Provoked by incessant raids, detentions, assassinations, mutilations and the imposition of strict rules on rebel-held territories, Jaish al-Mujahideen and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front attacked a number of ISIL positions in Aleppo and Idlib on Jan. 3. The rebel offensive against ISIL has led to the capture of many ISIL positions across northern Syria, causing the jihadist group to threaten a withdrawal from areas where it is fighting the al Assad regime if rebel attacks do not cease within 24 hours. The rift is understood to represent a blow to the ongoing fight against the Syrian regime, but ISIL has occasionally been so aggressive toward other rebel groups that a consensus has emerged that the group must be handled. Indeed, a large number of rebel groups are increasingly accusing the group of being a creation of the Syrian regime.
While the powerful Islamic Front insists that ISIL is unaffiliated with the regime, it has also clashed with the group and is threatening to fully enter the conflict alongside the other groups. In particular, the kidnapping, mutilation and killing of a popular commander from the rebel group Ahrar al-Sham has enraged many within the Islamic Front. Hassan Aboud, head of the Islamic Front's political bureau, has squarely blamed the al Qaeda-linked group for the situation.
Of particular interest are Jabhat al-Nusra's actions in the rift. On the one hand, Jabhat al-Nusra is affiliated with ISIL in the sense that both claim to be part of al Qaeda. On the other hand, there is a long-standing dispute over legitimacy between Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani and the megalomaniacal leader of ISIL, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. That Jabhat al-Nusra has taken over ISIL's position in Atmeh in northern Syria does not bode well for al-Baghdadi's group. In fact, there have been unconfirmed reports that Jabhat al-Nusra, in conjunction with longtime ally Ahrar al-Sham, has attacked and seized ISIL positions in the group's stronghold of Raqqa.
These events come at a time when the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant has managed to secure the greatest extent of territory in Iraq since U.S. forces left the country. Though ISIL gains in Iraq remain tenuous due to opposition from the central government and Sunni tribes, the group has reportedly managed to seize considerable parts of Ramadi, practically half of Fallujah and even allegedly captured 23 M1 Abrams tanks belonging to the Iraq 1st Division when it overran an Iraqi base in Fallujah.
While these events represent significant gains for ISIL in Iraq, the fact that the group has suddenly found itself heavily committed on two fronts does not bode well for its long-term success. In a matter of days, the group has lost hundreds of fighters in combat across Syria and Iraq, an unsustainable rate of attrition for an organization that fields at most 15,000 fighters.
The ISIL offensive in Fallujah and Ramadi has also come at an opportune time for the extremist group. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's decision Dec. 30 to dismantle a yearlong protest camp in Ramadi triggered significant backlash from Sunni Anbar tribesmen. Taking advantage of these tensions, ISIL has attempted to seize substantial amounts of territory in Anbar province, but the bulk of the manifestly anti-al Maliki Sunni tribes of Anbar have also been quick to turn around and fight ISIL as it moved in on the cities. With increasingly well-equipped central government forces moving in on ISIL and with local tribes still very hostile to the group, even its position in Iraq is unstable.
However, given the nature and ideology of ISIL's leadership, it will be difficult for the group to concede its fight with Iraqi tribesmen and other Syrian rebels. This effectively ensures that ISIL will remain in conflict with practically all armed forces in Syria and Iraq, including Kurdish militias, regime forces, opposition groups and even Turkey. For all the dedication and motivation of its fighters, ISIL simply does not have the manpower or the force to overcome its innumerable enemies and achieve its end goals of establishing its version of an Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq.