Buried in an interesting account by The Wall Street Journal is this nugget of information (emphasis added):
The Supreme Military Council, led by Gen. Idriss, has been the focus of U.S. efforts to bring a command-and-control structure to rebels–but has now lost to the Islamist extremists most of its ability to operate in some parts of the north.
ISIS fighters recently raided a council arms depot filled with lights [sic] weapons and ammunition, funded by the Gulf states and funneled to the council with the guidance of the Central Intelligence Agency, council members said.
The ISIS is, of course, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, one of two al Qaeda affiliates fighting in Syria. The other is the Al Nusrah Front, which continues to fight alongside its ISIL brethren despite a dispute between the two affiliates’ emirs.
The rest of the WSJ article (“Rebel-on-Rebel Violence Seizes Syria“) is well worth a read and describes how some Free Syrian Army commanders and units are trying to counter al Qaeda’s growing influence. Other outlets have published similar details. This is good news in the sense that it may make it easier to identify specific parts of the FSA that are worth supporting.
The bad news is that al Qaeda’s affiliates dominate significant parts of northern Syria. FSA units that challenge al Qaeda are, by and large, unsuccessful. And as unnamed members of the Supreme Military Council itself have conceded to the WSJ, arms intended to support the most friendly side in this “three-front war” have ended up in one of the wrong side’s hands.
There are a few other pieces of information worth noting in the WSJ account.
First, “ISIS fighters have adopted a strategy of dropping back–taking rear positions–as rebels with the FSA alliance leave for front lines to fight government forces, allowing ISIS to build a presence in towns and villages left without security or services.” In other words, the ISIS is willing to let some FSA rebels die, taking some Assad allied forces with them in the process. All the while the al Qaeda affiliate deepens its roots into rebel-controlled strongholds. Much of those same rebel-controlled areas are already dominated by al Qaeda and its extremist allies.
Second, the WSJ notes that “[e]stimates on the size of ISIS range from 7,000 to 10,000 fighters.” This estimate doesn’t include the Al Nusrah Front, the Mujahireen (Migrants) Brigade, and various other jihadi groups associated with al Qaeda that are fighting inside Syria. Truth be told, no one really knows how many fighters are in each group opposed to Assad. There is an awful lot of guesswork in the public estimates and widely-used terms such as “moderate” and “extremist” are not precisely defined. Moreover, al Qaeda’s affiliates and other groups do not post rosters for the rest of the world to see.
Some, including an Israeli general, have tried to claim that only one fighter out of every 10 is a “radical Sunni jihadi” or an “extremist.” No empirical evidence has been provided to support this argument. And it defies common sense.
If al Qaeda and its allies were really so outnumbered, then unfriendly rebels would have an easier time ejecting the ISIL and Nusrah from rebel-controlled territory. The fact that non-extremist rebels can’t do so is a strong indication that the “extremists” — that is, al Qaeda’s affiliates and their “local” extremist allies — account for far more than 10 percent of the rebellion. The central role al Qaeda’s affiliates have played in much of the fighting throughout the country, not just in the north, suggests their influence goes far beyond the minimalists’ claims as well.
Third, the WSJ reports: “Al Qaeda militants from central command in Pakistan and Pakistani Taliban fighters have also set up operational bases in northern Syria, people familiar with their operations said.”
They have done so because the fight for Syria has become of one al Qaeda’s top priorities. Al Qaeda and affiliated groups are devoting talent and resources to the fight.
Some arms in the hands of FSA commanders we can trust (as opposed to FSA brigades we cannot), will probably fail to stem the tide of the al Qaeda-led coalition’s advances in the north. And that is assuming those arms stay in the “good” rebels’ hands, which isn’t always the case. Supporting some rebel forces is something the US and the West must pursue, but it is also easier said than done.