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Free Syrian Army fighters fire from the back of a pick-up truck in the Ramous area, southwest of Aleppo, on August 2.

The Syrian civil war is as confusing and opaque as it is sadistic and bloody. On one side stands Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a barbarous tyrant backed by Iran and Russia, Hizbullah, and Shi'ite militias from Iraq, the remnants of the Syrian army, and the odd Kurdish splinter group.

Against him are arrayed multiple rebel groups including the Islamic State extremist group, Al-Qaeda, and a host of more moderate rebel factions. It is often hard for the observer to make sense of events, let alone understand their true importance. But one thing is clear: the insurgent offensive under way right now in Aleppo aimed at breaking the government siege of rebel-held areas in the east of the city may reshape the direction of the entire war.

On the weekend of July 30-31, the surrounded rebels who held the center of Aleppo city and a larger body of rebel groups to the west of the city tried to reconnect their battle lines, striking at a position in the strategic Ramouseh district. But, as ever, outgunned, the regime fought back: using Russian airstrikes to try to halt the advance.

Syria's revolution is now unequivocally in the balance. As Kyle Orton, a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, points out in an e-mail interview with RFE/RL, Aleppo is the last major urban holding of the mainstream armed opposition in Syria. If the political process is to amount to anything other than a regime victory in all but name, the rebels have to hold Aleppo City. For its part, the regime, with Russian and Iranian help, has severely lessened the strategic threat from the insurgency already -- for them to retake Aleppo City would kill it. Orton is blunt: "In short, the course of the entire war is in the balance with the fate of Aleppo."

If the rebels succeed in breaking the siege then the pro-regime coalition will suffer a serious strategic setback. As Orton further notes, "the pro-Assad forces [are holding] out in northwestern Syria by some relatively tenuous supply lines through Hama and southern Aleppo." If the rebel positions in Idlib Province and southwestern Aleppo are expanded to include areas of Aleppo City, Assad's bases in the north come under serious threat, and with it Assad's chance of crushing the rebellion entirely.

Detoxifying The Islamist Brand

But there is another more complex and disturbing possibility that encapsulates the problems of Syria in a microcosm. The main rebel players in the offensive are Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front), Ahrar al-Sham, and Free Syrian Army brigades. Al-Qaeda in Syria's renaming of itself as Fatah al-Sham -- officially for the sake of "rebel unity" -- is, in reality, little more than a move to publicly detoxify its brand.

And this is where a major question about the timing of the offensive comes in. Endless rounds of failed peace talks have yielded nothing for the rebels. Discussions of talks scheduled for late August are likely to yield nothing once again. With Iran and now Russia behind it, the regime is now so strong it has little incentive to compromise. Meanwhile, Russian support is not merely confined to the battlefield. Its diplomatic efforts have deftly changed the conversation from one centering on Assad's removal to the conditions under which he will stay in power.

Food stocks are rapidly dwindling in the besieged city.
Food stocks are rapidly dwindling in the besieged city.

As each cease-fire inevitably failed (almost invariably broken by pro-Assad forces), Al-Qaeda was eventually able to claim, back in December 2015, that the entire peace process was a "conspiracy" against the revolution. And its absurd claims gained traction among an increasingly desperate population who saw little reaction from the onlooking global community. More than this, after each cease-fire ended, Al-Qaeda was the mainstay of much of the rebel fight back -- it was even able to make significant gains in southern Aleppo. In essence, the rebels allowed Al-Qaeda back into the mainstream opposition by their own adherence to previous cease-fire agreements.

Under its new Jabhat Fatah al-Sham banner, the group can now use the Aleppo offensive as a means by which to further integrate into the mainstream rebel alliance. As Orton states, it presents the group with its best chance yet of using "the rebellion as a shield against external attack, annexing what is an objectively good cause -- breaking the nascent terror-siege of Aleppo City…[to] show its utility as the military tip of the spear to act as a kind of special forces for the insurgency -- and…make connections and alliances that can facilitate its vanguardist program."

Short Supplies

Meanwhile, the possibility of (yet another) humanitarian catastrophe becomes increasingly distinct. The UN estimates that some 300,000 people are trapped inside the city with rapidly shrinking medical supplies and, critically, declining stocks of food. The regime is clearly going all-out to capture Aleppo and crush the rebellion once and for all.Thus far, however, it has been slow to respond to the rebel counterattack. This state of affairs will not last. It will rain down destruction from the air and the ground.

So far reports are sketchy due to an insurgency media blackout in the area, but it does appear that the rebels are making significant steps toward breaking the siege. According to some reports, on August 1, they captured the strategic Al-Mishrefah area, south of the Ramousah air force artillery base. But they still needed to advance another 2.5 kilometers to take the city's artillery base, one of the biggest in all of Syria and a base that has been the linchpin of Assad's defenses in the city.

Achieving this would allow them to reach their fellow rebels on the Aleppo side. Now, according to Orton, "fragmentary reports [say] there has been intense fighting and very rapid and significant gains for the insurgency…coming within several hundred yards of breaking the siege on eastern Aleppo City."

If these reports are true -- or if the rebels are able to make minor gains or at least maintain the status quo in the city -- then once again it will be Jabhat Fatah al-Sham that benefits the most. In leading the charge to rescue the besieged population while the world looks on, it will have irretrievably bound itself to the armed opposition in Northern Syria.

And that is a scenario that benefits no one -- not the mainstream rebels and most of all, not Syria's long-suffering people.

Eighty-four people were killed in Nice, France, in an attack claimed by Islamic State. "This is a new type of attack," says historian and Arabist Pieter Van Ostaeyen.

Brussels, Paris (twice), and now Nice: Four crippling jihadist attacks in just over 18 months. The extremist group Islamic State’s fastidious sadism has arrived in Europe, and it looks like our problems are only just beginning.

Last week, on July 14, as evening celebrations for Bastille Day (France’s version of Independence Day) took place on the Promenade des Anglais -- the central promenade of the Mediterranean coastal city of Nice -- Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a Tunisian living in France, deliberately drove a 19-ton refrigerated truck into the crowds, killing 84 people and wounding more than 300.

Panic broke out among the thousands that had gathered to watch the evening’s fireworks as the attacker entered the promenade, repeatedly swerving to hit as many people as possible. He exchanged some initial fire with police but was able to continue for almost 2 kilometers before they were finally able to surround the truck, strafe it with gunfire, and finally kill him. By that point, hundreds of twisted bodies and pools of blood littered the seafront. It was a true act of savagery.

As French security officials scrambled to make sense of the situation, it initially appeared that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel might be a “lone wolf” attacker, one with perhaps psychological problems or unknown grievances. He had, it emerged, a criminal record, mostly for violence and petty theft, as well a history of psychiatric problems. Critically, however, he was not on the French intelligence “fiche S” list of suspected jihadists.

Two days later, however, IS claimed responsibility for the attack, announcing on its Amaq News Agency channel that the “executor of the deadly operation in Nice, France, was a soldier of the Islamic State. He executed the operation in response to calls to target citizens of coalition nations, which fight the Islamic State.”

It does appear that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel may have been part of a wider network. On July 17, two Albanians were arrested on suspicion of supplying him with the 7.65 mm automatic pistol he used to fire on police.

But according to historian and Arabist Pieter Van Ostaeyen, the delay between the attack and IS’s claim of responsibility for it raises doubts over the true extent of his links to the group -- an assessment the French authorities appear to share.

“It seems he became radicalized very quickly," French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on July 17. "This is a new type of attack. We are now confronted with individuals that are sensitive to the message of [IS] and are committed to extremely violent actions without necessarily being trained by them."

This would be in keeping with IS strategy. As far back as September 22, 2014, IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani ash-Shami had advised wannabe jihadists who wanted to carry out lone attacks on the various means by which they could strike at the infidel:

“If you are not able to find an IED or a bullet, then single out the disbelieving American, Frenchman, or any of their allies. Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car...”

“This call to kill crusaders has been repeated many times since,” Van Ostaeyen told me by e-mail, and clearly it struck a chord with Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, on whose computer police found many IS videos.

But perhaps the real clue to all this goes even further back, to 2004, when the Islamist strategist Abu Bakr Naji published, online, The Management Of Savagery, a pamphlet aiming to provide a strategy by which Al-Qaeda could eventually form an Islamic caliphate. Published before IS even came into being (in its present form), it has since become one its guiding principles; it is reportedly read widely among the group’s commanders.

Central to Naji's ethos is that the more military responses Islamic extremists can provoke from the West, the more those powers will become worn down through a process of attrition -- both in terms of resources, public support at home, and anger among the ummah -- the world’s global Muslim community. If nothing else, the Iraq war proved him right on this count.

A more recent example came in November of last year, when, just two days after the Bataclan concert hall attack, which left 130 people dead, France launched its most extensive bombing campaign against IS to date, repeatedly pounding its stronghold of Raqqa. In essence, French President Francois Hollande played right into Naji's hands. But he had no choice. The enraged French public needed to see their leader take clear and decisive action. Thus did France expend military resources and anger Muslims in the Middle East -- without making a significant dent in IS’s capabilities.

IS has taken Naji's strategy and improved on it -- namely by forcing Western nations into a double bind by the use of terrorist acts carried out by (usually) locally born militants to create divisions, and preferably sow hatred, between minority Muslim communities and the majority in Western countries. The formula is simple yet deadly effective: The more homegrown jihadists appear in France, Belgium, and the U.K., the more their respective governments must monitor their Muslim communities. And the more they monitor them, the more it fuels resentment among them. And the more resentment that is fueled, the more jihadists are produced. It’s the definition of a vicious circle.

And that this strategy is working is plain to see. The attack was a gift to the French far right. The day after the attack, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French National Front party, issued a statement urging the country to “declare war” against “the scourge of Islamist fundamentalism.” Several more attacks like Nice could one day see her become France’s president. What comes after that could destabilize the whole of Europe.

In the meantime, one thing is for sure: European jihadism is here to stay. And all Western countries that have participated in international military coalitions in the Middle East are targets.

As Van Ostaeyen explained: “The logic followed is that of qisas or retaliation (an eye for an eye, blood for blood). I'm afraid this climate of terror will haunt us for many years to come."

David Patrikarakos is a contributing editor at The Daily Beast and the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth Of An Atomic State. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The Guardian, Politico, Foreign Policy, Spectator, The New Republic, The New Statesman, The Telegraph, and many others.

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"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world.

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