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Apr 3, 2013 | 10:00 GMT

3 mins read

Infighting Threatens the Syrian Rebels' Progress

JM LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

Despite consistent territorial gains, disunity and interfactional strife continue to threaten the wider rebel effort to topple the regime of Bashar al Assad. With the help of accelerated arms shipments from across the Jordanian border, rebel forces have begun to seize and hold towns and villages in the south. Disparate rebel groups in a number of areas have successfully united their efforts, particularly at the governorate level, but the dispute between the al-Farouq Brigade and Jabhat al-Nusra has continued to fester.

Given that al-Farouq and al-Nusra are among the most effective rebel units in the war for Syria, their dispute has far-reaching consequences for the rebel cause. The situation is compounded by the fact that both groups maintain subunits across the country, increasing the chances that infighting in one region could spread to others and undermine the rebel cause as a whole.

The rebels on March 29 overran the last loyalist checkpoints in Dael, Daraa governorate. Daraa governorate is the birthplace of the revolution and an area with a significant loyalist presence. The capture of Dael, which sits along the strategic Highway 5 to Damascus from the south, further isolates the remaining loyalist forces in Daraa city, which is itself witnessing a significant rebel push. Rebels have continued to make advances in the south and have conducted mopping up operations in Raqqa governorate while sustaining offensive operations in and around Aleppo and Idlib. The recent successes are reminiscent of the period in 2012 when rebels in Idlib governorate steadily grew in strength until they could not only take over territory but also defend it from the regime's counter attacks.

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However, the dispute between the al-Farouq Brigade and Jabhat al-Nusra threatens to undo all of the rebels' gains. The Muslim Brotherhood supports and funds al-Farouq, and the two espouse similar ideologies. Meanwhile, al-Nusra, its ranks comprising Salafist jihadists, is more extremist. Their dispute began when Thaer al-Waqqas, the leader of the al-Farouq Brigade's northern command, was shot dead on the Syria-Turkey border Jan. 9, having been accused of involvement in the killing of al-Nusra subcommander Firas al-Absi in September 2012. Before tensions got out of control, leaders of both groups worked quickly to resolve the crisis, understanding that disunity among their ranks would be detrimental to their ultimate objective of toppling al Assad.

However, the crisis returned to the fore in late March when Mohammad al-Daher, al-Farouq's commander in the northeast, was wounded in a firefight at an al-Nusra checkpoint while purportedly trying to convince al-Nusra to release some previously detained al-Farouq fighters. The situation once again came perilously close to boiling over, with Time reporting that elements of five al-Farouq units abandoned the fight against the regime in Idlib and Aleppo to head east toward the border crossing of Tel Abyad, near where al-Daher was wounded.

Once again, both sides' leadership moved swiftly to contain the incident. Jabhat al-Nusra released the al-Farouq fighters, withdrew from several positions in Tel Abyad as a gesture of good will and called for a Sharia court to help resolve the dispute peacefully. However, a permanent solution is unlikely. In the short term, the rebels will strive to avoid serious disputes as best they can in order not to be defeated by the still powerful loyalist forces. But as they continue to reduce the loyalist threat, both sides (as well as other rebel factions) will seek to improve their own position in anticipation of the fight for post-al Assad Syria. Indeed, it is not a coincidence that both cases of serious fighting between al-Nusra and al-Farouq occurred at or near lucrative border crossings far from the front lines.

A Syrian lawmaker from Daraa took the floor of parliament March 28 and unexpectedly announced during a live broadcast that the army was falling back and that the south was now "totally exposed." The south is key because it is one of the gateways to Damascus. The announcement underlines the rebels' recent progress, but that progress could be threatened if the rebels are not careful to avoid interfactional strife. The risk remains that as the different rebel factions jockey for power in anticipation of the collapse of loyalist forces, the rebels might prematurely begin fighting one another before al Assad's fate is sealed.

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