The campaign by a loose alliance of Syrian rebel groups to crush the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) in northern Syria could have far-reaching implications for the unity of the armed opposition and the fight against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Mr. Assad may rejoice at the sight of his enemies fighting each other, evidence perhaps of further disarray within the opposition. But the campaign against ISIS (also sometimes known as ISIL) appears to demonstrate improved coordination and unity among leading rebel groups, which could make them a more formidable fighting force when their full attention shifts back to the regime. The Assad regime could then face an Islamist-dominated, battle-hardened, coordinated, and unified rebel opposition better able to confront the Syrian Army and its allies than at present.
“Taken at face value, it’s a very positive step that Syrian rebels have so forcefully confronted ISIS," says Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. He says a successful fight by rebels against ISIS could strengthen their position in the north, where ISIS has alienated many civilians. “However, in the wider context of a conflict that is set to continue in some form for years to come, the fact that most Syria rebel groups have now made an enemy of ISIS will have negative repercussions in the future."
Assuming, as analysts predict, that ISIS is not fully defeated and driven out of Syria, its struggle against more mainstream rebel forces could paradoxically turn the Al Qaeda group into a de-facto battlefield ally of the Assad regime. Both ISIS and the Assad regime will find themselves fighting the same enemy, despite Damascus regularly vilifying the opposition as "armed terrorist gangs" and pointing to the Al Qaeda faction as the grim potential alternative to its own rule.
'A mine planted by the regime'
ISIS’s brutal treatment of civilians in areas under its control and kidnappings and assassinations of commanders and fighters of other rebel groups tested the patience of the opposition. The bulk of ISIS is composed of non-Syrians who appeared more intent on consolidating control of territory and imposing strict Islamic law than in fighting the Assad regime.
Rebel groups accuse ISIS of intransigence, among other things, comparing it unfavorably to Jabhat al-Nusra, another Al Qaeda affiliate but one that is more flexible in dealing with rebel factions and is more Syria-centric. The Syrian political opposition has repeatedly accused ISIS of acting in collusion with the Assad regime. Haitham al-Maleh, a leading Syrian democracy activist, described ISIS early this month as “a mine planted by the Assad regime in the revolution's body to warn the international community of approaching or interfering in Syrian issues.”
Certainly, the Assad regime regularly points to ISIS as an example of the enemy it faces in an attempt to dissuade the West from supporting the armed Syrian opposition.
“ISIL violence against civilian activists, local committees, humanitarian workers and the civilian population in liberated areas is alienating Syrians from the rebel cause, and limiting the popular appeal of a rebel victory,” says Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “This also reinforces the relatively successful regime narrative [that] the uprising is a foreign terrorist conspiracy, the regime is the defender of minorities, it’s either Assad or the jihadists.”
On Jan. 3, a loose-knit alliance made up of the Jaysh al-Mujahideen ("Holy Warrior Army") and the Syria Revolutionaries Front, both formed specifically to fight ISIS, launched a campaign to oust the Al Qaeda group from its strongholds across northern and eastern Syria. They were then joined by the recently formed Islamic Front, which includes several leading Syrian Islamist factions such as Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Haqq, Ahrar ash-Sham and Suquor ash-Sham totaling some 60,000 fighters. Jabhat al-Nusra has publicly attempted to remain neutral and called for dialogue, although there are reports of its fighters battling ISIS.
The offensive met with initial success with a coordinated attack against more than a dozen separate targets, with an emphasis on storming ISIS jails to free hundreds of hostages and prisoners. After more than a week of fighting, ISIS has lost much of its hold across the Idlib and Aleppo provinces and has been pushed to the outskirts of Raqqa, the only provincial capital to fall to the rebels. “Raqqa is ISIL’s last bastion. If it loses Raqqa, it has no other bastion and they will be forced into villages. Then it becomes a mopping up operation and ISIL risks being driven out,” says a European diplomat with close ties to the Syrian opposition.
Still, ISIS is not going down without a fight. It has dispatched 16 suicide bombers, mainly in explosive-laden cars, against its rebel foes in the past week, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which gathers information from activists across Syria. The Observatory added that 700 people have died in nine days of fighting between ISIS and its opponents. On Monday, ISIS was reported to have captured most of Al Bab, a town north of Aleppo, but was losing ground in Jarabulus, near the Turkish border.
Analysts say that the offensive against ISIS will force it to cede territory, but it is unlikely to be decisively defeated.
“ISIS would very likely retain the ability to inflict serious harm on rebel groups,” says Mr. Itani. “This is an adaptive, resourceful organization and, while it is hopeless at governing people, has refined violent insurgency to an art. It will not disappear by any means, not in the near term at least.”
Indeed, the armed opposition could find itself fighting on two fronts in the months ahead – against the forces of the Assad regime and against ISIS. ISIL’s predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq, lately has made a striking comeback in Iraq’s Anbar province having been driven out from 2006 by the US-funded Sahwa, or Awakening, councils composed mainly of Sunni tribesmen.
“[The Islamic State of Iraq's] almost professional campaign of assassinations and targeted attacks on [Iraqi] security forces and Awakening Council militiamen will likely see itself replicated in Syria in the months and years to come – with long-term consequences," says Mr. Lister.
Paradoxically, however, battling two enemies at the same time could further unify and strengthen the leading rebel formations, such as the Free Syrian Army-linked Syria Revolutionaries Front, Jaysh al-Mujahideen, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Islamic Front, which already maintain “healthy cooperative relations,” says Lister.
“The emergence of ISIL as an actual combative enemy makes these relations that much more sustainable,” he says. “While some localized groups may choose to negotiate ceasefires with ISIL so as to avoid any expected counter-attacks, the existence of an active threat from ISIL suicide bombers and car bombs should act as a glue, consolidating pragmatic inter-group cooperation.”