The Islamic State terror group is operating sleeper cells in southern Syria near the border with Israel, a spokesman for the opposition’s Free Syrian Army charged Sunday.
The spokesman, speaking to The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity, as he was not authorized to communicate with Israeli media, said that some of the 6,000 Islamist fighters who fled southward toward the borders with Israel and Jordan in July actually belong to the Islamic State, not to the less extreme Nusra Front as previously believed.
The two Islamist organizations had clashed militarily in a struggle for control over oil-rich northeastern Syria, in which the Islamic State triumphed. The Times of Israel could not confirm the information, which was recently conveyed to the spokesman from a number of different sources.
While both are opposed to the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the Free Syrian Army, a moderate rebel group, and Islamic State have fought a number of fierce battles in Syria.
“There are sleeper cells in the south, which are hidden. They don’t do anything [military] at all,” the spokesman said of IS. “Many people [in the moderate Syrian opposition] are following them and will strike at them before they organize.”
According to the intelligence agency of the Free Syrian Army, Islamic State activists would approach individuals in the area, offering them basic food staples or financial aid.
“They say: ‘Stay at home, no one will know about you. The moment we need you, we’ll call.'” The spokesman said that many locals refused the IS overtures, but that could change given the region’s grave poverty.
Prices have skyrocketed recently, he added, with a liter of diesel fuel costing $15, for example.
Two villages where IS representatives made such proposals are Hayt and Sahem Al-Jawlan, near the Syrian-Jordanian border, the spokesman said.
“They were sent by the Islamic State to control the largest portion of land possible,” he said. “We are against them wholeheartedly. They have nothing to do with Islam, which they merely use as a cover.”
Eyal Zisser, an expert on Syria at Tel Aviv University, said he was unaware of the IS presence in southern Syria, but was not surprised by the new information.
“The Islamic State is trying to establish itself all across Syria,” he told The Times of Israel. “The organization is going through a process of transformation. Other groups [in Syria] are trying to associate themselves with it and pledge allegiance to it. Some do so out of fear of IS, while others hope to benefit from it in the future.”
Zisser doubted, however, that the extremist group currently had a military presence in the south.
Focused against Assad
The FSA spokesman said relations between his group and al-Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affiliate vanquished by IS in northern Syria, were “tense” and could erupt in armed confrontation at any moment. For the time being, however, the field commanders of the Free Syrian Army have decided to focus their limited military capabilities on the Assad regime, he said.
Al-Nusra Front is still holding Sharif as-Safouri, the commander of the FSA’s Al-Haramein Battalion kidnapped in July, who has confessed on video to military collaboration with Israel. Another FSA commander, Colonel Ahmad Al-Ni’meh, has been held captive by Al-Nusra Front since early May.
The Free Syrian Army currently controls the entire border between Israel and Syria, including the Quneitra border crossing, wrested from the Assad regime by opposition forces including the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front in late August, the spokesman said.
The Assad regime still controls areas further inland, between Quneitra and Daraa, including Tel Al-Hara and As-Sanamayn. Further east, the regime controls the 52nd Brigade in Daraa and two military airports in the area.
A new military corps is being formed in southern Syria by the Free Syrian Army to incorporate some 40 fighting units in the Daraa region, and will be known as “Failaq (Corps) 1.” The battalions that will form the core of the new unit are Karamah, Special Operations, Ahl As-Sunna and Al-Haramein.
The spokesman said that the Free Syrian Army was conducting daily negotiations with Western donor states in a bid to arm the new unit, which will be headed by Colonal Ziad Al-Hariri, commander of the Karamah Battalion.