Militants push anti-Assad rebels close to collapse in Syria

Financial Times: A multi-pronged offensive in Syria by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (known as Isis) is threatening to bring down what is left of the country’s original rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Opposition forces fighting to end four decades of Assad family rule are watching territory they seized being over-run not only by the army and Isis, but even their longtime ally Jabhat al-Nusra. The Syrian al-Qaeda branch, once keen to partner with rebels, appears to be planning its own Islamic enclave as the country’s opposition looks close to collapse.

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“The regime is beating them in Aleppo in the north. Isis has taken Deir Ezzor in the east. And Nusra is gaining strength in Deraa to the south,” says Syrian commentator Hassan Hassan. “There is more need than ever to get together – they feel an existential threat from Isis and Nusra.”

Disparate rebel units that once resisted unification efforts now see a merger as their last chance to survive. The Islamic Front, Syria’s largest Islamist rebel alliance, once sought to lead opposition forces. Now, it is calling for any initiative that could organise the rebels.

Isis is attacking both Syria’s north and east, each with different enemies. In some areas, they are confronting the rebels fighting Assad. In others, they are pushing against Syria’s Kurdish region, which is fighting back hard with the help of Kurdish volunteers now flowing in from neighbouring Turkey, Iraq and even Iran.

Amid the chaos, many disillusioned fighters and activists are leaving Syria. After years of championing the cause, they say months of stalemate between the opposition and Mr Assad have left too many groups clawing for territory for their revolution to be revived.

“I passed through four countries to escape to Turkey: the Islamic State, Bashar al-Assad’s state, the Kurdish state, and the state of Syrian rebel gangs,” says Amir, a fighter who recently fled the Isis takeover of Deir Ezzor and asked not to be identified by his full name.

Now branding itself the Islamic State, Isis says it is re-establishing a caliphate in the region and has moved quickly to seize control of both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border since a surprise June offensive in Iraq seized swaths of territory and military sites.

Isis’s progress in Iraq has stalled, but its forces are still advancing in Syria, as they bring newly captured US-made weapons back over the border.

Syria map

The only force Isis is not actively engaged with is the Assad army – which is advancing in Aleppo in an effort to encircle and blockade the northern city.

In a speech inaugurating his third seven-year term, Mr Assad on Wednesday offered his “condolences” over the Arab uprising and its “backwards” foreign backers, and vowed to return to the territory his army had lost, especially Aleppo.

“Our minds will not be calmed until Aleppo is returned safe and secure,” he told a crowd of supporters in a large white room at the presidential palace, vowing that Raqqa would be “rescued from terrorism”.

Seizing Aleppo would wrest the last major city in Syria out of rebel control. The rebels lost two other cities to Isis. Raqqa, the first provincial capital in Syria to fall out of state control, has long been Isis-controlled. Now 90 per cent of oil-rich Deir Ezzor province, on the eastern border with Iraq, is held by Isis – only an air base and part of the provincial capital remain, and they are controlled by Assad forces. Activists believe the army will soon abandon these areas to Isis as well.

Interactive map

Isis advances through Iraq and Syria

Isis' map

Chart the progress of the jihadi militants as they attempt to gain more ground

Isis advances say as much about its fighters’ capabilities as the disarray among Syria’s rebels. Plagued by infighting, the rebels have been drained of foreign funding as they have confronted better-armed, hardline Islamists. The US and Gulf countries have focused on a few moderate, “vetted” rebel groups, hoping to weaken Islamist popularity.

“The policy of the US, Saudi and other countries of draining resources from other Islamist [rebel] groups is working out – it’s just not working out for Syria or the opposition,” Mr Hassan says.

Dozens of weakened rebel groups have pledged loyalty to Isis as it advances – some fearing for their lives, others attracted by the resources Isis now has. Either way, Isis is accruing more manpower as it pushes on.

As the rebels struggle to remain relevant, Nusra forces are moving south towards the Jordanian border and cementing control of a pocket of northwestern Syria in Idlib province.

“They are fortifying those areas so they can avoid the same fate as Aleppo,” says Tareq Abdelhaq, an Idlib activist with ties to Nusra. “They will create a region appropriate for making an emirate.”

Activists say foreign powers must act now to keep the opposition movement alive.

“This is all about the weapons,” says one activist in Deir Ezzor. “If moderate forces offered as much funding and support as Isis, you’d see a lot of so-called Islamist fighters drinking whisky and saying they are secularists.”