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Rebels take on the regime – and it’s ‘fifth column’ in Syria

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The threat of US intervention is opening up divisions in the opposition even as the regime admits it has reached stalemate, warns Simon Assaf
Issue 2372

The threat of US intervention against Syria has opened deep divisions among rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime. 

The Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS), an organisation allied to al-Qaida, has used the threat of intervention to declare war on rebels.

And those inside the mainstream opposition who welcomed Western intervention have become widely discredited among those fighting on the ground.

There is mounting disillusionment with the Syria National Coalition’s (SNC) strategy of courting outside help. Rebels fear that Western military posturing, and a deal struck with Russia over chemical weapons, is part of a renewed drive for a “Yemen-style solution” in Syria.

That means a negotiated settlement that would end the fighting but keep the regime intact. 

The SNC has backed talks sponsored by Russia and the West in Geneva. The “Geneva initiative” came as Syria’s deputy prime minister admitted the regime can’t win.

He confirmed that its summer offensive has run out of steam and the civil war has reached a bloody stalemate. The war has now become a three-way battle, with increasingly desperate rebels fighting both regime forces and ISIS militants.

For most rebels, ISIS was welcome at first. Its members had proved effective in fighting US occupation in Iraq. But the organisation has little popular support, and faces an increasingly hostile population in liberated areas. 


Senior rebel commanders now complain that they often have to negotiate with Iraqi, Kuwaiti and other foreign Islamists who control the organisation.

In the week following a gas attack on eastern Damascus, ISIS militants abandoned the frontlines. They believed that the US military strike would target them alongside regime forces. 

As the threat of intervention subsided, its militants have not returned to the battle. Instead they are trying to take control over rebel areas. ISIS militants are slipping into towns and villages after local fighters moved out to join battles against the regime.

The organisation has declared its opposition to revolution, targeting leading rebel commanders and activists. This has earned it a reputation as a “fifth column” inside liberated areas.

ISIS has also been heavily criticised for striking deals with the regime—often trading oil with Assad’s forces—and laying claim to property against locals’ will.

It is now at war with Kurdish rebels in the north, free army brigades (FSA), and mainstream Syrian Islamist organisations.

Meanwhile the allegation that rebels were behind the gas attack in August on Damascus has been exposed as a fraud. Shortly after the attack that killed over 1,500 people, a story appeared bylined by a respected Associated Press (AP) journalist and a Syrian “correspondent”. 

It claimed that locals said rebel fighters “mishandled” stocks of sarin provided by Saudi Arabia. The AP journalist has since denied writing the story, and doubts have been cast on the credibility of the second journalist. 

UN weapons inspectors, alongside independent weapons experts, suspect the attack originated from Syrian Republican Guard base. The Assad regime has since admitted it has vast stocks of the weapons.

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