Yet even as the regime continues to hold out, schisms are emerging among rebel groups over ideology, the shape of a future Syrian state and control of the significant resources concentrated in this long-neglected but crucial corner of the country.
“Fighting is unavoidable,” said Abu Mansour, a commander with the rebel Free Syrian Army’s Farouq Brigades, whose men clashed last month with those of the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra movement in the border town of Tal Abiyad, one of several instances in which the tensions have erupted into violence. “If it doesn’t happen today, it will happen tomorrow.”
Jabhat al-Nusra, the group designated a terrorist organization by the United States because of its suspected ties to al-Qaeda, is among several groups advancing in the region, but it is emerging as the most divisive and the strongest.
The al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq announced Tuesday that it had formally merged with Jabhat al-Nusra, with the two groups to be known jointly as the “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.”
On Wednesday, Jabhat al-Nusra called the announcement of the alliance “premature,” and said it would continue to use its own name, hinting at tensions between the two groups. Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, Jabhat al-Nusra’s leader, confirmed that he had a close relationship with the Islamic State of Iraq and had fought alongside them in Iraq before relocating to Syria in July 2011 to participate in the Syrian rebellion.
But Jolani said he had not been consulted about a merger, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks online jihadi activity. Though Jabhat al-Nusra already shares a flag with the Iraqi al-Qaeda affiliate, its members have in the past sought to portray their group as Syrian and to downplay its al-Qaeda ties.
The possible merger underscored the potentially profound implications for Syria’s future of the fall of this long-overlooked northeastern region to the extremists. The provinces of Raqqah, Deir al-Zour and Hasakah — collectively known by the ancient name of al-Jazeera, or the island, for their location between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers — are home to the bulk of Syria’s economic wealth, including all of its oil fields, as well as its gas reserves, and most of its agriculture, notably wheat and cotton.
The Jazeera region also reaches into the western Iraqi provinces of Nineveh and Anbar, where the Iraqi al-Qaeda affiliate has its roots. Tribal and family ties span the border, and there are echoes of the complexity of the conflict that raged in Iraq in the past decade, when many Sunni tribesmen who initially joined the insurgency against U.S. troops switched sides and fought against al-Qaeda.