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Biblical tradition holds that northern Iraq is the land of Cain and Abel. Across post-war Iraq, the ancient parable of fratricide seems to be playing out in a contemporary context: Muslim brothers killing Muslim brothers in spates of violence between the Sunni and Shia sects rippling out in waves across the Middle East.

Syria rebel Aleppo December 2013
A Syrian man carries body wrapped in shrouds over his shoulder following airstrikes on a rebel area of the war-torn northern city of Aleppo on December 15, 2013. The Aleppo Media Centre, an activist network on the ground, reported several helicopter attacks on rebel areas of the city, once Syria's economic hub. (Mohammed Ali-Khatieb/Getty Images)

Assad's divide-and-conquer strategy proving effective against Syrian rebels

US-supported rebels are losing ground to both ultra-conservative Islamist rebels and the Assad regime.

DAMASCUS — Syria’s US-backed rebels are steadily losing ground to extremist Islamist groups, dealing a serious blow to Washington’s hopes to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad. 

The splintering of the Free Syrian Army is seen by many regional analysts as a sign of the increased sectarianism of the civil war. What began as an Arab Spring uprising against dictatorship has become a vehicle for extremists who attack all government supporters as infidels and apostates. For its part, the Assad regime rallies minority Shiites and Alawites by condemning Sunni rebels as takfiris, or "impure Muslims." 

Assad’s idea, these analysts contend, was to play up the sectarian divide as a way to fracture and weaken his opposition. It appears Assad’s strategy may be working. 

The civil war has claimed more than 100,000 lives, forced 2 million refugees to flee and 3 million to be internally displaced. Assad supporters see him as a strong leader fighting against chaos and extremism.

Extremist groups have been fighting US-supported rebels for months. The first evidence came in July when the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) expelled the FSA from several northern cities, including Raqqa. The ISIS then imposed a severe interpretation of sharia law that includes imprisonment and torture of anyone who opposes the ISIS.

“The Syrian regime made a big mistake. We had an army of unemployed young people.”
~Dr. Bassam Barakat

Adding to the Islamist momentum, a new and increasingly powerful coalition of extremist militias, the Islamic Front, seized a warehouse last week controlled by the FSA. The storage facility inside Syria near the Turkish border was chock full of trucks, supplies and weapons.

According to some reports, General Salim Idris, head of the FSA, fled to Turkey after his men gave up the warehouse without a fight, leading the Obama administration to announce it would suspend "non-lethal aid" to opposition groups. This debacle revealed the weakness of the pro-US militias, according to Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. 

"Idris is a stuffed shirt and has no troops," said Landis in a phone interview. Fighting between pro-US and ultra-conservative militias "is a viper’s nest. Everyone is scrambling for power."

Landis noted that the Islamic Front, along with two ultra-conservative groups affiliated with al Qaeda, now control swaths of northern and southern Syria. Those groups also control towns on the outskirts of Damascus, and regularly lob mortar shells into the capital. 

In recent weeks the government has taken back control over some of the Damascus suburbs, along with portions of the important cities of Homs and Aleppo. So overall, the civil war remains a stalemate. 

More from GlobalPost: It's Salafist vs. Salafist in Syria's civil war

Government officials argue that they are protecting secular rule. Minister of Justice Najm al Ahmad, in an exclusive GlobalPost interview, said the rebel groups promote extremism and religious hatred. He said the Syrian Army's progress so far comes from popular opposition to "these terrorist groups and their takfiri methodology. The people suffer from the terrorist actions."

Assad is an Alawite, a small sect of Muslims with roots in Shia Islam. Less than 15 percent of Syrian Muslims are Shia, while an estimated 74 percent are Sunni. Before the uprising began the rift between the sects had been limited to the religious sphere. Now both sides use the differences to rally their supporters.

Yet after nearly three years of fighting, the government has failed to win the war. Analysts in Damascus say that can be traced, in part, to Assad's economic policies.

In the early 2000s, Assad’s government privatized some state-run industries and lowered tariffs on imported goods, following an economic model promoted by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

Such policies increased poverty in the mainly Sunni, rural areas, according to Dr. Bassam Barakat, a pro-government political consultant.

For Bakarat and other analysts the defining line in this conflict is not religious, but economic.

"Textile and other factories were no longer subsidized by the government," Bakarat said. "They allowed Turkish commodities to enter without taxes. The national industry was completely damaged."

Unemployment grew as factories shut down and farmers couldn't compete with