BEIRUT — Just a week ago, al-Qaeda-linked rebels in Syria enjoyed an arc of dominance across the country’s north and east, ruling with brutality.
But a series of stunning reversals in recent days has made clear that the militant group may be more vulnerable than it seemed, in part because its frequent kidnappings and attacks on fellow rebels have won it few allies.
By Tuesday, the group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, appeared increasingly desperate, with its fighters pushed out of some towns and turning to suicide bombings in a bid to hold on to pockets of Raqqah, the large north-central city that was its stronghold.
Still, the group showed no sign of giving up easily, calling Tuesday for its followers to behead anyone associated with the Western-backed Syrian Opposition Coalition, which it accused of starting the conflict.
For now, at least, a coalition of more-moderate Syrian rebels seems to hold the upper hand — a development that would come as a relief to Western governments that had become increasingly concerned about the gains made by the extremists.
The al-Qaeda-linked group’s setbacks in Syria are in contrast to its fresh successes in neighboring Iraq, where its challenge to the Baghdad government has thrust it into renewed prominence. But even in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, was facing new pressure Tuesday, with the government launching airstrikes in the western province of Anbar as it sought to regain control of cities seized by militants.
“ISIS have been alienating everyone” in Syria, said Aron Lund, an independent Middle East analyst based in Sweden. “So when the day came, no one jumped to defend them.”
There, the fight against ISIS is being waged by a variety of rebel factions that have diverse local interests. But there have been some indications that the counterstrike included more planning than rebel leaders have acknowledged publicly, at a time when opposition groups may have reason to jockey for dominance.
The apparently coordinated assault is being carried out just two weeks before a scheduled meeting in Geneva in which the United States, Russia and the United Nations hope to bring the Syrian government and rebel forces to the bargaining table for the first time.
Among those fighting ISIS are groups formerly under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, whose Western-backed Supreme Military Council has been left with little influence over forces on the ground. One of the main groups, which calls itself Jaish al-
Mujahideen, is a coalition of eight Free Syrian Army groups that announced its formation Friday.
In its fiery statement Tuesday, ISIS denounced those foes as apostates and accused them of igniting the conflict.
“We put down a prize for whoever will pluck a head of their heads and their leaders,” ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani said in an online audio recording. “So kill them wherever you find them, for there is no dignity for them.”
ISIS emerged on the Syrian battlefield in the spring, and it extended its reach quickly at a time of stalemate in the civil war pitting forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad against a variety of rebels. The group seized towns in Syria’s north and east, and its black-and-white flag quickly began to appear on everything from court buildings to children’s school bags.
But the group’s efforts to win hearts and minds through community outreach such as ice-cream-eating competitions and tug-of-war contests did little to mask its brutality, which included public executions and kidnappings. Frustrations brewed over intrusive religion-based laws dictating people’s lifestyles, with angry residents staging scattered protests across rebel-held areas last week.
ISIS has also isolated itself from other rebel groups. While another al-Qaeda-affiliated organization, Jabhat al-Nusra, successfully co-opted other groups by developing a fearsome reputation on the battlefield, ISIS — whose fighters are thought to number about 6,000 — took a more solitary approach.
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, an expert on jihadist groups with the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, said ISIS’s grip on cities such as Raqqah has always been tenuous, despite a slick public-
relations campaign that sought to emphasize the group’s dominance.
“Their error was to spread out so much,” Tamimi said. “If you get a multi-pronged attack, you can’t defend yourself.” He said the rebel assault was “not the end” of ISIS but had exposed “the fundamental weakness” in its strategy.
A number of other rebel groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra, have held back from confronting ISIS directly. The leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Mohammed Jolani, called Tuesday for an end to the infighting, speaking in an audio report posted on social-media accounts affiliated with his group.
But even Jolani criticized ISIS for “mistaken policies” that he said “had a big role to play in igniting this conflict.”
Lund, the independent analyst, said the new cohesion demonstrated by ISIS’s rivals suggested that “there must at least have been some level of prior coordination.” He noted that the assault was consistent with efforts by the United States and its allies to marginalize the extremists in Syria.
“Obviously, some rebel factions are fed up with ISIS anyway, and the tension is real,” Lund said, “but there are also several states that have been seeking to isolate jihadis from the outset.”
Ahmed Ramadan contributed to this report.