By Tom Coghlan, Catherine Philp and Sara Elizabeth Williams
Al-Qaeda renegades are using American military hardware plundered in Iraq to tilt the battlefield in Syria, in the latest sign that their surge is threatening to transform the entire Middle East.
US-made Humvees captured during the militants’ surge have been used to attack Syrian rebels near Aleppo for the first time, say rebel commanders.
The commanders warned that the transfer of advanced hardware, possibly including artillery, from Iraq, where it was abandoned by the deserting Iraqi army, could prove decisive in Syria’s complex three-way battlefield. The influx of new weaponry could boost the al-Qaeda-linked militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis) in their fight against the more mainstream anti-Assad forces.
“Isis is now bringing these weapons from Iraq,” said Abdurrahman Al-halaby, of the Islam Army, part of the Islamic Front rebel alliance. “The liberated parts of Aleppo will be in danger.”
The Pentagon said it was concerned about US hardware falling into the hands of Isis. “We’re aware of reports of some equipment — namely Humvees — and the pictures that have been posted online,” said the Pentagon spokesman, Commander Bill Speaks.
Separately, Jordan has rushed forces to its borders with Iraq and Syria, doubling their numbers there, amid growing fears of further Isis advances. Iraqi border guards deserted an 180km stretch of border with Jordan as Isis took a string of nearby towns, exploiting the government’s focus on defending Baghdad to open up a new front in western Anbar province. Sunni tribesmen moved in and were negotiating with Isis yesterday to hand over the crossing to their control in order to “spare blood”.
The threats to Syrian rebels and Jordan are the first sign that Isis fighters, following their eastward surge over the past two weeks, are re-focusing their efforts to the west, raising fears among Iraq’s neighbours that they will be the group’s next target. The seizure of two more border crossings, with Jordan and Syria, has renewed regional concerns about Isis’ stated aim of establishing an Islamic caliphate across Iraq and al-Sham, or Greater Syria, an area encompassing Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Isis claimed to have taken control of the official border crossing. A video released by the group showed the crossing from the Iraqi side, suggesting it had been abandoned. Jordan’s ministry of information said it was unable to confirm this.
Jordan has also sent reinforcements north to its border with Syria out of fears that this might also be threatened by Isis.
Concerns about Isis gaining ground in Jordan were underlined by a video of a pro-Isis demonstration on Friday in the southern Jordanian city of Ma’an. Isis has directly threatened Jordan in other videos, including a recent clip showing a fighter tearing up a Jordanian passport. “I have a message to the tyrant of Jordan: we are coming to you with death and explosive belts,” the fighter said.
Last week Jay Garner, the retired US general who headed the first interim government in Iraq after the American-led invasion, urged Washington to intervene to help protect Jordan and its ruling monarchy from Isis. “I would take a long look at Jordan and begin to really fortify Abdullah because he’s next I think,” he said. “He’s the next target on the playbook of the Jihadists.”
Isis’ precursor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, was led by a Jordanian, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who targeted the capital, Amman, with a triple bombing at luxury hotels in 2005. Around 2,000 Jordanians are believed to be fighting with Isis in Iraq and Syria.
Charles Lister, Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, said: “At the moment, it looks like Isis is seeking to simply ruffle feathers and to suggest an underlying instability in the region, but it seems unlikely it would actually seek to launch cross-border offensive operations into Jordan. The Jordanian military is far superior to forces Isis faces in Syria and Iraq, plus, Jordan would almost certainly have the stalwart support of the US. Nonetheless, Jordan’s significant bolstering of its military presence on the Iraqi border underlines that they are taking no chances here.”