Haid Haid

Why are rebel attacks against ISIS not successful?

Infighting and poor coordination among rebels, along with a lack of external support, are the main reasons cited for recent military failures against ISIS

Syrians stand outside a damaged charity clinic for women and children following reported air strikes in the city of Azaz, on Syria

The recent wide-scale offensive launched by ISIS against rebels in northern Aleppo have not only resulted in the capture of a number of villages and the splitting of opposition territories south of the Turkish border, but also threatens to eliminate the rebels from that region. These rebels, who are backed by Turkey in order to push ISIS away from areas along the Turkish border and stop Syrian Kurdish forces from establishing an autonomous region in northern Syria, have failed to achieve either objective. Reasons used to justify their failure have varied from not having enough support to being isolated and fighting on different fronts at the same time. However, other observers have also cited the absence of strategic planning and a lack of commitment among rebels. The recent ISIS attack poses a significant threat to these rebel groups and could eliminate them from a number of strategic locations, most importantly Marea, Azaz and the Bab al-Salam crossing point, which would significantly damage the rebels’ military capacity not only in their fight against ISIS, but also against the Syrian regime.


An ISIS and Kurdish-free zone


A coalition of rebel groups affiliated with Turkey launched a campaign, the Hiwar Kilis Operations Room, in April 2016 to capture areas controlled by ISIS along the Turkish borders and establish a zone free from ISIS or Kurdish militants. “Turkey is supporting rebel groups in order to keep its border secure from both ISIS and the Kurds. It’s the perfect solution for Turkey’s concerns in Syria,” said Ahmed Ryad, a media activist in rural Aleppo. Turkey provided rebel groups with covering fire, using artillery based in the border area with Syria. The rebel groups have also been given logistical access through Turkish territory after being isolated from allied opposition groups due to military advances made by the Syrian regime and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led coalition against ISIS, in February 2016. These rebel groups were able to achieve swift gains soon after the campaign was launched, capturing of a number of villages from ISIS. However, the Syrian rebel groups have struggled to sustain their gains against ISIS and were unable to hold captured ground against ISIS counterattacks.


Lack of support


The rebel operating in the Hiwar Kilis Operations Room were supported by Turkish firepower across border, which improved the fighting capacity of the rebel groups but was not enough to tip the balance in their favor. Turkey’s artillery shelling destroyed several ISIS targets but failed to fully prevent their counter attacks, due to the limited cross-border fire range of the Turkish artillery and the difficultly in targeting mobile targets with artillery bombardments.


Moreover, Turkey did not employ its air force against ISIS, which would be more efficient militarily, due to the uncertainty of what Russia’s reaction to the move would be, given that Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet along the border in November 2015. “The Turkish army can’t use its air force in Syria because they are afraid of Russia’s reaction. Therefore, they are only employing artillery to hit portable targets, which is extremely difficult,” said Raed Mohammed, a former Syrian military officer based in the Turkish town of Kilis.


Turkey tried to overcome this obstacle by requesting US air cover for its allies during operations along the Syrian-Turkish border. Although the details of the agreement between the US and Turkey remain unclear, the US agreed to provide air support to the few US-backed rebel groups involved in the military campaign. Nonetheless, the US air support didn’t make a big difference, as it was not always available when needed and it was not actively employed during rebel offensives.


Regional and international backers also did not provide rebels with the support they needed to achieve the goals of the offensive. Rebels reportedly asked for night vision goggles, mine clearing vehicles and anti-tank weapons that could pick off car bombs at a distance, but their requests were not met. Car bombs and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are two essential tactics used by ISIS during battles against their enemies, therefore having the means to counter such tactics are essential in order to make sustainable gains against the terror group. “Our requests for support have been denied under the pretext of concerns over losing the equipment to extremists. But extremists are not after night vision goggles and mine clearing vehicles, because they already have them. We do not. Kurds are winning because they have 24/7 air support and all the weapons they need,” said Mohammed Shaaban, a Syrian fighter with the Sultan Murad Brigade.


Lack of strategic planning


Rebels have also been criticized for being too preoccupied with their internal differences and not focusing on strategic planning, despite the lack of support received from allies. Syrian activists publically blamed the rebels for ISIS’s recent gains, citing their primary concerns for personal gain and lack of commitment. “The groups fighting ISIS in the north, you have divided us and ruined the reputation of the Free Syrian Army and made people hate the revolution and the revolutionaries," Mahmoud Hassanou, a media activist in Azaz, wrote on Twitter. Rebel groups in the area have also traded blame, accusing rival groups of not sending reinforcements when requested. “The absence of support from opposition fighters and the Islamic Front is the reason for ISIS’s advances,” Zakaria Najar, the media officer of the Qabdit al-Shamal Battalions, told London-based daily Alaraby Aljadeed.


Another main factor contributing to the failure of rebel groups in the area is poor military performance and the absence of strategic planning. These groups were not adequately prepared to take advantage of opportunities to advance against ISIS, benefiting from the limited support they had, or enforce their defenses to prevent ISIS’s counter attacks. “The failure of these groups to advance against ISIS and the absence of defensive measures left them exposed. This allowed ISIS to plan its counter attacks, which achieved the recent gains against them,” said Anas Hamed, a media activist in northern Aleppo.


ISIS sleeper cells, which the rebels were not able to identify and deactivate, also played an essential role in ISIS gains. According to Syria Mubasher, an pro-opposition media website, ISIS activated sleeper cells in the area on Thursday night in order to pave the way for its attack from the east.


Fighting on different front lines


The hostile environment surrounding the rebels fighting ISIS has led to exhaustion among fighters and them being spread thin on several fronts.  These rebel groups are isolated from the rest of the opposition faction in northern Syria, and surrounded by hostile SDF groups to the west and ISIS fighters to the east. Although theses rebels and the SDF are not in a state of active fighting, the tension between them, due to their competing goals and the advances made by the SDF against their territory between Azaz and Tel Rafat in northern Syria, has created a sense of mistrust and put the rebels on high alert.


Moreover, some rebel groups have begun whispering about a conspiracy by the US to allow ISIS to take over areas controlled by the rebels so that the SDF can later advance and seize the areas from ISIS, which would avoid creating tension with Turkey. “The US-led coalition was aware of ISIS intentions, observing their reinforcements to this area for days without doing anything. The coalition’s planes did not engage when ISIS began attacking, which was something we could not understand. The US plan against ISIS has become clearer now, they want to allow ISIS to capture opposition areas so that the SDF can capture it later,” Colonel Ahmed Uthman, military commander of the Sultan Murad Brigade, said to Al-Modon.  


Although talk concerning a US conspiracy is a bit far-fetched, the SDF is definitely taking advantage of the rebel losses to advance and gain new areas. A deal was reportedly made between rebels and the Kurdish forces to handover the town of Shaykh Isa to the SDF in exchange for allowing civilians to cross from the ISIS-besieged town of Maraa through SDF-controlled areas into Azaz. It was also reported that the SDF told rebels in Maraa over the weekend to handover the town peacefully or threatened to seize it with US air support.


Although rebel groups fighting ISIS in northern Syria are preoccupied with their internal differences and hampered by their lack in strategic planning, the lack of external support and coordination from regional and international backers, especially reliable air support and military expertise, remain a major factor behind the recent rebel failures against ISIS. However, the significant successes that rebel groups achieved in January 2014, which saw them push ISIS out of many areas previously under their control in several different Syrian provinces, especially Aleppo and Idlib, prove that these forces could be successful in their fight against ISIS, if they get the needed support.       

Syrians stand outside a damaged charity clinic for women and children following reported air strikes in the city of Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey, on February 15, 2016. (AFP/Mujahed Abul Joud)

he Turkish army can’t use its air force in Syria because they are afraid of Russia’s reaction. Therefore, they are only employing artillery to hit portable targets, which is extremely difficult.

  • dutchnational

    The SDF gets no CAS west of the Euphrates and get even less arms support than the rebels. They also fight against everybody, Rebels, IS, SAA, Turkey. However, they have a unified command, are more focussed and motivated, they guard against counterattacks and once they liberate an area, it hardly ever gets retaken. FSA let their revolution be taken over by islamists and as such, they are mortal enemies of the secular SDF, the more so as kurds, despised by arabs, are leading in the SDF. The islamists are mercenaries, paid for by Turkey. The SDF are non paid volonteers. They get housing, food, weapons and thats it.

    May 31, 2016