Syria power struggle: Are fortunes of the more moderate rebels rising?

Just a month ago, the Free Syrian Army appeared to be in disarray. But on Monday, Al Qaeda-aligned rebels retreated from some of their strongholds after clashes with the FSA and moderate Islamists.

Fadi Mashan/Reuters
A rebel fighter mans a checkpoint to prevent members of the Al Qaeda-aligned Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL, from entering Jabal al-Zawiya in Idlib, Syria, January 6, 2014.

The war-within-a-war that Syria’s rebel groups are fighting among themselves is intensifying and could determine how far Syria’s most extreme, Al Qaeda-affiliated militants are able to rise.

Rebels from the Al Qaeda-aligned Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL, retreated Monday from some of their strongholds after several days of clashes with both moderate Islamists and the Free Syrian Army fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

ISIS is the same group that last week took control of Fallujah and Ramadi in Iraq and that now is battling Iraqi forces to keep those cities.

The ISIS withdrawals from Syrian strongholds in northern and eastern portions of the country are being characterized by some observers inside Syria as tactical retreats meant simply to curb infighting among Islamists. But others say the retrenchment is an indication of widespread rejection among the moderate opposition and civilians of the harsh Islamic law that the ISIS fighters – many of whom are foreigners – imposed in areas they controlled.

“This [revolt against the Islamist hard-liners] is something that’s been a long time coming,” says Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The rejection of ISIS and its extreme tactics has been going on for some time, but we’ll have to wait and see if the rebels and civilians who are rejecting them are up to really setting them back,” the Syria and Islamic politics expert adds.

Reports of public executions, indiscriminate detentions, and other abuses have flowed for months out of Raqqa, the northern Syria city where the ISIS established its headquarters. On Monday, fighters from the rival – and more moderate – Islamic Front were fighting to take back the ISIS stronghold. Islamic Front forces managed to free about 50 ISIS prisoners, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based organization that relies on reports from contacts inside Syria.

Last week a coalition of Syria’s moderate rebels announced it was launching a second “revolution” – in addition to the fight against the Assad regime – against the ISIS and its foreign commanders. “We don’t want any foreign fighters in Syria,” a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Loauy Mokdad, told CNN on Saturday.

A victory by the FSA against the radical Islamists would be a major reversal of fortunes from just a month ago, when the FSA appeared to be in disarray.

But any progress by the FSA in its battle with the ISIS extremists, Mr. Tabler says, would also underscore the extent to which the FSA now depends on its coordination with the more moderate Islamists of the Islamic Front (IF).

The last week “shows that when the FSA bandwagons with the IF against the far-right extremists, together they’re able to do quite a bit,” he says.

The IF’s principal benefactor is Saudi Arabia, which envisions the coalition of seven Sunni fighting forces as the key opponent of both the Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters and the Assad regime, which is receiving assistance from Saudi archrival Iran.

Any sustained reversal of ISIS fortunes at the hands of an FSA-IF fighting partnership would certainly be noticed by the United States, which last month suspended nonlethal aid to the rebels after IF forces overran an FSA base and took control of warehouses of US-supplied vehicles and other equipment. Since then, US officials have held meetings with IF representatives, but America does not seem to be about to embrace the IF, which coordinates with al-Nusra Front, a group the US lists as a terrorist organization.

“Will the US be able to come out and directly support the Islamists? Probably not,” Tabler says. “But will the US find a way to support the FSA while allowing the IF to work alongside it? Yes, that I think it probably could.”

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