The Middle East Channel

The Next Phase of the Syrian Conflict

U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford confirmed on Wednesday what many had predicted, that Syria's Islamic Front (IF) had refused to hold meetings with representatives of the United States. Ford's admission to Al Arabiya came amid a series of highly significant recent developments relating to the evolving dynamics within Syria's armed opposition structures.

The fundamental balance of power on the ground within Syria's insurgent opposition has changed considerably in the last month. This appears to have had a profound impact on how the various internal factions and their external backers are re-aligning their relationships and long-term military and political strategies. Most crucially in this respect, the long drawn out decline in power and influence of the Western-backed political Syrian National Coalition (SNC), led by Ahmad Jarba, and the armed structure, the Syrian Military Council (SMC), led by General Salim Idriss, appears to have reached its nadir. Most, if not all, newsworthy developments relating to the Syrian opposition over the last several months have been directly or indirectly related to this reality. A misguided diplomatic focus by some interested states and elements within the SNC for an all-encompassing multinational Geneva II peace conference in January has served only to emphasize the overwhelming lack of support for such talks within Syria's opposition on the ground. 

The conflict in Syria is now entering a new and dangerous phase in which the preservation of meaningful Western influence on the nature and direction of the opposition is under real and genuine threat. The role of jihadists continues to expand while the most powerful explicitly Syrian Salafist groups have consolidated their forces into a seemingly meaningful front (the IF). The simultaneous and in part resulting demise in power of the Western-backed military structures on the ground has generated tensions on the ground, which more than anything, have served to further undermine moderate influence. While U.S. and Western states have launched initiatives aimed at reaching out to Islamists -- to both grasp back an element of control over evolving dynamics but also to isolate jihadists -- these increasingly appear as too little too late.

Continued jihadist growth

Meanwhile, amid this changing environment, the two U.S.-designated terrorist organizations active in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) and the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), have grown numerically and expanded their influence geographically. Both groups have benefited from a number of independent and SMC-aligned insurgent units defecting and pledging bayah (or allegiance) to their leadership (such as four battalions of Alwia Ahfad al-Rasoul defecting to ISIS in Idlib on December 4). In most cases, these localized shifts appear not to have been ideological but rather the result of a pragmatic admission that it's better to join the winning side rather than fight (and lose to) it.

ISIS has proven remarkably adept at dividing its forces -- now numbering approximately 8,000 fighters -- between carrying out duties of governance within "liberated" territory and fighting on the frontlines. The group now maintains total or partial control of at least 22 municipalities across the northern half of Syria and a military presence in 10 of Syria's 14 governorates. Its effective and well-managed media output has managed to portray Syria as the focal battleground for any active or "wannabe" transnational jihadist, and as a result, the number of foreign fighters entering the Syrian theater continues to increase at an exponential rate, potentially having tripled in some areas of northern Syria since the August 21 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus.

The Islamic Front emerges

Although it has continued to claim to represent Syria's opposition politically, the SNC has long suffered from a considerable lack of effective recognition by political activist and armed insurgent factions on the ground. Meanwhile, the SMC's influence within Syria has been slowly declining for several months, with the nail in the coffin having come live on Al Jazeera on November 22 when Suqor al-Sham leader Abu Issa al-Sheikh announced the formation of Al-Jabha al-Islamiyya, or the IF.

Composed of seven of Syria's most strategically important Islamist insurgent factions, the IF currently comprises at least 50,000 fighters with previously identified military presences in 13 of Syria's 14 governorates (not Tartus). Crucially, three of the IF's constituent groups -- namely Jaish al-Islam, Liwa al-Tawhid, and Suqor al-Sham -- had arguably been the SMC's most powerful armed factions and in forming the IF alongside four groups -- Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya, Kataib Ansar al-Sham, Liwa al-Haq, and Jabhat al-Islamiyya al-Kurdiyya -- who had consistently refused to align themselves with the SMC, Idriss effectively lost control of his key players. Compounding this loss is the reality that the three groups have over time built up some of the most militarily powerful arsenals in the entire opposition. Jaish al-Islam (whose principal military force remains centered around Damascus) alone mans a small fleet of T-72, T-62, and T-54 tanks; BMP-1 and BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles; ZSU-23-4 Shilka self-propelled radar-guided anti-aircraft weapons systems (SPAAGs); and frequently employs 9M113 Konkurs and other Soviet-era anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs). It's even captured and claimed to have deployed a 9K33 Osa low-altitude short-range tactical surface-to-air missile (SAM) system and has been filmed taxiing two Aero L39 Albatros jet trainer aircraft along a runway.

Change breeds tensions

Despite the IF's formation having been the subject of rumor since August (negotiations for its formation in fact began in April), its coming to fruition has shaken up the armed opposition considerably. In its formation announcement and political charter (published on November 26), the IF clearly framed itself as an alternative body to the previously existing SNC and SMC and as such, was perceived by many within pro-SMC circles as a distinct threat to their influence.

This purportedly perceived threat appeared to become reality to all concerned when late on December 6, IF forces took control of as many as a dozen SMC weapons storage warehouses and other facilities in Babisqa immediately south of the strategically valuable Bab al-Hawa border crossing with southern Turkey. In and of itself, the seizure was big news -- the warehouses contained sizeable stocks of portable 90mm M79 Osa anti-tank weapons; unknown rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) projectile variants; heavy machine guns, including pickup truck-deployed ZU-23-2 23mm anti-aircraft guns; a large quantity of small-arms ammunition; and several dozen vehicles. 

However, the context behind the IF's assumption of control at Babisqa appears likely to have been more complex than simply a hostile takeover. While a variety of mutually exclusive accounts have since emerged, the most likely appears based on an appeal for assistance from Idriss to help secure the facilities from attack by an unspecified group, possibly ISIS. Nonetheless, whatever the explanation, both the United States and Britain quickly announced a cessation of non-lethal assistance into northern Syria -- a major blow to the SMC.

Several days later on December 9, in apparent reaction to the IF's emergence, 14 insurgent groups announced the formation of Jabhat Thowar Suriyya, or the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF). Many of the SRF's constituent groups retain their operational focus in northern Idlib governorate -- the main base of IF leader Abu Issa al-Sheikh, of Suqor al-Sham -- and are likely to have perceived the IF's formation as an unsettling development in their home territory. SRF and IF forces subsequently clashed repeatedly in the following days until a December 12 statement saw the SRF pledge to release members of Ahrar al-Sham and Suqor al-Sham who they had taken prisoner. Four days later, SRF leader (and commander in chief of Kataib wa Alwiya Shuhada Suriyya) Jamal Maarouf met with Ahrar al-Sham leader and IF's chief of political affairs Hassan Aboud (Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi) and agreed to cease hostilities and public recriminations.

Jihadists and factionalization

Crucially, Jabhat al-Nusra may have played a role in facilitating the cessation of hostilities between the SRF and the IF. Despite being an avowed al Qaeda organization whose leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, has twice sworn bayah to Ayman al-Zawahiri -- once as a member of the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), a front of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the structure which preceded the formation of ISIS in mid-April; and again immediately following ISIS's formation -- JAN has long attempted to portray itself as a distinctly Syrian movement whose politico-religious objectives are limited to the Syrian theater. In this respect, it has by and large managed to qualitatively differentiate itself from the more transnational image of ISIS and has been accepted by the very large majority of insurgent actors across Syria spanning the moderate to extremist spectrum. During the final weeks of IF formation negotiations in late September and October, JN even appeared on the verge of being recognized on the ground as a mainstream insurgent actor -- particularly having been the signatory of an increasing number of political statements along with both Islamist and more moderate units, some at least on paper linked to the SMC.

Despite its self-evident expansion, ISIS continues to be perceived as a foreign force and the group has in the last several months engaged in localized clashes and other violent incidents with SMC units, the IF, and likely also JAN on sporadic occasions. Despite many supporters' best efforts to suggest otherwise on social media and elsewhere, JAN and ISIS are competitors in Syria. The issue of ISIS's apparent ideological inclusion of takfirism (whereby one has a perceived right to excommunicate another Muslim based on his or her perceived unbelief) and JAN's claim to insist on a more restricted use of the term when employed only by "specialists," may prove a critical dividing point. JAN's closer coordinative and certainly more stable relations with IF, as compared to ISIS, may also prove an issue of qualitative value for JAN.

The current context of shifting balances and inter-factional instability in Syria, most particularly in the north, is undoubtedly now resulting in the factionalization of the armed opposition into several distinct camps: from ISIS and its allied front groups; to JAN; to the IF; to the SRF and SMC loyalists; and finally to other localized and independent units. The core military strength and strategic potential is very much focused within the first three of these camps, with the IF representing the singly most powerful militarily and numerically by some degree.

U.S. efforts and posturing

Within this complex environment of realignment, the United States is unsurprisingly determined to grasp back some element of influence. But in being denied the opportunity to talk with the IF -- some sources blame Turkey, with French and British pressure -- this appears to be a considerable challenge to say the least.

Intriguingly, the day before Ford admitted the IF had refused his offers of dialogue, two unnamed U.S. intelligence officials claimed to confirm long suspected rumors that a Syrian national and allegedly well-trusted al Qaeda figure Mohamed Bahaiah (Abu Khaled al-Suri) -- who Zawahiri had purportedly appointed earlier in 2013 as his "delegate" for managing relations between ISIS and JN -- was in fact a senior member of Ahrar al-Sham. Although two senior Ahrar al-Sham officials I spoke with on December 18 and 19 denied Bahaiah's al Qaeda links, the allegations have existed for many months and several well-known Syria and Iraq-focused jihadists and supporters on social media had discussed late on December 17 and early on December 18 the inevitability of his true identity being revealed, thereby suggesting it had been common knowledge. 

Then, a matter of hours after Ford's admission on Wednesday, the U.S. Treasury Department designated one Gulf-based alleged al Qaeda supporter with purported links to jihadists in Syria and named a Lebanon-based individual as the "recently ... appointed head of [JN's] Palestinian wing in Lebanon." Syria's most powerful Salafist group -- Ahrar al-Sham -- and the more respected and accepted of the two designated jihadist groups in Syria -- JAN -- were very suddenly facing public pressure originating in the United States.

Although clearly recorded previously, in an example of highly coincidental timing, hours later on Wednesday evening Al Jazeera aired the first ever television interview with JAN leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, in which he insisted JAN intended a future post-Assad Syria to be one led by a council of religious leaders and not solely by JAN or any other single entity. Jolani also entered into the wider geopolitical aspects of the region by suggesting that Saudi Arabia (and arguably, by extension, other Sunni Gulf states) should view with concern the international community's diplomatic turn toward its new "ally" Iran. This appeal to the Gulf, home to many private sources of financial income for Syria's Salafist insurgent groups and likely also for JAN, should be read within the wider context of the perception that interested Gulf states may be assuming a more independent policy in Syria than previous ones that had been linked to some extent with the West. Jolani's interview attracted considerable attention and perhaps tellingly, only several hours later, JAN's official Twitter account (@JbhtAnNusrah) was banned and deleted from the Internet.

Perspective

As is usually the case in asymmetric conflicts, power and inter-relational dynamics are in a constant state of flux. However, the realignment of relative power balances in Syria and in the makeup of the armed opposition in recent months has definitively set the stage for the next phase of the war. With a twist of unfortunate irony, the heavy diplomatic pressure placed by Western states upon the SNC and SMC to invest in the Geneva II talks (now scheduled to take place in the Swiss town of Montreux on January 22) has directly resulted in the undermining of the opposition structures it explicitly wants to reinforce. The complete refusal by all key insurgent groups to recognize the legitimacy and authority of the SNC and the prospect of the talks means the West has effectively expected the SNC to maintain a policy that directly damages its own reputation.

A corresponding consequence of this insistence on negotiations with the Syrian government and its backers -- most notably Russia and Iran -- has, as Jolani and others before him have attempted to exploit, pushed the insurgency's most prominent financial backers in the Gulf toward adopting non Western-centric strategies. This is already resulting in a considerable shift in the nature and policy direction of the opposition and what end point is pursued. What has consistently proven true throughout the conflict is the power of external backers to influence events on the ground, particularly the policies and strategies of insurgent groups. This explicit new focus on backing Islamist and Salafist opposition groups such as those within the Islamic Front, many of whom maintain largely cooperative relations with JN and in many cases ISIS, has at least partially been the result of Western action (or inaction) and is clearly detrimental to Western interests.

The U.S. attempt to reach out to the IF was a brave one and it may well have worked had similar offers of talks been aimed several months ago toward the IF's main constituent groups. However, for now, the dynamics are pointed in the other direction. Those parties explicitly aspiring toward the establishment of an Islamic state and expressly willing to continue to entertain the growing presence of JAN and ISIS militants are now significant power players by some margin. Reports late on December 18 suggesting that the Idlib-based Liwa al-Dawoud and an unspecified number of Ahrar al-Sham fighters in Al-Raqqah had pledged bayah to ISIS served to highlight that group's continued ability to co-opt more manpower toward its cause. And Al Jazeera's extended interview on its English language channel with Aboud on December 22 served further to emphasize the frontline role being taken by Syria's leading Islamist actors.

Charles Lister is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. Follow him on Twitter @Charles_Lister.

MEDO HALAB/AFP/Getty Images

Comments

Load More Comments