Gains by Assad and Islamic State Leave Syrian Rebels Down, but Not Out

Gains by Assad and Islamic State Leave Syrian Rebels Down, but Not Out
Iraqi security forces hold a flag of the Islamic State group they captured during an operation outside Amirli, Iraq, Sept. 1, 2014 (AP photo).

IRBIL, Iraq—Syria’s moderate rebels are in trouble. Nearly encircled in their main bastion of Aleppo by the forces of Bashar al-Assad’s government and under pressure by Islamic State fighters, they are also weakened by internal rifts and little external support. Yet they are still fighting back, and the strength of their enemies may be exaggerated.

The most immediate threat is coming from militants of the Islamic State—also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS—emboldened by their looting of American weaponry earlier this summer and an influx of Sunni fighters in Iraq. The Islamic State recently took over a string of villages in northern Aleppo province—Akhtarin, Dabiq, Turkmanbareh, Ghouz and Masoudiyeh—which surround much of the rebel stronghold of Marea, north of Aleppo. That threatens to cut off the rebels from their key supply route to the Turkish border crossing of Bab al-Salama. Islamic State fighters are within 20 miles of the key town of Azaz, just south of the border, and reportedly gained the allegiance of some 300 rebel fighters in the town of al-Bab.

Facing them are the relatively moderate Islamic Front; Harakat Hazm, a group that has received American anti-tank missiles; Jaish al-Mujahidin, an alliance that was formed earlier this year specifically to battle ISIS; and some smaller groups. The Islamic State’s main rival, the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, has mostly retreated into Idlib province to the west, as has the much weakened Salafist movement of Ahrar al-Sham, which was once described as the largest rebel organization of all. The Islamic Front, a once promising union of various large brigades, is also riven by internal problems. Most of these groups suffer from supply problems as no large-scale Western support has been forthcoming, despite repeated promises by the Obama administration. Their coordination remains mostly weak.

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.