The Caliphate Inches Closer to Jordan
Rumors have been circulating in recent days that the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade -- a Syrian rebel group that gained notoriety in March 2013 when it kidnapped, and subsequently released, 21 Filipino UN workers -- is readying to declare its own emirate, or wilayat, in the Syrian city of Daraa, one of the group's strongholds.
The word emirate evokes all kinds of images and assumptions, but the motivations behind Yarmouk's potential push for autonomy may be rooted in very terrestrial and parochial interests. Although the Yarmouk Brigade has been rumored as having ties with the Islamic State group, the militant separatists have repeatedly denied such charges. Compounding the confusion is the fact that these accusations have been levied by Jaish al-Fatah, a Syrian rebel alliance with ties to al-Qaeda. The two factions have fought each other on the field of battle and in the court of law, and their disagreements are largely over matters of jurisprudence, affiliation, and religious interpretation.
None of this is likely to comfort to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. At times a darling of the Western world, U.S. ally Jordan already shares one volatile border with western Iraq, and the kingdom continues to reel from a video released by ISIS earlier this year depicting the immolation of a Jordanian pilot who had been taken captive by the jihadist group.
Touring the region in late July, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter pledged American support for Jordan, and described the enemy its wary Arab allies face as barbarians at the proverbial gate.
"The enemy has to be defeated," said Carter, adding "[i]t will be, because the barbarians are always defeated by civilization, a few by the many."
But the Yarmouk Brigade is a good example of just how layered and complicated the war against the Islamic State group truly is. The militant group claims that it seized the 21 UN staffers back in 2013 because the relief workers were providing water to forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, and ultimately released those it detained once international pressure was applied. Moreover, the Yarmouk Brigade's origins stem from seemingly localized gripes and grievances, and their rhetoric lacks the millenarian flare often found in ISIS's missives.
All of this suggests that the Yarmouk Brigade might be, dare I say, rational. This is an enemy that can be negotiated with and quite possibly cleaved off from the Islamic State. That isn't quite as satisfying as vanquishing barbarians at the gate, but it may be a better alternative to Washington's current -- and at times incoherent -- strategy in Syria.