After months of fighting the Syrian regime and jihadist insurgents, some moderate and Islamist rebel brigades in northern Syria say they have had enough and are threatening to quit.
In a statement issued late Wednesday, eleven rebel factions mainly based in Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and parts of Aleppo province asked for “reinforcements and complete aid” to help them fight the al-Qaida breakaway Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), which this week declared a “Caliphate” straddling the Iraq-Syria border and began calling itself the Islamic State.
The demoralized rebels set a one-week deadline.
“Should our call not be heard, we will lay down our weapons and pull out our fighters,” they said.
The notice to quit the two-front conflict comes as signs mount of defections both from al Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and hardcore Islamists to ISIL, which has been spearheading a militant Sunni insurgency in northern and western Iraq while advancing in parts of northern Syria, especially on the outskirts of Aleppo, where moderate rebels forced it to withdraw earlier this year.
Videos posted online show al-Nusra fighters switching sides. In one from the town of Sheheil, once an al-Nusra stronghold, a man is shown reading a statement, saying: "We have decided to declare our allegiance to the Islamic State."
The warning isn’t an idle one, says Bayan Khatib, a Toronto-based spokeswoman for the Western-backed Syrian Coalition.
“The statement comes on the heels of ISIL’s recent advances in Deir Ezzor and more alarmingly in the northern suburbs of Aleppo,” she said. “These groups have been screaming at the top of their lungs for months for assistance that never came. In their statement they predict that ISIL will take over all opposition territory in Syria unless decisive action is taken promptly.”
None of the brigades that are making the threat to quit are among the largest rebel factions – they include the Raqqa Rebel Brigade and the Kurdish Front—but analysts say their demoralization reflects wider disillusionment across rebel ranks and augurs badly for a renewed Western determination to build up more moderate insurgent groups in Syria as a counter to ISIL expansion in the region.
During a visit to Saudi Arabia last week, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the moderate Syrian opposition has “the ability to be a very important player in pushing back against (the jihadists’) presence.”
And President Obama last month asked the US Congress to approve $500 million to train and equip moderate Syrian insurgents.
But promises have been made before, say rebels and sufficient assistance has never materialized.
The Obama administration worries about potential weapons spillage from moderate and Islamist rebel brigades to ISIL jihadists, who were allied with the Western-approved Free Syrian Army (FSA) until insurgent infighting erupted last winter.
Al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra still cooperates with other rebel groups – both moderates and Islamists – and has been at the center of intense fighting against ISIL since the jihadist group was disowned by al-Qaida leaders.
President Obama Wednesday called Saudi Arabia’s leader King Abdullah to discuss the regional threat the Islamic State in Iraq and the Syria poses.
In their statement this week, the rebel groups also appealed for help from militias in the Islamic Front, an Islamist coalition made up of seven militias that cooperate with the FSA. Islamists are locked in fierce fighting in the Ghouta suburb of Damascus.
One of the front’s leaders, Zahran Alloush, posted a video online this week urging his fighters to remember that when battling ISIL they were battling “dirty bastards, with an evil ideology.”
Fourteen of his fighters have died in the clashes in Ghouta, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based anti-Assad information network that relies on activists on the ground for its information.
The Observatory says also that fighting between anti-IS Kurdish fighters and the jihadist group near the border with Turkey has led to an upsurge in civilians fleeing the villages of Ikhtarin and Rai near the border with Turkey, sparking a “large” exodus of civilians from the area.
Anti-ISIL rebels in Syria say their biggest concern is the flow of arms and heavy equipment—including artillery and Scud missiles—their foes have seized in their rapid drive in northern and western Iraq, the remains of arsenals left by retreating Iraqi security forces.
ISIL has been shifting weapons across combat zones in Syria and Iraq to where the need is greatest.
And with every victory, its arsenal only increases.