If anything, in the months since, al-Nusra has only gained at the expense of the moderates. In May, the Guardian conducted a series of interviews with moderate rebel commanders throughout Syria who told them that the Western-backed opposition had lost "a quarter or more of their strength" to the al-Qaeda affiliate. Some 3,000 rebels, according to Ala'a al-Basha, head of the Sayyida Aisha Brigade, had gone over to al-Nusra because of the FSA's lack of weapons and ammunition. (The jihadists have even preyed upon this vulnerability by dispatching spies to infiltrate FSA units in the hopes of luring new recruits among the disaffected.)
It seems obvious, however, that desperation for cash, guns, and ammunition isn't the sole motivation behind the SMC's risky new information war. Commanders affiliated with Gen. Salim Idris do genuinely sense that the Islamic State is out to get them, and there is demonstrable fighting going on in Idlib right now, according to Elizabeth O'Bagy of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a Washington-based NGO with close ties to the SMC. But fear may be married to opportunism as Idris' men now also detect an exploitable schism within the ranks of al-Qaeda itself.
Little is truly known about the nature of the organizational hostility between al-Nusra, led by Abu Muhammad al-Julani, and the Islamic State, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (different from the coastal emir cited earlier), who commands al-Qaeda in Iraq. Both have pledged loyalty to Aymenn al-Zawahiri, the top international al-Qaeda leader, but their outlook on how to proceed in Syria differs, sometimes greatly. One thing does seem clear: Baghdadi has attracted far more foreign mujahideen - including Egyptians, Tunisians, and Iraqis - than al-Julani has, introducing an element unaccustomed to navigating the complicated Islamist terrain of Syrian society. The Guardian's Martin Chulov told me that it is most likely mujahideen who have been responsible for disrupting the tenuous alliance between the FSA and al-Nusra as well as exacerbating internal al-Qaeda tensions.
Al-Julani and his men are brutal extremists, but they've also shown themselves to also be savvy wartime economists. As reported by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, in areas the group controls in the Jazira such as the city of Shadadi, al-Nusra administers oil fields, gas refineries, bakeries, water and power plants, healthcare clinics, and sharia courts. It also boasts of how disciplined and centralized its system of finance is in comparison with the FSA, which it depicts as a corrupt gang of brigands willing to steal and sell anything that isn't bolted to the floor.
And yet, the future isn't bright for these jihadists, who sense the imminence of a sahwa, or Sunni "awakening," in Syria, that could see local populations turn against their rule, just as Iraqis did in Anbar Province in the mid-2000s. Sahwa is arguably taking place already and only being accelerated by Islamic State's heavy-handed presence. "I expected clashes with everyone: with tribes, with the FSA, with anyone," one al-Nusra commander told Abdul-Ahad. "But with other jihadis? I never thought that day would come." More and more, residents of areas ruled by the al-Nusra/Islamic State consortium are turning against their masters. "Out, out, out, the State must get out," protestors were heard chanting in the northern town of Manbij last week. Sheikh Jassem al-Awad, a tribal leader in Raqqa, was kept in a cellar for 25 days by the Islamic State, which had arrested him and other members of the Raqqa media center and stolen $50,000 worth of their equipment. Raqqa, he told the New York Times, started going to the dogs when al-Nusra joined with the Islamic State.
The SMC's rhetorical declaration of war against al-Qaeda coincides with other claims of fracture or cleavage, such as one advanced by FSA commander Brig. Gen. Mithkal Albtaish, who told The Wall Street Journal in late June that he managed to persuade 60 al-Nusra fighters to defect to his side - a rarity, as the traffic usually goes the other way. Even if Albtaish was lying, he was doing so with purpose.
Hardcore Islamist ideology in Syria competes with more urgent practical considerations as a precipitant or justification for jihadism - something the Assad regime surely understood from the start. So brutalized has Syria's population been in the last two years that the distance needed to be traveled between conservative Islamic piety and outright terrorism has shrunk, as it did over similar time periods in Chechnya and Bosnia. If the West has any chance of influencing the opposition, or helping to decide the outcome of the Syrian war, then that chance surely rests on the idea that joining a jihadist group, even an al-Qaeda affiliate, is not necessarily a lifetime commitment, tantamount to joining the mob. Once you're in, you can, in fact, get out. But first you need an incentive to do so. The SMC's greatest challenge is proving that it can credibly offer one.