ISIS and the New ‘Army of Conquest’ in Syria Are Headed for a Showdown

Assad is in trouble. But ISIS moving in from the east may hit the rebels closing in from the north.

Khalil Ashawi/Reuters

Two successive months and two stunning battlefield reversals for the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—one dealt him in the east by the so-called Islamic State, the other in the north by a new coalition of rebel forces that includes an affiliate of al Qaeda in a leading role. Now, as the two armies look to expand their territorial gains at the Assad regime’s expense, they’re also converging on each other.

The clash between the terror state widely known as ISIS and the newly emerged Jaish al Fata, or Army of Conquest, is likely to come sooner than later. Most likely it will happen in the vicinity of Homs, referred to by many rebels as “the capital of the revolution.” Ironically (or maybe not), Homs stands on the ancient caravan route between the ISIS-overrun Palmyra and the Mediterranean.

U.S. officials have been arguing in recent weeks that the ISIS/Syria/Iraq war is destined to last a long time, saying there are no signs the parties are exhausted yet or that foreign backers are ready to call a halt to the carnage, as they eventually did with the long-running Lebanese civil war. “We remain in a period of dangerous military stalemate, and it is likely to continue for some time,” argues Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute, a think tank in Washington.

That may be so, but as Slim acknowledges, “the trend in Syria today is definitely not in favor of the regime.” That’s a point her colleague at the institute, former Ambassador Robert Ford, emphasized even before the fall of Palmyra, arguing, “Despite constant Western media assessments that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s situation is secure, the reality is that the Syrian war is one of attrition. And minority regimes usually do not fare well in prolonged wars of attrition.”

There are signs that Assad is hedging his bets now, preparing for a last stand in the Alawi coastal strongholds. Rebel commanders say for weeks now the Assad regime has been stockpiling more military gear in the mountain redoubts of his minority Alawi sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, in preparation to carve out a rump state.

Earlier this month, Assad was uncharacteristically somber when addressing a commemoration ceremony in Damascus, urging Syrians to help buck up the morale of the army. That morale won’t have been helped by the rout in Palmyra, which saw the defending force disintegrate in seven days in the face of a much smaller force of attackers, with Syrian government officers retreating pell-mell, leaving hundreds of their soldiers behind.

So inept was the defense of Palmyra and the nearby city of Tadmur that some observers wondered if Assad abandoned the site with its unique ruins and irreplaceable ancient artifacts and treasures deliberately, to gain Western sympathy support. The jihadis can be counted on to set about looting and smashing up the unique site. But the strategic importance of the city dominating the highway from Damascus, used to resupply remaining government forces in the eastern province of Deir ez Zour, would suggest that defeat there was not part of any twisted Syrian regime plan. And it wasn’t just ancient monuments that were lost. Tadmur has what may be the largest arms depot in Syria and a major airbase that is now out of the Assad regime’s reach.

For ISIS commanders, as for their resurgent rebel foes in the Army of Conquest, the question is likely the same now: Should they consolidate gains or press on with expansionary offensives against a reeling, hard-pressed Syrian government? The smart move for ISIS would be to consolidate, smooth out the front lines and oust the isolated government forces left in Deir ez Zour. This is what Joshua Landis, who runs the Syria Comment blog and is a professor at the University of Oklahoma, suspects ISIS will do. “Deir is presumed to be next big push,” he tweeted in the hours after the fall of Palmyra.

But caution doesn’t appear to be in the ISIS gene. Time and again the group has used force mobility despite U.S. surveillance and airstrikes to undertake the riskier course, opening up new fronts to wrong-foot opponents. Jonathan Schanzer, an analyst with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, says the jihadis “need to continue to conquer territory in order to survive.” He adds: “Pillage, plunder, and tax is how the group generates income for itself. If it ceases to do so, it will find itself with dwindling resources, particularly as the U.S. targets its oil fields and other assets.”

Battered Homs, Syria’s third largest city, is exposed and presents an inviting target—seizing “the capital of the revolution” would be a symbolic gesture for a group that is always keenly conscious of symbolism. Homs was first captured by the Muslims in the seventh century, when Umar ibn Al-Khattab, considered one of the greatest caliphs, took it away from Byzantine Christians and sun-worshippers. It is not hard to see that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-styled Caliph Ibrahim, would relish seizing the city for his putative caliphate.

The Army of Conquest’s commanders are discussing Homs as a possible next major target in a debate that has them swinging between striking at Latakia on the coast or Hama and then Homs, with Damascus as the distant prize.

In so many ways the Army of Conquest and the ISIS terror army are mismatched. The former probably has more manpower available than ISIS, especially as the jihadis have had to shift Syria-based fighters to Iraq.

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A triangular fight over Homs, up against both the Army of Conquest and Assad’s forces, may be too big a battle for ISIS at the moment. Its victories have been based on lightning speed, with hundreds of fighters targeting weak defenses. But the jihadis possess smart tactical leadership and their fighters are motivated in the way only religious fanatics are, with a zealous readiness to die.

When they are up against highly motivated opponents, as they were in the battle for the Kurdish town of Kobani, they can be defeated. But it’s never easy. At Tikrit, a few hundred ISIS fighters held off significantly larger Shia and Iraqi forces for weeks. Palmyra also featured just a few hundred highly motivated fighters who made a swift seven days’ work of a large force that had good re-supply lines back to Damascus.

Some commanders and fighters in the Army of Conquest exhibit almost a relieved surprise at their win in Idlib and after four years of war some still lack self-confidence. Among the fighters in Aleppo, confidence is in short supply, says Lina Chawaf, the editor of the independent radio station Rozana. On a recent trip to the rebel-held half of the city, she noticed the insurgents in Aleppo “don’t have a hope to beat Assad” and “many of them were saying there is no solution except a negotiated political solution.”

Assad still has two major battlefield advantages—his air power and the support of foreign allies: Iran, Russia, and the Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah. Those advantages are the big variables. In the past with Hezbollah fighters in the vanguard of his forces and Iranian commanders present and directing tactics, Assad was able to pull off military gains. Both at Idlib and Palmyra, Hezbollah and foreign Shia fighters in large numbers were noticeably absent, presumably because Hezbollah has had to focus on defending the rugged Qalamoun region running alongside part of the border with Lebanon, from rebel attack.

One of the biggest variables could well come down to money. Inadvertently (although rebels would argue conspiracy is afoot), the U.S. could throw Assad a cash lifeline, depending on the timing of nuclear negotiations with Iran and the lifting of sanctions if a deal is reached.

“The Syrian regime, while currently on its heels, is about to get a massive cash injection from Iran when the nuclear deal goes through,” argues the FFD’s Schanzer. “Iran is set to receive roughly $120 billion in cash. A portion of that will undoubtedly go to Syria, which Iran views as its 35th province.”

And the war goes on.