June 1, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State Moves Against Syrian Rebels

• The Islamic State made an unexpected and successful move against rebel groups north of Aleppo, Syria, disrupting their momentum against the Assad regime

• This most recent fighting is not just more of the same but a sign of a coming battle between the Syrian rebel coalition, in which Jabhat al-Nusra plays a leading role, and the Islamic State

• Reports of reduced Russian support for the Assad regime coincide with increased pressure against the regime by both the rebel coalition and the Islamic State

• In a civil war of endless turning points, this summer’s fighting could be the end of one phase of fighting and the start of a much longer battle.


One of the best tactics of the Islamic State is to attack to distract—to throw off building pressure in one area by attacking in another. As with its Bayji assault earlier in May that set up the group’s attack on Ramadi, this weekend saw a tactical Islamic State offensive in northern Aleppo that might have larger strategic implications. The Syrian civil war won’t be ending anytime soon but the way in which it will end is being determined now. The echoes of these current battles will last longer than hostilities, as they will likely set the parameters for future peace talks. The stability of the Middle East depends on how the seemingly meaningless jockeying for positioning plays out in the coming months.

During his interview on Al Jazeera last week, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, head of al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, complained that fighting with rival Islamic State took away from the larger rebel efforts against the Assad regime. The Islamic State proved him correct this weekend with a surprisingly effective assault against rebel positions in northern Aleppo, a key area for both the regime and the rebels. The group gained control, however temporary, of the towns of Sawran and closer to Mari’a. These advances place the Islamic State closer to the Turkish border, which will be more important in future fighting. Now instead of pushing west into Latikiyah, a coastal Assad stronghold, the rebel coalition has to contend with a newly assertive Islamic State in Aleppo.

A strength of the Islamic State for years has been to go on the offensive when it might be expected to be on the defensive. Their limitations aside, the coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq have hurt the group. But the air campaign can’t stop the group from taking advantage of conditions on the ground, and they weren’t designed to; the airstrikes were meant to buy time at an exceedingly expensive cost-to-benefit ratio. Time, however, is running out.

The Islamic State has done quite well in southern Syria, and around its centrally located capital Raqqa. However, it has been on a losing streak in Idlib and around Aleppo. Its success now in northern Aleppo is a reversal, however temporary, of recent trends. The timing is as important as the victory. The rebel coalition, including groups such as Northern Storm and the Free Syrian Army as well as Jabhat al-Nusra, is on the offensive against the Assad regime on the ground and in propaganda, both of which are important.

The next stage of the Syrian civil war will be over who gets to have the final fight against the Assad regime. Al-Nusra has made it clear that it won’t be used as a fighting tool only to be sidelined in Syria’s future—despite the hopes of other relatively moderate rebel groups hoping to leverage its fighting ability but not its extremism. The Islamic State has no such worries as it fights every enemy to achieve its apocalyptic caliphate; it doesn’t build coalitions so much as attack them in order to splinter them and solidify gains.

The coming battles for Syria between Jabhat al-Nusra and the rebels against the Islamic State and then between one of those groups against the Assad regime matter far beyond the borders between Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon. The future of the Middle East depends on the future of Syria and Iraq, and it is being decided now.


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