An effort is underway, led by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, mediated by Qatar, to unify the largest Syrian Islamist rebel brigades. With these regional powers now seemingly reading from the same script after years of internecine competition that has fractured the Syrian rebellion, there is also talk of a direct Saudi-Turkish intervention in Syria to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. While increased support to the Syrian insurgency from the Gulf and Turkey is already arriving, a direct intervention seems unlikely, though not, in the current context after the Saudi-led coalition went it alone in Yemen, impossible.
Zahran Alloush, the leader of Jaysh al-Islam (JAI), arrived in Turkey on April 17. Yesterday, Syrian opposition sources told Al-Hayat Alloush was in talks to unite with Ahrar a-Sham’s leader, Hashem al-Sheikh, to unify the two groups. Ahrar now also includes Suqour a-Sham, and by Al-Hayat’s report, Suqour’s former leader (now Ahrar’s deputy) Ahmed Issa al-Sheikh is the go-between.
Faylaq a-Sham, effectively the Muslim Brotherhood’s armed wing, based around Damascus, was said by an opposition source to be preparing to join Ahrar within hours, bringing with them 7,000 to 9,000 fighters. This will leave Ahrar with nearly 40,000 fighters. [Update: Faylaq a-Sham denies the Al-Hayat report.] JAI has around 30,000. The intention after that is to join this Ahrar-JAI coalition up with the FSA-branded rebels in Deraa and Quneitra, al-Jabhat al-Janubiya (The Southern Front).
One sticking point between Ahrar and JAI is reported to be Faylaq ar-Rahman (FAR).
Little is known about FAR, but they seem to have come about as a result of a merger of FSA-type groups in early 2014, built on the remnants of the Maghawir (Commando) groups, which were concentrated in East Ghouta and were rather powerful in 2013, with branches in Qalamoun and Homs (there was a Maghawir Baba Amro). Some Maghawir groups Islamized their names before they were disbanded, and they are said to have had—and perhaps still do—strong ties to Jordan and Saudi Arabia. FAR is said to have received American anti-tank missiles.
FAR was involved in the unity initiatives in East Ghouta through 2014, with JAI (the most powerful rebel group in the area), Ahrar, Ittihad al-Islami li-Ajnad a-Sham, Alwiya al-Habib al-Mustafa, and even Jabhat an-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, which has largely eschewed involvement in joint shari’a tribunals and command rooms. The regime’s terror-sieges, however, and the need to resist the spread of the “ceasefires” by which the Assad regime had been picking off Damascus suburbs, plus the threat of the Islamic State (ISIS), induced Nusra to go along.
Despite FAR’s roots in the FSA, it seems to have evolved in an Islamist direction. In January 2015, Alloush announced his intention to “cleanse the land of corruption,” and accused Jaysh al-Umma of offences “ranging from blasphemy to drug dealing, and hinted that it had collaborated with regime forces,” and then routed them, “effectively end[ing] the group’s presence” in Douma. FAR and Nusra sided with JAI. But Al-Hayat says that FAR drifted into Ahrar’s orbit, and was expelled by Alloush from the united shari’a tribunal.
Whatever the intricacies, the massive flare-ups of violence, with regime attacks in Ghouta and Qalamoun in the last few days, are likely to help ease JAI and Ahrar past the FAR problem.
Alloush is not the most sympathetic character: he is given to wild conspiracy theories, and has damaged the moral standing of the opposition with furious tirades against Alawis and questionable military tactics such as shelling regime areas to deter regime airstrikes. Alloush also stands accused of kidnapping the “Douma Four,” the activists of the Violations Documentations Centre—Razan Zaitouneh, Samira Khalil, Wa’el Hamada, and Zaitouneh’s husband Nazem Hamadi—who had not been complementary about Alloush’s administration before they went missing on Dec. 9, 2013. More recent accusations accuse Alloush of assassinating troublesome activists.
The paradox of JAI is that while it is quite an extreme Salafist organization, it is one of the most ferociously anti-ISIS units inside Syria. (It is also notable that some Saudi ulema do not like Alloush, considering him “Sururi,” a politico-religious faction that fuses Ikhwanism and Salafism.)
There has been increasing resistance to ISIS in Deir Ezzor, not just from the al-Bukamal-based White Shroud, but from a new group, Saraya Hizum. Saraya Hizum’s social media presence is associated with Alloush, and they gave as their reason for striking down a Tunisian ISIS emir in al-Shaddadi that ISIS had beheaded a JAI fighter in Qalamoun. JAI has waged an unrelenting campaign against ISIS’ sleeper cells in southern Syria, and when ISIS came out in the open with its attack into Yarmouk last month, it was JAI that tried most forcefully to resist it.
The other immovable fact is that JAI provides muscle to the rebellion, as shown in the recent parade of 1,700 “graduates” of JAI’s military camps in East Ghouta. JAI is one of the few rebel groups not to have been severely weakened by the fighting after the anti-ISIS revolt in January 2014 because ISIS has always been weak in southern Syria, but if this fighting escalates, and ISIS gathers recruits, or imports them, that could change.
Ahrar a-Sham is the most extreme and most powerful Syrian rebel group, and this has remained true despite being heavily involved in the fighting with ISIS and the destruction of its leadership in a mysterious explosion just before the U.S. airstrikes—of which Ahrar has been a target—began in Syria last September. Ahrar has connections with al-Qaeda, though these have been showing signs of distance recently.
The context of the Ahrar-JAI unity initiative is instructive.
On March 29, an Islamist coalition led by Ahrar and including Nusra, called Jaysh al-Fatah, led the insurgents who overran Idlib City, only the second provincial capital the regime has lost. Jaysh al-Fatah held together afterwards and pushed south. On April 22, several simultaneous offensives began, and in short order the insurgency had taken over an important military base, Qarmeed (a.k.a. Brick Factory), a key strategic town, Jisr a-Shughur, on the road between Idlib and the Alawi coast, and a series of villages in Hama Province, with rebels from Latakia involved, showing the increased coordination. An insurgent offensive into Latakia, the heartland of the regime’s support-base, has now begun, which is likely to incur fierce regime resistance.
Meanwhile, the Assad regime is itself retrenching. Iran flooded in foreign Shi’a jihadists (mainly Iraqis) from late 2012 and combined the irregular forces like the Shabiha with the army to create a sectarian militia, the National Defence Forces, to rescue Assad. But the regime is now at the limit of this strategy. Iran secured the regime’s control over the western corridor—Damascus, Homs, Hama City, Tartus, and the southern two-thirds of Latakia—but the threat that the regime would retake Aleppo City has receded, and the regime is now making plans to evacuate Aleppo and Deraa Cities. Demographics are remorseless; a regime based on less-than-ten-percent of the population cannot hold onto all the populated areas forever. Iran has begun to retreat to key zones inside Syria and the Iran-directed NDF has clashed with the remnants of the regular army. The only thing that could allow Assad to expand his kill-zone is a massive cash infusion to Iran from sanctions relief.
Behind the insurgent gains on the ground is increased regional coordination. Saudi Arabia called off its anti-Muslim Brotherhood campaign, thus improving relations with Qatar and Turkey, which has enabled the focus to be on the menace of Iran. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly agreed to work with the Saudis to boost support to the Syrian rebellion during a visit to Riyadh on March 2, and that support has arrived. There still remain differences: while Erdogan foamed at the mouth during Israel’s incursion into Gaza last summer, the Saudis, Egypt, the U.A.E., and Jordan stayed studiously quiet. Erdogan is also still bitterly hostile to the Saudi-sponsored Egyptian junta against which he engaged in a proxy war in Libya. But a modus vivendi has been reached.
The Saudis engaged the Brothers in Yemen as part of the campaign against the Iran-backed Houthis, and Riyadh has given TOWs to Syrian insurgents, including Brotherhood-linked groups it previously tried to isolate, to help turn back the regime offensives, which are being led—north and south—by Iranian proxy Shi’a militias. Riyadh also lifted its restrictions on Ankara and Doha to the extent that they were the driving force behind the insurgent gains in northern Syria.
These two factors—the Saudis finally drawing a red line for Iran’s imperialism in Yemen and the gains of non-ISIS insurgents against the Assad/Iran regime in Syria—have damaged ISIS’ popularity in the Arab world more than eight months of American-led airstrikes, showing an alternative to ISIS in resisting Iran for many Sunnis who now identify as madhloumiya (an embattled community), a thoroughly Shi’a concept.
The Saudi-Turkish-Qatari reconciliation was supposed lead to a conference in March to create a Syrian opposition body that had the legitimacy of being connected to the armed factions, unlike ETILAF. That was delayed by the onset of Operation DECISIVE STORM in Yemen, and has apparently now been delayed again pending consideration of other options.
One of those options is reported to be a military option, with Turkey putting troops into northern Syria and Saudi Arabia providing air cover. While this report was confirmed as correct “in principle,” it was also judged a little too early in its level of detail. Subsequent reports suggested “air cover” might take the form of anti-aircraft munitions, especially in the south.
A Turkish ground operation in Syria is very unlikely. Erdogan has gotten out ahead on Syria before, and been burned. Last time Erdogan only had political capital invested; he will not be left holding the bag for a military debacle, which it could be if America is not on-board.
It is precisely the American factor, however, that suggests some kind of increased Saudi-Turkish intervention in Syria is coming. President Obama’s recent interview with Thomas Friedman was notable mainly for the very worrying things it said about Iran, but there was also this buried remark:
[W]hen you look at … Syria … there’s been a great desire for the United States to get in there and do something. But the question is: Why is it that we can’t have Arabs fighting [against] the terrible human rights abuses that have been perpetrated, or fighting against what Assad has done?
One may wonder if this is not another piece of meaningless bluster from an administration with a messaging strategy to explain why it can’t act rather than a foreign policy. But there was a follow-up report by a reliable administration sounding board that Obama “might even endorse a Turkish military move into northern Syria,” which suggests that this wasn’t just a rhetorical device to explain Obama’s inaction in Syria.
The Syrian opposition noticed this remark; the Saudis certainly did, attributing it to the effect of their Yemen intervention. The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen was as much a message for the Obama administration as Iran, intended to show that the Gulf States would not accept the imposition of a U.S.-underwritten Iranian Imperium quietly.
The U.S. was informed late of the Saudi operation in Yemen, and has only offered rhetorical and logistical support—as opposed to the firepower it provided Iran’s proxies in Tikrit. The U.S. is also pushing the Saudis to accommodate Iran’s interests in Yemen via “dialogue,” while the Saudi-led coalition is determined to shut out Iran, and has begun constructing a ground force in Yemen to benefit from the airstrikes. If the Saudis prevail in Yemen, against the wishes of the Obama administration, it may change the dynamics to allow Riyadh to extract a grudging U.S. ascent to an operation in Syria, but with Obama’s firm commitment to détente with Iran, and the ceding of Syria as an Iranian sphere of influence, this seems unlikely.
Ultimately, the unification, even informally, of Ahrar a-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam would be a signal that the contest between the Saudi-led bloc and the Qatar-Turkey alliance that has shattered the unity of the Syrian opposition is coming to an end. Ahrar is closely associated with Qatar and Turkey; JAI is sternly in the Saudi camp. If the Saudi-aligned, FSA-branded rebels who maintain dominance in southern Syria—and who have shown signs of increased coordination with JAI—can be brought into this alliance it would bring together two parties of roughly equal size, and with the menace of Iranian domination of the region now clear for all to see, the chances seem greater for true coordination, rather than a short-term agreement that both sides try to exploit to maximize their own power. Perhaps this will play out as Syrian rebel unification efforts usually do—see the Levant Front and the Islamic Front—and end in tatters in a couple of months. But if it succeeds it would orient Ahrar toward the mainstream insurgency and, in combination with the Gulf efforts trying to draw Nusra away from al-Qaeda, this alliance would provide a means of side-lining the globalist Salafi-jihadists.
The obstacles to a direct Saudi-Turkish intervention are formidable. America would almost certainly oppose it: the Obama administration has decided that Sunni terrorism is the central problem in the region and the expansion of Iran’s power is the solution—actively helping Iran in Iraq and Syria. Turkey’s political-military split and the risk Turkey runs of inflaming the Kurdish separatists if it clashes with the PYD inside Syria also agitates against an intervention, as does al-Saud’s minimal capabilities. Perhaps the Saudi moves are only intended to pressure the U.S. into moving against Assad—creating facts on the ground through the provision of extra resources to the rebels that the U.S. will have to support—rather than a serious effort to organize a direct regional intervention to oust Assad. Time will tell as always, but with the clock running down toward an Iranian nuclear weapon and the Islamic Republic cementing its dominance over the region with U.S. backing, it is just possible to believe that the regional powers really have decided to act alone in Syria this time.