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Markaz

Are Syrian Islamists moving to counterbalance Al-Qaeda? Will it last?

On March 22, the Syrian insurgency witnessed the latest in a series of mergers, when the Islamist Suqor al-Sham faction effectively
subsumed itself
into one of the country’s most powerful organizations, Ahrar al-Sham. Both groups had been amongst the very first armed groups to form in Syria in mid-2011 and although Suqor al-Sham has reduced in size over the past 12-months, both have consistently been amongst the most consequential actors in the fight against the Assad regime. Following the union, Ahrar al-Sham now finds itself in command of approximately 15,000 fighters across Syria, with active operations in 10 of Syria’s 14 governorates.

This merger was only the latest sign that Ahrar al-Sham has begun re-asserting its preeminent position within the broader Syrian insurgency. Although its membership had not necessarily declined throughout 2014, the year had been a challenging one due in part to a serious cut back in funding and support from Qatar and Turkey and also to the group’s key role in fighting against the Islamic State (IS), alongside its military ally Jabhat al-Nusra — Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.

This latter alliance with Jabhat al-Nusra has been a consistent facet of insurgent dynamics in Syria, but not only in terms of conservative Salafist groups like Ahrar al-Sham. In fact, while rarely acknowledged explicitly in public, the vast majority of the Syrian insurgency has coordinated closely with Al-Qaeda since mid-2012 – and to great effect on the battlefield. But while this pragmatic management of relationships may have secured opposition military victories against the regime, it has also come at an extraordinary cost. The assimilation of Al-Qaeda into the broader insurgency has discouraged the U.S. and its European allies from more definitively backing the ‘moderate’ opposition. That, by extension, has encouraged the intractability of the conflict we see today and the rise of jihadist factions like Jabhat al-Nusra, IS, and many others.

Now finding themselves involved in the fifth year of a brutal civil conflict that has left at least 220,000 people dead, displaced 10 million others inside and outside the country, and trapped over 640,000 under military siege, the strategic thinking within the Syrian insurgency is subtly shifting. Since October and November 2014, the leaderships of countless Syrian insurgent groups — encompassing ‘moderate’ Free Syrian Army (FSA), mainstream Islamists and hardline Syrian Salafists — have been expressing private concern in person to this author regarding the worrying evolution of their long-time ally Jabhat al-Nusra. Back in November 2014, an Ahrar al-Sham leader described the group as leading the revolution “down the wrong path,” while a moderate Islamist from Aleppo exclaimed that “Nusra no longer wants what we want — Al-Qaeda is taking over.”

Despite inaccurate reports that the latest merger of Ahrar al-Sham and Suqor al-Sham represented a hardening of the group’s ideological stance, the unity initiative has instead been described to this author by several Syrian Islamist officials as a conscious attempt to balance Jabhat al-Nusra’s growing power, particularly in the northwest governorate of Idlib. One official claimed the impetus for the (long-discussed) unification of Ahrar al-Sham and Suqor al-Sham came from Nusra’s “aggressive behavior” in Idlib, while another said “pressure” from other forces in the north had encouraged the move. A senior Ahrar al-Sham official on the other hand described the merger as motivated entirely by a broader “strategy” of unification and for it being “a duty and a natural thing,” but one that by consequence would “create a balance in general in the north” — a distinction between motive and consequence. Despite this latter nuance, the broader assessments may reveal a hugely significant new dynamic — albeit one that is still largely concealed beneath other revolutionary developments.

Thus far, concerns regarding Nusra — and they are entirely genuine — have been revealed only in private discussions. Why? A simple explanation can be provided in two parts. Firstly, Jabhat al-Nusra remains an acutely powerful force on the ground in Syria and one that the remainder of the opposition is reliant upon to maintain an effective front against regime and pro-regime forces. Secondly, the only reason this reliance on a now largely untrusted organization continues is for the lack of any better alternative, namely an expressly Syrian insurgent opposition more conclusively backed by the West.

In short, the insurgent opposition inside Syria lacks the necessary strength and sustainable sources of lethal and non-lethal support — in other words, confidence — to more unambiguously assert itself and its values on the ground. While Western states have provided lethal assistance to some opposition factions, this has been both far too limited in scale and scope.

At this point, many will make the argument that the Syrian insurgency — excluding Al-Qaeda and other like-minded jihadists — has become more uniformly Islamic in both appearance and rhetoric. While this is undoubtedly true, it also does not take away from the fact that Syrians of all stripes still identify themselves as Syrians first. While the public rhetoric of many groups may suggest otherwise, a sustained process of face-to-face political engagement with the leaderships of over 100 of the most powerful factions on the ground over the past 10-months has laid bare to this author a crucially important distinction between public hyperbole and private attitudes.

While many groups maintain or have more recently adopted seemingly conservative Islamic foundations, they share the same fundamental stated objectives of the U.S. and its allies: (1) to defeat Assad and/or ensure a Geneva I-style political transition; (2) to combat extremism and re-assert Syrian values of equality across ethnicity and sect; and (3) help establish a singly united state of Syria open to engagement with the international community at large. Of course there are differences on more specific issues and on semantics, but there is also a willingness to discuss and debate this through dialogue.

This reveals perhaps the most damaging failure in Western policy on Syria: the lack of a genuinely effectively program of engagement with the armed opposition based inside Syria. So far, contact in this respect has been largely constrained to a smaller sub-section of groups identified as sufficiently ‘moderate’ and has been primarily led by security and intelligence personnel, rather than diplomatic staff. “We’ve had some meetings with French intelligence, British and American, but they never seem very concerned with our situation,” was how one FSA commander described his engagement with the West. “We once met with an American, but our requests for follow-up meetings since then have gone unanswered,” exclaimed an Ahrar al-Sham political official. Perhaps most despairingly, the leader of an FSA group widely known to be supported by the U.S. pleaded with this author to have a meeting “with the Americans — it’s like they’re not here anymore, I have heard nothing from them.”

As of today, there is no immediately discernible end in sight for conflict in Syria. The Assad regime continues to indiscriminately murder its own citizens, and in so doing is violating international law and United Nations Security Council resolutions. IS is not only surviving in its areas of current control in Syria’s north and east, but it is covertly infiltrating areas further south, including the capital Damascus. Meanwhile, Jabhat al-Nusra consolidating itself as a dominant actor in northern Syria appears to be testing the patience and strategic pragmatism within the broader insurgency.

This provides the West with a crucial and potentially invaluable opening for engagement with a broader swath of Syria’s armed opposition, to include Islamists. Engagement does not have to be a prerequisite for the provision of support, but is merely of value in and of itself. Syrians within the opposition are highly unlikely to give up the cause of their revolution any time soon, but their intense desire for a relationship with the West is not necessarily guaranteed into the long-term. In a worrying sign of desperation, one moderate commander told this author:
“We eagerly want to talk with the West and to show them what we stand for, but our total allegiance is to the revolution and toppling the regime. If the West doesn’t want to help us with this and receive our requests [for meetings], we’ll turn to others who do.”

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