Originally commissioned December 2015
Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk’s move towards ISIS could be the start of ISIS expansion in the south of Syria, shows the appeal of ISIS affiliation for fighting groups and may lead to a generally more Islamist-dominated southern front.
- Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk and two other groups in southern Syria have transformed into ISIS affiliates, giving the group a presence there.
- Changes to groups such as Al-Yarmouk demonstrate ISIS’ strategic appeal, which allows it to acquire affiliates.
- This further weakens relations between anti-government groups in Syria’s south and hampers the Southern Front’s efforts to reduce Jahbat al-Nusra’s influence.
Beginning in 2012 as a nationalist and FSA-orientated group, once a member of the Southern Front, at the end of 2014, Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk was the first group in southern Syria to align with ISIS. Since the beginning of 2015, two other groups have indicated alignment with ISIS. Currently, none of these groups has officially declared allegiance, ISIS likely waiting until their position is stronger, but indications are strong, with one group, Harakat al-Muthana al-Islamiyah, clashing with its former patron Jahbat al-Nusra, shortly after announcing it did not oppose ISIS. Al-Yarmouk now incorporates ISIS’ flag within its own and uses ISIS’ logo on documents issued from its ISIS-style Dawa office. The Southern Front has sought to resolve these disputes peacefully, with varying success, using its judicial body, the Dar al-Adel to arbitrate, in some cases outright rejected by al-Yarmouk. A number of Southern Front groups have signed a self-defence pact, effectively an insurance against ISIS expansion in the south.
Al-Yarmouk’s motives for aligning with ISIS are unclear, however previous incidences in other parts of Syria saw groups that facilitated ISIS’ expansion be given control of territory once taken. Friction with Jahbat al-Nusra over claims of hesitancy, as well as using its new-found piety as a means of shoring up local support, as the group had been suffering from a poor reputation, are also likely motives. Most striking about al-Yarmouk’s change is that it initially showed no Islamist tendencies, unlike ISIS’ other affiliates in the south. However, this should be no surprise, as ISIS’ expansion is driven by pragmatism, as are its affiliates.
These events hamper the Southern Front’s efforts to reduce Jahbat al-Nusra’s influence in the south, done to attract more Western support. Jahbat al-Nusra’s extra-regional identity allows it to challenge groups aligning with ISIS without crossing into ethnic and tribal conflicts, unlike the more regional groups within the Southern Front, which feel threatened by ISIS’ expansion.