Konstantinos Zarras has published an analysis (link opens pdf file) of the efforts of al Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate to expand its operations into Syria and create a de facto Islamic State along the middle regions of the Euphrates River valley. Calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), they declared statehood in January of this year and are at once the most active insurgent group against the government of Bashir al Assad and the greatest cause of disunity among the would-be coalition of anti-government forces. ISIS is in open warfare with the official al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, and is even suspected of assassinating the personal envoy of global al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawihiri.
Success by ISIS in creating their Caliphate on the Euphrates would not be an altogether bad thing for the US, at least not in the near term. Our failure in Iraq has created a weak state there which does not aid in containing Iran. ISIS, however, would be a Sunni dominated state opposed to Shi’a Iran. Combined with the emerging Greater Kurdistan to the north and the coalition of rich Gulf Arab states to the south, this would effectively do the work of the “Sunni Wall” that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq represented.
In the longer term, of course, a Salafist state would be a constant and ongoing threat to initiate state-supported terror operations against Western targets, but in the moment, Iran looms as the larger threat in the region.