s led to the rehabilitation in the popular imagination of a blood-brutal organization whose declining stature was inextricably linked to its dwindling terrain. Enemies of ISIS have begun cheering not the caliphate per se but any defeat of Assad, Iran, and Russia.
Faisal al-Kasim, a well-known anchor on Al Jazeera, who would otherwise insist that ISIS and the Assad regime are in cahoots, said that he wished all the regime’s “rehearsed” defeats by ISIS followed a similar script as in Palmyra, where the Assad coalition lost hundreds of soldiers. Normally cynical about ISIS gains, the Syrian opposition now celebrates them.
Saleh al-Hamwi, a former leader of Jabhat al Nusra, the previous name of al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, described what happened in Palmyra as incontrovertibly good. “Pick up the fruit and move on,” al-Hamwi tweeted on Dec. 11, the day Palmyra was retaken. “Don’t look for details. Any blow against the regime or withdrawal is good for the revolution now.” Prominent Syrian journalist Mousa al-Omar, by no means a jihadist or jihadist sympathizer, retweeted this sentiment.
In Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s inaugural sermon, delivered at the al-Zangi mosque in Mosul in July 2014, he warned of exactly this contingency. Sunni Muslims, he said, are arrayed against a colossal global conspiracy led by the United States and Russia, backed by Iran and the Shia, against which there is only one true custodian or protector of this embattled community: the independent and self-sustaining servants of the caliphate. There is no alternative or “third camp.”
It is admittedly sometimes difficult to discern where this conspiracy theory ends and U.S. foreign policy begins.
Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the U.S. commander of the anti-ISIS coalition, openly mocked the Russian government in a press conference last week, saying, in reference to Palmyra, “they lost it… and I think it’s probably up to them to take it back.” Townsend added that ISIS appeared to have seized “some armored vehicles and various guns and other heavy weapons, possibly some air defense equipment,” and added that if the Russians couldn’t destroy this materiel, the coalition would. It did, blowing up 14 tanks, an air defense artillery system and other hardware. Thus do many Sunnis see the United States mopping up the Assadists’ mess, while leaving Aleppo to its grim fate. And so does one percipient Shia cleric.
Former Hezbollah secretary-general, Sheikh Subhi al-Tufayli, seems well aware of the sectarian bloodletting that has preceded and is sure to follow the Aleppo calamity. Likening the city to Karbala, the site of Shia Islam’s greatest tragedies, Tufayli blamed Assad, Russia and Iran of “slaughtering thousands of Muslims,” with American connivance. “How do we explain destruction, spread of fire and the bombs that fall over Aleppo and kill all those in the city while in the deserts of Palmyra, militants that attack the Syrian army and take control in under a day. How do we explain this?” he asked during his Friday sermon last week. “We allow the Islamic State to flourish and attack a genuine opposition so that there is none left but the regime—the same regime which has slaughtered the nation of Mohammed—and the Islamic State. We then tell people to choose; do you prefer [ISIS] or Bashar?”
Zarqawi’s monstrous gambit was to brutalize and demoralize Sunnis into a necessary alliance with his holy war. Surveying the last week’s spoils, his ghost still has reason to smile.