This is what happens when you try to fight two civil wars at once

Things are not going too well for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Syria:

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis) threatened to leave the city of Aleppo to government forces unless its rivals stop their attacks against it within 24 hours.

Isis has suffered losses in two days of fighting against an alliance of rebel forces in Aleppo and Idlib provinces.

The group is accused of imposing a reign of terror on areas it controls.

In an audio message, an unidentified Isis spokesman called on other rebel groups to lift checkpoints and release all the prisoners they hold.

He said Isis had been “stabbed in the back”, and that if the attacks did not stop, it would have no choice but to pull back from the frontlines of Aleppo.

Dozens of its members are reported to have been killed or captured over the past two days.

The BBC seems to suggest that the Free Syrian Army is the group fighting to drive ISIS out of Aleppo, but in reality it’s the relatively new Islamic Front that’s doing the fighting (though in the chaotic mess that is the Syrian rebellion, the Islamic Front is nominally affiliated with the FSA, so maybe that’s what the BBC means). This is an important point, because the FSA is supposed to be the secular moderate part of the rebellion, John McCain’s “good guys” (though not the ones he likes to be photographed with), but groups like the Islamic Front are basically in ideological agreement with ISIS. They only differ over tactics, like whether or not it’s important to actually win the war first before you start exterminating the folks you’ve deemed to be unbelievers (the Islamic Front would prefer to win the war first, then start the religious killings, while ISIS likes to do the religious killings as it goes along), or (and this is the big one) whether or not the commander of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, should be the leader of the whole rebellion. Al-Baghdadi is very sure that it would be a good idea for him to be in charge, but that doesn’t seem to be a universal sentiment. ISIS also has a bit of a PR problem due to the fact that it is mostly comprised of muhajirun (foreign fighters), who tend to quickly overstay their welcome in these situations because they’re fully committed to The Cause but don’t really care about the locals, and may even be openly hostile to locals who are not as fully committed to The Cause as the muhajirun think they should be.

What’s happening in and around Aleppo is the outgrowth of a couple of recent trends.

The first is the total breakdown in relations between ISIS and the rest of the rebellion, probably due to ISIS’ habit of attacking other rebel groups and assassinating their leaders. They recently killed a commander in Ahrar al-Sham, one of the militias that now makes up the Islamic Front, and have been responsible for assassinating several FSA commanders (see here, also) in recent months. At least one prominent ISIS commander has been killed recently by other Syrian rebels, so this is a two-way fight. Jabhat al-Nusrah, ISIS’ sometime-ally and fellow Al-Qaeda affiliate (well, sort of), has been left kind of watching this situation play out; as an open AQ affiliate they don’t often directly go against ISIS (although that bit about Baghdadi running the show is a non-starter for them as well), but they have been trying to play nicely with the other Syrian Islamists lately. The second trend at play here is the continued growth of the non-AQ-but-still-hardcore-Islamist faction within the rebellion, which is being funded and maybe controlled by the Saudis because it lets them throw some regional weight around, allows them to engage in proxy fighting with Iran and Al-Qaeda, enables them to make up for and/or express their frustration with the lack of American involvement, and provides a nice place for disaffected young jihadis to go fight where they can’t be a threat to the Saudi royals. With Saudi money financing a new unity between all these disparate Islamist militias, their commanders are suddenly in control of more than enough muscle to take on ISIS and ideally eliminate that threat. In the short run I’m sure watching the rebels pound the hell out of each other is all great fun for Assad, but it could turn out to be a long run problem for him if it results in a defeated ISIS and a newly unified rebellion.

But, you know, Syria isn’t the only civil war that ISIS is currently trying to fight. They’ve also been trying very hard to start a civil war in Iraq, and by Thursday and into Friday it seemed like they might have made a breakthrough:

In Fallujah, where Marines fought the bloodiest battle of the Iraq war in 2004, the militants appeared to have the upper hand, underscoring the extent to which the Iraqi security forces have struggled to sustain the gains made by U.S. troops before they withdrew in December 2011.

The upheaval also affirmed the soaring capabilities of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the rebranded version of the al-Qaeda in Iraq organization that was formed a decade ago to confront U.S. troops and expanded into Syria last year while escalating its activities in Iraq. Roughly a third of the 4,486 U.S. troops killed in Iraq died in Anbar trying to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq, nearly 100 of them in the November 2004 battle for control of Fallujah, the site of America’s bloodiest confrontation since the Vietnam War.

Events Friday suggested the fight may have been in vain.

“At the moment, there is no presence of the Iraqi state in Fallujah,” said a local journalist who asked not to be named because he fears for his safety. “The police and the army have abandoned the city, al-Qaeda has taken down all the Iraqi flags and burned them, and it has raised its own flag on all the buildings.”

At Friday prayers, held outdoors and attended by thousands of people, a masked ISIS fighter took the podium and addressed the crowd, declaring the establishment of an “Islamic emirate” in Fallujah and promising to help residents fight the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Iranian allies.

ISIS and Friends in Fallujah

ISIS has been helped in Iraq by the guy they claim to be fighting, Nouri al-Maliki, who has spent the last couple of weeks inexplicably provoking restless Sunnis in Anbar instead of trying to work with them against their common enemy, ISIS. Friday’s move by ISIS to take control of Fallujah as well as Ramadi and Khalidiyah seems to have changed Maliki’s tune right quick, though, because he made immediate moves to re-engage Sunni tribal forces against ISIS, and the combined tribal and government forces were able to retake Ramadi and Khalidiyah:

On Thursday, the Shiite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki conducted negotiations with Ahmad Abu Risha and his anti-al-Qaeda tribesmen (the Dulaim). By late Thursday, a deal had been struck, and Sunni tribal forces agreed to fight the ISIS units alongside Iraqi police and army.

On Friday, Iraqi troops and police launched a joint operation in Ramadi and Khalidiya to its south with Abu Risha’s tribal levies, pushing back ISIS in those cities. Abu Risha estimated that 60 ISIS fighters were killed during the operation and that ISIS leader Abu Abdel Rahman al-Baghdadi was among the dead. He said 46 were killed in Ramadi and 16 in nearby Khalidiya. He maintained that 80 percent of al-Anbar had been cleared of ISIS by late Friday.

The events of Thursday-Friday may prove to be the high water mark for ISIS in Iraq; if the Sunni tribes are once again brought into the fold to work with the government, and tensions between Maliki’s government and the Sunni tribes are resolved, ISIS may find itself in as desperate a situation in Iraq as it faces in Syria.

Postscript: It certainly didn’t take long for John McCain and his affable assistant to decide that Obama lost Fallujah, somehow (TRIGGER ALERT: link):

Sen. John McCain, Arizona, and Lindsey Graham, South Carolina, called the recent turn of events “as tragic as they were predictable” and suggested Obama misled Americans into believing that Iraqi leaders wanted U.S. forces out of their country.

“While many Iraqis are responsible for this strategic disaster, the administration cannot escape its share of the blame,” the senators said in a joint statement. “When President Obama withdrew all U.S. forces … over the objections of our military leaders and commanders on the ground, many of us predicted that the vacuum would be filled by America’s enemies and would emerge as a threat to U.S. national security interests. Sadly, that reality is now clearer than ever.”

“The administration’s narrative that Iraq’s political leadership objected to U.S. forces remaining in Iraq after 2011 is patently false,” said McCain and Graham, military hawks with an active interest in Middle East affairs. “We know firsthand that Iraq’s main political blocs were supportive and that the administration rejected sound military advice and squandered the opportunity to conclude a security agreement with Iraq.”

It sure is easy to make arguments like “[t]he administration’s narrative that Iraq’s political leadership objected to U.S. forces remaining in Iraq after 2011 is patently false” when you just don’t care if anything you say is, you know, true. Those of us with functioning computers and a greater respect for historical reality might learn that Maliki was about as categorical as he could have been three years ago in insisting that no American troops remain in Iraq past 2011:

A majority of Iraqis—and some Iraqi and U.S. officials—have assumed the U.S. troop presence would eventually be extended, especially after the long government limbo. But Mr. Maliki was eager to draw a line in his most definitive remarks on the subject. “The last American soldier will leave Iraq” as agreed, he said, speaking at his office in a leafy section of Baghdad’s protected Green Zone. “This agreement is not subject to extension, not subject to alteration. It is sealed.”

That seems pretty damn final to me, but I’m not well-versed in war-mongering nonsense so I can’t really explain what McCain and Graham saw there that nobody else did. But hey, you know, McCain did say that Iraq’s “main political blocS” wanted America to stay, so maybe…er, no, not really any of them, except maybe some Kurdish leaders. Of course that’s only true if we go by “the things those Iraqi political leaders said” and not “the things John McCain pretends that they might have said.”

Oh, and McCain and Graham, who today are so angry with Obama for abandoning Maliki and letting ISIS take Fallujah, are the same guys who were just complaining that we shouldn’t be dealing with Maliki because he’s too cozy with Iran. These guys really do have no consistent ideology beyond OBAMA IS WRONG, ALWAYS SO VERY WRONG.

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