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Syrian Rebels Battle With al-Qaeda Fighters as Iraq Implodes Next Door 


There is no surer sign of a liberated city than the release of prisoners. But in the case of Raqqa, in northern Syria, the 50 prisoners in question were not captives of the government, but of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS], an al-Qaeda franchise ostensibly aligned with rebels pushing for the fall of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Even as ISIS, which got its start as al-Qaeda in Iraq back in the days of the American war, regains territory in the Iraqi province of Anbar, it is slowly being pushed out of its northern Syrian strongholds by a broad coalition of moderate and Islamist groups fed up with its draconian interpretations of Islamic law and its abuses of power.

Days of fierce infighting between insurgent factions have led to a victory of sorts: by Monday, ISIS had been largely been forced from its Raqqa stronghold, the biggest city an al-Qaeda affiliate has ever held, according to activists and fighters on the ground. The violent schism between ISIS and other insurgents within the rebellion may lead to a recalibration of Western attitudes towards the Syrian opposition, which has long been tainted by its links to terror groups. But even if the Western-backed rebels succeed in driving ISIS from its Syrian strongholds, the extremist threat is likely to remain. “This is not the end of ISIS by any means,” says Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, an international think tank with a special focus on conflict in the Middle East. “Even though ISIS has suffered territorial losses in past few days, it hasn’t lost the capability to inflict damage on any target they please.” ISIS has already launched at least one suicide car bomb attack in the contested northern town of Darkoush, killing at least 17 fighters from a rival brigade, and ISIS commanders in Aleppo areaccused of killing some 50 detainees—many of them anti-ISIS activists, fighters, journalists and relief workers—in a local eye hospital Monday night, according to activists. With these precedents, the threatened ISIS counteroffensive is likely to be grim, warns Lister...