If the United States wants to move against jihadists in Syria, there has never been a better time. Tensions between moderate rebel groups and extremist forces are coming to a head across the country.
The potential of a U.S. military strike over the past several weeks -- which mainstream forces largely welcomed, and jihadists, fearing that the United States would target them, opposed -- appears to have exacerbated tensions between the groups. Full-blown clashes broke out in the north and east of the country today, with Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated groups in the city of Deir Ezzor battling with the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Meanwhile, ISIS also launched an offensive on the northern town of Azaz, which lies close to the Turkish border.
The clashes follow an ISIS announcement earlier this week declaring war against the FSA-affiliated Farouk Brigades in Aleppo, along with another moderate rebel brigade. Dubbing its operation "The Repudiation of Malignity," the jihadist group said its offensive was in response to an attack by the brigades against its headquarters in the northern city of al-Bab last week.
ISIS even appears to be picking fights with more radical brigades. The jihadist group reportedly kidnapped nine commanders from the Ahrar Souria group in the northern city of Raqqa on Sept. 12. It also killed a commander from the powerful Ahrar al-Sham militia, after the man objected to ISIS's kidnapping of Malaysian aid workers. In going after Ahrar al-Sham, ISIS is turning a former friend into an enemy: The Salafist group stood by ISIS last month when it clashed with Ahfad al-Rasoul, an FSA-affiliated rebel group, and as popular protests erupted against ISIS.
ISIS's feuding with moderate Syrian rebels seems to be sanctioned by the very top of the al Qaeda hierarchy. In an audio statement last week, al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri warned his followers in Syria to avoid cooperation with "secular groups that are allied to the West."
That's not to say that mainstream rebel groups can afford to shun al Qaeda affiliates entirely. In the absence of an international push to help the opposition, jihadists are still the rebels' most lethal weapon. Jihadist suicide attacks have been responsible for some of the most important strategic gains recently: Rebel groups besieged Mennagh military airbase in Aleppo for more than a year, for example, but were unable to completely capture it -- until ISIS dispatched its suicide bombers on Aug. 5. The same thing happened at the Hamidiya military complex in the northern province of Idlib last month.
But there is no doubt that rebel groups are growing increasingly uneasy with the behavior of al Qaeda affiliates, particularly in rebel-held areas in the country's north and east. Jihadists may be an indispensable asset on the front lines, but their behavior in liberated areas -- where they have kidnapped activists and aid workers, terrorized civilians, and tried to implement an alien form of Islamic law -- is alienating Syrians.
The eastern city of Abu Kamal, close to the Iraqi border, has emerged as a case study of the jihadists' limited appeal. Over the past several months, multiple residents told me that Syrians were growing increasingly restless over the jihadists' presence. They cited their tendency to interfere in people's personal affairs and force their own worldview on residents. But their central complaint was the extremists' focus on maintaining a monopoly over local resources: One resident from Abu Kamal and another from Aleppo told me that jihadists tend to claim anything under government control as spoils of war, from schools to telephone and water facilities.