January 9, 2014
Over the past week, a broad cross-section of Syrian rebel factions has launched a string of coordinated attacks against the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and a-Sham (ISIS) in northern Syria. The Islamic Front and FSA-aligned brigades have cooperated in the operations, ousting ISIS fighters from a number of positions including a major base in an Aleppo children’s hospital. The fighting follows a period of mounting tension between ISIS and other rebel groups, punctuated by the kidnapping, torture and killing of Hussein al-Suleimani, a doctor and commander in Ahrar a-Sham—one of the Islamic Front’s seven component militias—prompting the Islamic Front to accuse ISIS of being “worse than the Assad regime.”
Faysal Itani is a fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, where his work focuses on political economy and transition in the Arab world, with a particular focus on the Syrian conflict and its regional impact.
ISIS, Itani tells Syria Direct’s Alex Simon, was never going to be a contender to rule Syria, “but they did get alarmingly far.”
Q: What do you think triggered the rebel operations against ISIS over the last week?
It’s been brewing for a long time. These guys have managed to alienate a broad section of Islamist and non-Islamist factions, not to mention the poor population that’s had to live with them. And at the same time they’ve got the regime as enemies, and the Iraqis, and the Saudis—they were never going to be able to pull it off, but they did get alarmingly far. But if you look at the Twitterverse of jihadist supporters, they seem to be in a panic. They weren’t prepared for this.
Q: To what extent does this change military dynamics in the North? Will the regime benefit from the rebel infighting?
You could see it in a myopic sense, in that anything that smells of rebel infighting is good for Assad, but I think it’s more complicated than that. The trend you’ve been seeing over the past sixth months is a rationalization of the insurgency and war effort, and a shift toward a somewhat more strategic approach. The coordinated attacks on ISIS are a good example of this; while distracting from the fight against the regime in the short-term, it is on the balance beneficial to the long-term political and military struggle. The more consolidated the rebels get, the more difficult it becomes to defeat them.
Q: Could the rebels suffer from losing ISIS’ battlefield prowess?
I don’t think so. I think losing Jabhat a-Nusra would be a setback. Losing ISIS, I’m not sure. It’s true that they’ve been effective in frontline combat, particularly their use of suicide bombings, but they’re only five, six, seven thousand people. What they’ve been very good at is holding territory; they’ve almost prioritized that, though it would be unfair to say that’s all they’ve been doing. They also control some streams of income from oil fields, from smuggling, from extortion, and that’s something that other rebel groups can capture. Also, from a PR perspective, ISIS was hurting the rebels immensely. They can live without ISIS—this is good for the rebellion.
Q: So could this be a starting point for more effective, coordinated rebel action in the north?
This level of coordinated action is difficult to sustain, but I think a trend toward consolidation and unity of purpose will increase. Another interesting question is, after ISIS gets marginalized, which I think it will, what happens to what’s left of the FSA? You know what happened with the Bab al-Hawa crossing, where the Islamic Front captured the SMC warehouse; it was sort of friendly, but not. The message was, “here’s the way the balance of power is—let’s not fight.” I wonder if that’s something we’re going to see happen across the board with anybody who isn’t part of the Islamic Front, particularly in the northern and central areas.
Q: Changing gears, I wanted your thoughts on the ongoing battle in Qalamoun. How important is it, particularly relative to the battle for Qusayr over the summer?
It’s more important than Qusayr. Qusayr was partly psychological, just to stem the momentum of the rebellion, and partly something Hezbollah needed to do. Qalamoun is a supply line for the rebels into Lebanon, and gives strategic depth for the rebellion adjacent to Damascus.
It’s important, but unless the rebels lose something like Aleppo, or the southern front collapses, none of these victories is enough to turn the tide of the battle. Most likely is some sort of consolidation and rationalization of front lines; pockets of rebel forces are being ironed out. That’s the easy stuff, to go into rebel territory and fight the urban war, that stuff is hard. That’s stuff the regime hasn’t been very good at.
Q: Do you see that the fighting in Qalamoun could precipitate more sustained ripple effects in Lebanon?
The problem that the rebels face if they want to operate in Lebanon is that Hezbollah is very effective in controlling much of the country, and the Lebanese army coordinates quite closely with Hezbollah. There’s also a big faction of the Lebanese army that either coordinates with or is sympathetic with the regime in Syria. So rebels are operating in an extremely unfavorable environment in Lebanon, and that’s their constraint. If the army comes under unsustainable pressure, I could see the situation getting more unstable. As it is right now, I think you’re going to see more of the same, more bombs in Dahiya, things of this sort. That’s going to be hard to get rid of. I’m sure Hezbollah stops 80% of this, but it’s not possible to completely secure the entire South Beirut area or the Bekaa.
Q: Do you see that Hezbollah has retained its main support base in Lebanon despite spillover violence?
Yes. Their capital with Lebanese Shia is very very strong. Their efforts to turn this narrative into the takfiris versus everybody else, including the Christians and the Shia, have been successful. And somebody coming and blowing himself up in Dahiya is not a reason for a Lebanese Shiite to say “that’s it, no more”—as far as they see it, this is exactly the reason they’re fighting in Syria.
Hezbollah’s control over the Shia in Lebanon is very tight, and their tolerance for dissent is zero. Other Lebanese can say whatever they want, and Hezbollah doesn’t care. But Shia? That’s not allowed. It’s enormously difficult to be an anti-Hezbollah Shia in Lebanon. They take care of their people. If you lose a son fighting in Qalamoun, Hezbollah will send you eighty thousand dollars and make sure your kids are taken care of for the rest of their lives. They know what they’re doing.
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