As moderate rebels beat back Islamist radicals in Syria, Assad gains.
IDLIB PROVINCE, Syria — I drove across northern Syria this winter under the protection of the Free Syrian Army (FSA): There were three cars in our convoy and a total of seven fighters, carrying AK-47 machine guns and grenades in their pockets. As we proceeded on our journey, we passed towns and villages controlled by the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) nestled along the northern border with Turkey and further to the south. "Those calling for democracy are an enemy of Islam," read one of the group's slogans plastered on the walls we passed. "There's no hope for people who have the Quran, but don't appreciate it," read another.
What would normally be a two-hour journey was transformed into a seven-hour ordeal as we took routes designed to avoid the numerous ISIS checkpoints dotting the roads. We passed the town of al-Atareb, where the jihadists' black flag fluttered atop a hill dominating the village. While both ISIS and FSA were present in the town at that point in December, their co-existence was uneasy: The month prior, it had been the site of the execution of seven fighters from the FSA battalion of Ghurabaa al-Sham, including their leader Hassan Jazarah -- a brutal act meant to show ISIS's strength, and cow the more moderate rebels into silence.
Large swaths of the northern Idlib and Aleppo provinces fell under the control of ISIS toward the end of 2013, as moderate rebels were busy fighting the regime. ISIS exploited the fractured nature of the battalions in this region, quickly becoming too large for any single group to face alone. It first targeted small rebel groups that did not have the protection of other battalions, seizing the towns of Azaz, ad-Dana, and Atmeh -- all three of which lie strategically near the Turkish border.
As it expanded across northern Syria, ISIS's main aim was to prevent rival rebels from getting supplies of arms and ammunition from Turkey. This was would allow them to slowly strangle any efforts to block their project to establish an Islamic caliphate solely under their control.
Three months later, it has become clear that ISIS has failed. A broad alliance of rebel battalions across northern Syria has united to drive the extremist group from many of the cities and towns formerly under its control, leaving it holed up in the city of Raqqa, one of its last remaining strongholds.
In other parts of the country, the Syrian regime has gained territory from the opposition. Most recently, it seized the city of Yabroud, along the border of Lebanon -- the latest in a string of successes that has seen the regime significantly strengthen its hold on the western part of the country and the capital. But even as these setbacks have dimmed hopes that Bashar al-Assad's fall is imminent, the routing of ISIS represents one of the bright spots of the Syrian uprising over the past several months.
* * *
I had entered Syria on the invitation of several rebel commanders, who were organizing the first effort that pushed the radicals from much of northern Syria. On Christmas Day, 17 FSA commanders came together for the first time to discuss ISIS's expanding influence and its negative impact on their battle with the Syrian regime. The meeting was held in the northern al-Zawiyah mountains, a stronghold of moderate rebels in the area.
Despite fears of opening a second front, all the commanders present agreed on the importance of defeating ISIS in continuing the battle with the regime. The commanders' main fear was ISIS's effort to control al-Atareb. The town consisted of roughly 70,000 people before the uprising, and is strategically located about halfway between the Turkish border and the city of Aleppo -- making it a popular junction for those traveling across the northern provinces. Losing the town would deal the FSA a double defeat: It would cut their supply routes from across the northern border with Turkey, and trap their fighters between ISIS fighters to the north and Assad's forces to the south.
The meeting resulted in the establishment of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF), a moderate rebel alliance consisting of roughly 17 factions. The fighters present at the meeting elected as their leader Jamal Maarouf, the head of the Syrian Martyrs' Brigade, who spoke about his vision for Syria's future. He said that he intended to form a national army to secure the country after the fall of Assad, arguing that it would be necessary to prevent chaos after the inevitable fall of the regime. Thus, the decision was taken to start training a force of 3,000 to 4,000 fighters, who would spearhead the battle against ISIS.
"ISIS is infecting our battle," Maarouf said. "While our fighters are on the front, fighting the regime troops, it comes and controls our areas. ISIS did that in the whole north -- they didn't gain any city from the regime, all of their areas are the ones we liberated."
But as Maarouf and his allies prepared their offensive, ISIS was tightening its control over northern Syria. Accompanied by fighters from the Ninth Division, a rebel force based nearby, I circled back to al-Atareb, where I was able to sneak in without ISIS's knowledge. The radical group was clearly gaining the upper hand against its rivals: ISIS fighters manned checkpoints throughout the town, women had largely disappeared from the streets, and the group's black flag predominated while the revolutionary flag had largely disappeared.
While I was trying to secretly film, ISIS called the civilians of the city to attend a rally. ISIS fighters handed out juice, and organized a Quran-reading competition for children. The winners of the contest -- those who had memorized the Quran the best -- were given the equivalent of $50.
The rally was also an effort to bolster ISIS's ranks of fighters. The rebels with whom I traveled noted with surprise that the ISIS recruiters had previously belonged to their own groups. As the ISIS spokesman called on citizens to join the group, he openly insulted other battalions: "When you pay homage to ISIS, it means that you accept to fight wherever I will send you, be it in Deir ez-Zor or Khan Toman," he said. "We do not want a mess like other FSA battalions."
The rally visibly scared the rebels who I was with -- they did not expect that ISIS would show hostility to them so openly and quickly. "It's hilarious, these bastards are winning the support of simple people by using Islam and they try their best to infect our reputation," said Lt. Hazem, one of the leaders of the SRF-affiliated Ninth Division. "We have to work fast to stop them, or they will turn people against us."
Hazem's fears that ISIS was on the cusp of completely dominating the city were justified. On Jan. 3, a week after the SRF was formed, ISIS attacked other rebel groups in al-Atareb and managed to control the city within hours. But this time, the group had overreached -- its capture of the city set off a chain of events that would see the jihadists badly bloodied throughout northern Syria.
By sunset of Jan. 3, the rebels in the Regiment 46 base, a former Syrian Army stronghold several miles outside al-Atareb, began a counterattack to regain control of the city. The situation on the ground evolved quickly from there: While the rebels were able to wrest the town from the group's control, ISIS managed to flank the SRF's base outside of the village and seize it.
For Hazem, the rebels' success at preventing the capture of the city was worth the loss of their base. "If we let them control al-Atareb, they would have continued to recruit and it was only going to be a matter of time until they control the base," he said. "For us, it was the turning point in the strategy of the battle to not allow them to increase their numbers."
In the next few days, the SRF and their allies launched massive attacks on ISIS positions throughout Aleppo and Idlib, forcing them away from the north and back toward their strongholds in the east.
* * *
Over the past several months, Salafist and jihadist groups have gradually joined the SRF's struggle against ISIS -- forming a broad coalition against the extremist group that transcends ideological and political lines.
During the first days of the battle, groups like the Islamic Front and Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda's official affiliate in Syria, declared their neutrality in the conflict. The Islamic Front suggested an initiative where Islamic scholars would mediate between the parties on the basis of sharia, while Jabhat al-Nusra offered ISIS fighters amnesty if they defected from the group to join them.
ISIS, however, refused all initiatives to end the conflict and threatened to use suicide attacks against its enemies. As the SRF began making gains, the Islamic Front decided to participate in the battles within the areas under its influence.
The battle lasted throughout January, with the rebels managing to take control of all of Idlib province and the majority of Aleppo, except for the towns of Azaz and al-Bab. ISIS displayed little resistance in the fighting: "They thought it's a battle with amateurs," said Hazem. "We have been fighting the regime for two years and we won great street wars while they were just stealing our efforts, idiots!"
Even Jabhat al-Nusra became involved in the conflict following ISIS's assassination of Abu Khaled al-Souri, a former associate of Osama bin Laden and one of the most important leaders of the global jihad movement. As al Qaeda's official representative in Syria -- and someone who had tried to mediate disagreements between jihadist groups -- Souri was held in particular esteem by Jabhat al-Nusra. The jihadist group's leader, Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, gave ISIS a five-day ultimatum to accept the mediation of a sharia court to resolve the dispute -- if ISIS refused the offer, he said, his group would confront it in Iraq and Syria.
However, the deadline passed without any reaction from Jabhat al-Nusra. That doesn't mean the conflict has been resolved: ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani subsequently exacerbated the dispute by accusing Joulani and the rest of the factions of treason.
The SRF commanders also felt betrayed by the meager support from Western powers, which did not supply the rebels with arms and ammunition during the battle. Ten days passed since the beginning of their battle with ISIS without any support, leading the rebels to believe that the United States and Europe wanted to see both sides weakened in this battle.
The operations against ISIS eventually stopped at the city of Raqqa, which is now considered the radicals' main stronghold. The rebels do not want to further drain their strength with another costly battle against ISIS unless the West decides to support them with ammunition. Small shipments of weapons were supplied by Qatar and Saudi Arabia during the January battles, but the arms did not arrive at regular intervals.
The regime has gained territory in this war in recent months, most notably in the western part of the country. However, these fighters believe that the key to reversing the tide of the battle lies in defeating the radicals within their midst.
"Every time we were about to launch a major attack against the regime, ISIS was creating some troubles in the north and stopped our battles," Hazem said. "Once we defeat ISIS, we will continue the battle against the regime -- today ISIS, tomorrow Assad, with God's will."