BEIRUT — At least 2,300 rebels and jihadists have been slain in the past month battling each other in northern Syria, and with both of the warring sides scoring successes and suffering setbacks there are few signs that either is ready for a truce, say analysts.
The rebel infighting erupted in early January between a loose alliance of moderates and Islamists and the ruthless jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a onetime al-Qaida affiliate, also commonly known as ISIS.
The internecine rebel struggle has weakened the three-year-long uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, allowing government forces to launch offensives around the city of Aleppo and in the mountainous Qalamon region near the border with Lebanon.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last week admitted in an interview with the American cable news channel CNN that Bashar al-Assad has gained ground militarily in recent weeks. “It’s fair to say that Assad has improved his position a little bit, yes,” acknowledged Kerry.
But the American politician insisted the Syrian President “is still not winning.”
ISIS fighters triggered the war within the civil war after carrying out a string of assassinations of high-profile moderate and Islamist rebel commanders. Disputes over territory and the division of captured and smuggled weapons added further motives to the clash, say rebel commanders. The rough justice—including beheadings and floggings—meted out to civilians by mainly foreign ISIS fighters for infractions of their strict Sharia law code prompted increasing anger across rebel-held towns in northern Syria.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the UK-headquartered anti-Assad monitoring group that relies for its information on a network of Syria-based activists, ISIS has lost about half of its bases across northern Syria and Monday the jihadist group withdrew from parts of Syria’s oil-rich eastern province of Deir ez-Zor, one of their strongholds, after three days of fighting.
ISIS activists said on the social media site Twitter that they only pulled out to prevent further bloodshed but on their withdrawal opposition activists say the jihadists summarily executed an unspecified number of detainees, including a judge. Rebel fighters are also reported to have done the same to a number of ISIS militants captured during the fighting, says the Syrian Observatory.
But while ISIS suffered setback in Deir ez-Zor the group has managed to regain full control of another one of its strongholds, the town of Raqqa, according to Al Hayat newspaper.
Analysts argue the rebel infighting that has been marked by seesawing battles has some way to go before a conclusion may be reached. ISIS fighters have been adept at employing hit-and-run tactics, including suicide bombings, and withdrawing when outnumbered only to return to positions later when their foes have reduced their forces. Strategic withdrawals and returns have been seen in the towns of Jarabulus and al-Bab and also parts of Eastern rural Aleppo.
Says Charles Lister, a terrorism expert with the U.S. think tank the Brookings Institution, “ ISIS is already days into a deadly and strategically effective campaign of suicide and car bombings targeting its opponents. Such targeted attacks, particularly in northern Syria, have been aimed at weakening opponents’ key strategic strong points and command and control structures.”
He adds: “In the immediate term, all of this is damaging to the Syrian revolution. Any extent of inter-factional fighting simply represents the expenditure of valuable resources on objectives distinct from fighting the Assad government. So long as it continues, these inter-group hostilities make any kind of provincial, let alone national, opposition victory in Syria highly unlikely.”
Last week, al-Qaida’s top leadership took the unprecedented step with an affiliate and disavowed ISIS, saying in an announcement posted online that it no longer had any connections with the group and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has clashed publicly with al-Qaida’s overall leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Another al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, remained initially on the sidelines in the rebel infighting but has recently joined in the battles against ISIS and on February 9 its leader ordered his fighters to redouble their efforts against their former comrades. His order was posted on jihadi websites.
With the rebel infighting continuing apace U.S. Senator John McCain has urged the Obama administration to do more to assist moderate insurgents in Syria with arms supplies.
But analyst Paul Pillar, a former CIA official and now a professor at Georgetown University in Washington DC, has urged caution. “There is little the West can do to induce greater moderation among the Syrian rebels,” he says. “Hard-core jihadists will continue to be exactly that no matter what Western powers do. The fact that they populate some of the most effective groups in waging war against the regime reflects a common pattern in civil wars in which the most zealous participants, who also tend to be the ones with most extreme views, are the most effective in fighting.”