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The most powerful rebel alliance in Syria -- the Islamic Front -- is on the verge of collapse.

Two developments took place in the past month that point to remarkable changes within Syria's Islamist landscape. In early February, al Qaeda's central leadership disavowed the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) -- a favor ISIS repaid a few weeks later, when it launched a suicide attack that killed al Qaeda's representative in the country, Abu Khalid al-Suri.

The killing of Abu Khalid, a longtime comrade of both current al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden and also one of the founders of Syria's powerful Salafi group Ahrar al-Sham, seems destined to cause an escalation in rebel groups' efforts to drive ISIS out of the country. Shortly after Abu Khalid's death, Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda's official affiliate in Syria, gave the rival jihadi group a five-day deadline to end infighting or be expelled from Syria and Iraq.

But while the killing of Abu Khalid has rallied many groups against ISIS, the ongoing infighting has also polarized jihadists -- and called into question the survival of what had been the single strongest rebel alliance, the Islamic Front. The Salafi alliance appears to be crumbling as its members adopt different policies on whether to confront ISIS. As a result, senior Free Syrian Army commanders believe they have an opening to regain their preeminence as the strongest anti-Assad force on the ground.

Several Islamic Front brigades have been weakened by deep internal divisions over how to handle ISIS. The formerly powerful rebel brigade Suqour al-Sham, for example, has now been reduced to a minor faction after two of its most powerful factions defected. The brigade made the fatal mistake of first aligning itself with the Free Syrian Army to fight ISIS -- but then, after other members of the Islamic Front joined the battle, signing a truce with ISIS. Its two constituent parts that left, Liwa Dawoud and Liwa Siyoof al-Haqqa, were sympathetic to ISIS; Liwa Dawoud first joined the jihadi group outright, but on Feb. 18, formed a new alliance that distanced itself from both the Islamic Front and ISIS.

Two top rebel leaders told Foreign Policy that the Islamic Front had collapsed in all but name. Speaking from northern Idlib governorate, Col. Haitham Afisa, the Free Syrian Army's newly-appointed deputy head, said that Islamic Front members recognize the failure of the alliance, but due to the fact that they present themselves as the most powerful alliance in Syria, they fear that its official demise would incur significant financial and political costs. He added that part of the challenge for the Islamic Front has been that many of its fighters required religious rulings to fight fellow jihadists in ISIS. "Each one needed a fatwa," he said.

Ahrar al-Sham has also been riven by disagreements over what to do about ISIS. Some of its factions, for example, manned checkpoints with the jihadi group, while others were furious at ISIS for killing their commanders. The unprecedented polarization in the wake of the continuing jihadi infighting has revealed these fault lines, and the sand seems to be slowly shifting underneath the Islamic Front as a result.

In the wake ofAbu Khalid's killing, the reluctance to fight ISIS may wane. The al Qaeda representative had tried to avoid infighting at any cost: At the height of the battles against ISIS, for example, he signed a truce allowing the jihadi group's fighters to cross freely into the Aleppo countryside. The truce upset many Islamic Front fighters, who criticized it for deviating from the alliance's broader position. Ahrar al-Sham justified it by saying clashes with ISIS in that area would place the Jarrah military base at risk of being captured by the regime's forces.

For all jihadi groups, except ISIS, the overriding priority had been to safeguard jihad from any internal and external threats -- that's why al Qaeda central disavowed the group and why al Qaeda's official faction in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, joined the fighting against ISIS. According to sources close to Ahrar al-Sham fighters, members long pushed for confrontation with the rival group, but top leaders such as Abu Khalid had repeatedly refused. Now, with his removal from the military scene, the voices calling for a confrontation may win out.

On the ground, the Islamic Front is increasingly checked by emerging rebel alliances. In the Idlib countryside, Jaish al-Sham is emerging as a strong rival, while in Aleppo and its countryside, Jaish al-Mujahideen enjoys a strong presence. In the areas surrounding Damascus, the presence of the radical alliance Ajnad al-Sham, which was formed on Dec. 6, almost matches that of the Islamic Front's Jaish al-Islam. In other provinces, including Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, Hasaka, and Deraa, the Islamic Front is hardly a dominant force.

According to one rebel commander from Idlib, the continuing infighting has proved that the influence of the Islamic Front had been greatly exaggerated. Despite the fact that its fighting strength had been estimated at between 40,000 to 70,000 fighters, the alliance has been unable to decisively expel ISIS from areas under its control. The group has been hindered by the reluctance of many of its fighters to join the battles against ISIS, as well as the decision of others to leave the alliance.

Jihadi infighting is set to intensify in the days and weeks ahead, and polarization will continue to shape the landscape. In his statement on Feb. 25, Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Joulani threatened ISIS that "hundreds of brothers in Iraq" are ready to face it down there -- perhaps a confirmation of rumors that Jabhat al-Nusra plans to form a rival group in Iraq.

These ideological realignments within Syria's jihadi sphere are still fluid and unpredictable. But the deterioration of the Islamic Front, together with the weakening of ISIS and the rise of moderate groups like the Syrian Revolutionary Front, has leveled the playing field somewhat among the different ideological groupings. And as a result, Free Syrian Army commanders see this as a perfect opportunity to rise again. They hope to convince relatively moderate rebel brigades, like Liwa al-Tawhid, to rejoin their cause.

"We do not want the Islamic Front to be weakened," Colonel Afisa told me. "But if other groups see that the [Free Syrian Army] is effective, many will rejoin us."

Photo: BARAA AL-HALABI/AFP/Getty Images


Gas Attack?

Markets are spiking because of fears Putin will use energy as a weapon. Here's why he won't.

European energy markets are worried about the impact Russia's invasion of the Crimean peninsula, and the threat it poses to the rest of Ukraine, could have on the continent's supply of natural gas. But past is not always prologue -- and while Russia has used natural gas as a cudgel scores of times since the end of the Soviet Union, its ability to cow Europe by withholding energy exports is not what it used to be. In fact, Russia and gas giant Gazprom depend as much on Europe as Europe does on them.

Natural gas prices in Europe rocketed Monday as the military and diplomatic standoff in Ukraine escalated. Officials from Ukraine's gas company said Monday that there have been no physical supply disruptions since the Russian military incursion into Crimea, but gas prices jumped 10 percent in trading in the U.K. and the Netherlands, and more than 8 percent in Germany. Traders focused on a pair of simple facts: Russia's gas exports to Europe reached record highs in 2013, and about half of that was shipped through transit pipelines that crisscross Ukraine.

Worries over the fate of those natural gas supplies are certainly understandable. Russia has shown in the past twenty years how eager it is to use energy exports as a weapon, cutting off gas supplies at one time or another more than 40 times. Russian neighbors such as Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova, and Azerbaijan have all faced threats of Russian energy cutoffs as they flirted with pro-European policies in the past few years. Lithuania's prime minister accused Russia of waging "economic war" last September after Moscow threatened gas supplies and interfered with cross-border trade, apparently to punish the Baltic country for seeking closer ties with other EU countries.

Ukraine itself suffered a pair of painful gas shutoffs in 2006 and 2009 because of contract disputes with Russia, both of which affected downstream European customers. Ukraine has dramatically increased the amount of gas it is buying from Russia in recent days, but that seems motivated less by a desire to fill gas storage facilities and more by the fear that Moscow will make good on threats to jack up gas prices for Ukraine in the second quarter of this year. Moscow slashed gas prices for Ukraine in December as part of its effort to woo then-President Viktor Yanukovych away from Europe and toward Russia

Still, Russia would almost certainly lose more in an energy war with Europe than it would gain. Fundamentally, energy trade between Russia and Europe is a two-way street. As much as European policymakers fret about dependence on Russian gas, Gazprom frets about dependence on the European market, which accounts for fully three-quarters of its export sales. More broadly, Moscow relies on oil and gas exports for one half of its federal budget. That makes a prolonged shut off of gas exports to Ukraine and the rest of Europe a dangerous proposition for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"There are always costs to Russia playing the energy card, but I think those costs now are higher than they were a couple of years ago," Jeffrey Mankoff of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told Foreign Policy.

The other reason Russia might think twice about using energy as a weapon this time around is that Europe has improved its defenses and isn't as vulnerable to Russian energy blackmail as it was just a few years -- or even a few months -- ago.

First, spring is nearly here. In 2006 and 2009, Russia cut off gas supplies to Ukraine, and by extension to the rest of Europe, in January, the coldest part of the winter. The current crisis is taking place in the spring, when natural gas supplies drop dramatically because of lower levels of residential heating. Forecasters expect unseasonably warm temperatures to continue across Europe until at least summer.

Second, that warm spring is coming after an unusually mild winter in Europe, though certainly not in North America. Natural gas stocks across the continent at are their highest levels in years: inventories on hand could supply central European countries such as Germany, Austria, Hungary and Poland for two to three months, Reuters noted Monday. While that wouldn't provide insulation against a long-term gas supply crisis with Russia, it gives European countries the ability to hold out against short-term threats.

At the same time, Europe has more alternate sources of supply than it did in 2006 or 2009, though they're not cheaper. The global trade in liquefied natural gas has grown in recent years, with more shipments from big exporters such as Qatar and Australia. The U.S. energy boom, which turned the United States from prospective natural gas importer to hopeful natural gas exporter, has also freed up LNG volumes that have landed in Western Europe. Some lawmakers in the United States want to go even further and are pressing for the Obama administration to use the country's natural gas bounty to bolster allies overseas.

Rep. Michael Turner (R.-Ohio) on Monday repeated calls for the Congress to pass legislation that would fast-track government approval for gas exports to countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

"As we have seen before, Russia's actions in Ukraine demonstrate its willingness to use the threat of military force and energy dominance as political weapons to expand its sphere of influence," Turner told FP. "Increasing natural gas exports would provide our allies with an alternative and reliable source of natural gas," he said.

Given gas storage and warm weather ahead, energy experts figure that Gazprom is actually in the weaker position. "Unlike Ukraine and European importers, the state-controlled Russian giant cannot afford losing a third of its monthly export revenue even for one month," Mikhail Korchemkin, head of consultancy East European Gas Analysis, wrote Monday. While markets were nervous about the price of gas, they also hammered Gazprom stock on Monday, sending shares down more than 13 percent in Moscow and London.

Ironically, Russian efforts to play hardball with Europe over Ukraine could actually make it even more difficult to find new customers for Russian energy that could make the European market less important. For more than a decade, Moscow and Beijing have been trying to come to terms on what seems like a natural deal: Energy-rich Russia could export more oil and gas to energy-hungry China.

However, the two sides have yet to agree on a price for Russian gas. The deal that was meant to be wrapped up by the beginning of the year was pushed back to February, and finally to a summit meeting slated for May. The more time passes, especially if there's trouble in Gazprom's main market, the better negotiating position the Chinese will have.

"If they have problems in Europe, that will only make the Chinese intransigent in terms of their position on the price issue," Mankoff said.

Alexander Nemenov - AFP - Getty