What a disaster. With American and coalition jets in the air overhead, ostensibly to do battle with Salafi-jihadists, al-Qaeda has been allowed to push rebel brigades the United States purports to support out of almost all of Idlib Province.
The nationalist rebel unit, Jabhat Thuwar as-Suriya (the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front, SRF), led by Jamal Marouf, has fought many times before with al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat an-Nusra, most recently after two assassination attempts against Marouf, on Sept. 12 and 14, which led to a series of armed clashes. These were ended on Sept. 18 with a ceasefire negotiated by intermediaries.
Beginning on Oct. 28, Nusra tore asunder the ceasefire, renewing their attack on SRF in Idlib, where the nationalists have been making real gains, helped by the proximity of the Turkish border and the all-important border-crossing of Bab al-Hawa—now somewhat in the wind after the decapitation of the leadership of Ahrar a-Sham, the most extreme Salafist Syrian-led insurgent force that has previously been closely allied with Nusra. By Monday, Nusra was amassing forces around Sarmanda, near Bab al-Hawa.
Nusra drove the rebellion out of seven villages, and then claimed it was the victim. Interestingly, the combatants seemed to form into coalitions of jihadist-sympathisers and anti-jihadists. Nusra was helped by Jund al-Aqsa, a unit of foreign Salafi-jihadists. Marouf’s men have come to blows with Jund al-Aqsa before, striking down their Emir, Shaykh Abu Abdel Aziz al-Qatari, on Jan. 29, during the anti-ISIS revolt that Marouf helped lead. Ahrar a-Sham and Suqour a-Sham, a conservative Salafist unit that has long been Marouf’s most direct rival in his native Idlib, sided with Nusra, and Harakat Hazm (the Steadfastness Movement), probably the best-known, and one of the most proficient, units among the moderate rebels, Division Thirteen, Liwa Fursan al-Haq (the Knights of Truth Brigade), and (by some accounts) the Aleppo-based Kataib Noureddin az-Zengi joined the SRF.
Then on Friday (appropriately enough, Halloween), Nusra stepped up its attacks, and by the evening of Nov. 1, a wholesale rout of the nationalists seemed to have taken place. A dozen villages had been overrun, Marouf had been forced out of his hometown, Deir Simbel, and now Hazm’s headquarters in Khan as-Subl had fallen to al-Qaeda. Nusra looted the rebels’ weapons stockpiles, including apparently the U.S.-supplied TOW anti-tank missiles. It was, as Ruth Sherlock noted, the “realisation of a nightmare” for a U.S. administration that never wanted to help the rebellion in the first place.
Marouf unleashed a ferocious tirade against Nusra and its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Golani:
“I dare you to show your true self … you Kharijite. We are defending Syria. … You went out for the sake of Iran. … You have distorted Islam. Why are you fighting us? Go and fight the regime. … Jibal az-Zawiya was liberated before Jabhat an-Nusra was founded, you Kharijite. You are … like Baghdadi, you are Dai’ish-lite, you bastard. … You didn’t come here except to help Bashar al-Assad. … I swear to Allah you came here to kill the Syrian people.”
The Kharijite (or khawarij) charge is especially significant, given that this is the language even Salafi-jihadists have adopted in explaining that the Islamic State (I.S.) has gone too far with its takfiri tactics.
Nusra excused what it had done by accusing Marouf of “corruption“. We have been here before. In July, when news of Nusra’s plan for an “Emirate”—a Caliphate-lite, to try to recover some ground in its struggle with the I.S.—leaked, I wrote a post that was over-declarative in saying that al-Qaeda had finally come clean and begun its war on the Syrian rebellion. I pointed out that with much rhetoric about “thieves,” Nusra had “made a quick start in attacking the rebellion in an I.S.-like move to monopolise influence for its pseudo-State.”* What I didn’t appreciate at that time was that Nusra had become significantly decentralised, and what I wrote was only really applicable to Nusra’s Idlib branch.
It should be noted that Nusra’s “morality” campaign, against the smugglers and brigands, kataib haramiya (thieves brigades), in the border areas of Idlib, is genuinely popular, just as the Islamic State gained some real popularity in Deir Ezzor by cracking down on tijjar an-naft (the oil merchants), those profiteering from the region’s hydrocarbon resources. And Marouf and his men have at times been little better than some of those who are just criminals but present themselves in rebel colours.
That said, Marouf and other FSA-branded fighters have been reduced to stealing by a chronic lack of resources. While Nusra is copiously funded—enough for a sophisticated media campaign and to allow it to not only pay its fighters but engage in dawa (missionary work), attempting to prepare a social base for its shari’a regime—the local and nationalist brigades have no media infrastructure to speak of and lose fighters constantly because they don’t have enough money to allow them to eat or weapons for them to fight.
Thus, the rebels can’t feed their fighters, have to loot to keep supplied what fighters they do have, alienating the crucial support networks among the population, and don’t have the weapons to transform the support they do have into military power. These interlinked problems come down essentially to a lack of money, and when set against the deep-pocketed donors to the Salafi-inclined groups on the Gulf—freelancers like Hajjaj al-Ajmi that publicly back both Ahrar a-Sham and Jabhat an-Nusra and States like Qatar that (openly) back Ahrar and (less straightforwardly) engage in policies that benefit Nusra—it should be no surprise the Salafists were able to overtake the nationalists within the insurgency by early 2013; the only real surprise is that the nationalists held parity as long as they did.
The attacks on the SRF in places like Dakoush in the summer, which I referred to, were also part of an effort by Nusra to seize the borders. This was partly about supplies, but as analyst Faysal Itani has pointed out, the U.S. decision to strike at Nusra in Syria, while openly announcing it intended to use the rebels the U.S. was supporting against both the I.S. and al-Qaeda, “made the opposition appear just threatening enough to provoke [Nusra], but not so threatening as to deter the jihadist group. The results are on clear display in Idlib.” And the third motivating factor was the Islamic State.
The idea of the Caliphate is an alluring idea in Islam generally, with differences of emphasis about how to get there, and the idea is especially appealing to Salafi-jihadists. Since I.S.’s Caliphate declaration, al-Qaeda has sought not to openly condemn it but to undermine it by effectively claiming to have gotten there first—this is what lay behind the proposed Emirate. It is true that Osama bin Laden and Ayman az-Zawahiri had given their baya to Mullah Omar, and that the Taliban’s leader had been referred to as Amir al-Mumineen (Commander of the Faithful). But al-Qaeda had not made much of this. This has now changed, with al-Qaeda setting Omar up as a “counter-caliph” to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Nusra beginning to impose its will, including the hudud, in Idlib is part of this. The Idlib branch of Nusra appears to think it has taken the “hearts and minds” program as far as it can go in Syria, and wants—and thinks it needs—something to show for three years of warfare. Nusra might have pretty good poll numbers in Syria in terms of its governance and fighting prowess, but its politico-religious program remains far from the majority and Nusra actually controls surprisingly little. As the saying goes, you can’t beat something with nothing, and by staking out an Emirate in Idlib, Nusra would have something concrete with which to fight I.S.’s appeal.
Worrying as these dynamics are within Syria, it is the external—specifically American—dynamics that are the most troublesome. For example, the rebellion asked for help from the U.S. on Oct. 31, and was told its message got to CENTCOM. No help was forthcoming. Moreover, as in the remark quoted above from Ms. Sherlock, everybody knows how those who dismiss this rebellion as either worse than Assad or militarily incapable, which includes significant sections of the Obama administration who have “largely written off” the FSA-branded rebels, would react: by saying, “We told you so.” As Michael Weiss summarised the manoeuvre, “Give meagre arms to rebels, let the regime bomb them, watch al-Qaeda beat them, [and] then say they suck“.
The worst part is the suspicion that the U.S. administration is not all that devastated that its anointed proxies have been nearly destroyed. To be clear: It is not likely that President Obama consciously wants Syria’s moderate rebels to be destroyed. But his operating principles, instincts, and strategic intentions in the region make the destruction of the Syrian rebels a logical outcome, and a sacrifice he is likely to be able to stomach.
As so often with Obama’s Syria policy, there has been another round of dithering indecision—this week’s question is whether to launch further strikes on Nusra—but the basic framework remains in place. Obama is concerned with Syria only as an adjunct to his Iraq policy, and has effectively ceded Syria as an Iranian sphere of influence. The result is, as Faysal Itani summed it up: “the United States appears to have done everything in its power to condemn Syria’s moderate opposition to failure, while ensuring its jihadist opponents succeed.”
The announcement on Monday that the State Department plans to cut the entire budget for the group documenting Assad/Iran’s human rights abuses adds to the sense that Obama sees Syria’s moderate rebels as an irritant, standing in the way of his grand strategy in the region. The removal of these turbulent moderates would be convenient at a time when the Obama administration’s unannounced policy of détente with the Iranian theocracy is close to “coming out,” and one of the ways it is sure to be sold is as a necessity, a sad but inevitable bowing to reality.
The narrative that Obama tried to support the moderate rebels and they failed, leaving Iran as the only bulwark against the jihadists, is already taking hold. It requires ignoring unwelcome facts, namely that the rebels have never actually received meaningful U.S. help, and Assad’s (Iran’s) role in deliberately creating a binary regime-or-the-jihadists choice. But this ability to block out reality seems well advanced. In a near-incredible moment, even by her standards, the U.S.’s lead negotiator with Iran at the nuclear talks, Wendy Sherman, was quoted saying, “The world is clearly better off” for the de facto collaboration of the U.S. in Iran’s imperial push into the Arab world. When senior U.S. officials can say that in public, all bets are off.
Update: A few hours after this post went up, Ahrar a-Sham claimed that the U.S.-led coalition attacked its HQ in Mohandiseen and Basiqa, Idlib, Rif Idlib. If that is true it could well be the end of American influence with the Syrian rebellion. Attacking I.S. was supported by everyone. Attacking Nusra was not popular but they are al-Qaeda and so it was understood why the U.S. would attack them. Attacking Ahrar crosses a whole new line: whatever the pro-Qaeda sympathies of some of its factions, it is a non-transnationalist group, and had actually been trending the other way. If Ahrar has been attacked deliberately, it will make all other rebels feel they could be next. Whether Obama has consciously decided to just come right out with it and side with Assad/Iran, or whether this is yet another example of his Iran détente incentive structure leading him astray, the net result would be the same: the U.S. will appear to now be going after all opponents of the Assad regime.
Update 2: CENTCOM’s statement makes two interesting points, one by omission and one by commission. Firstly, CENTCOM makes no mention of Ahrar a-Sham, instead mentioning only the “Khorasan Group“. This suggests either that Ahrar a-Sham was not a target, which means it was a case of mistaken intelligence, or Ahrar was a target and CENTCOM knows enough about the incompatibility of attacking Ahrar with the administration’s ostensible intention to shore-up a moderate opposition. As to why Ahrar could have been hit, it is possible that the brigade or leaders targeted were sheltering wanted international terrorists. The second point of interest is that the statement explicitly says that the “strikes were not in response to the Nusrah Front’s clashes with the Syrian moderate opposition”. Why America would specifically deny its intention to help the nationalist rebels (its officially-designated allies) against al-Qaeda (one of the few officially-designated foes Obama admits the U.S. has in Syria) is not clear. But it does conform to the argument above that the Obama administration does not seriously intend to buttress the moderate rebels into a force capable of being the successor regime, or even part of a successor regime via the long-awaited “political solution”.
Update 3: A report in The Daily Beast said the strikes against Jabhat an-Nusra were an “improvised effort to relieve the rebels and prevent the loss of more of their strongholds”. A former U.S. official is quoted saying the U.S. has now widened the campaign to “combating ISIS and al-Nusra in Syria, because they pose an increasing threat to the opposition” (italics added). This is dubious in the extreme. If these airstrikes were meant to help the rebellion there seems no reason not to say so since the initial intelligence assessment was certainly correct that the U.S.’s stepped-up rhetorical support would provoke Nusra into attacking the rebellion.
[*] On Nov. 4, Golani put out an audio-message, in which he reiterated the charge of criminality against Marouf, added that he was an agent of foreign—U.S. and Saudi—intelligence, and defended the role of foreigners within Nusra, saying the I.S. claims that muhajireen were being marginalised within Nusra were completely false. In what I wrote in July I noted that this issue of foreign fighters might be the crux on which Nusra falls because it is the most concrete symbol of the fact that the group—at least its leadership—have an agenda that has little to do with Syria.