Whatever pretence there was left in Syria’s “cessation of hostilities” (CoH)—which was never more than a reduction in hostilities—enacted at midnight on 26/27 February is now at an end. Russia and the regime of Bashar al-Assad have never ceased attempts to militarily weaken the armed opposition and escalated with a concerted campaign of aerial bombardment against Aleppo City on 22 April. The insurgency fully mobilized in response on 5 May with a major offensive south of the city. The dynamics set in place by Russia’s intervention—the bolstering of the Assad regime and the strengthening of extremist forces in the insurgency—have been in full view with this latest crisis, as has the longer-term trend of the United States moving toward the position of Assad, Russia, and especially Iran in Syria.
Jaysh al-Fatah and the Aleppo Offensive
The Jaysh al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) coalition that drove the regime from Idlib City in March 2015 and expelled it from Idlib Province in September was reconstituted on Monday. Faylaq al-Sham (The Syrian Legion/Corps) has rejoined Jaysh al-Fatah, having left over ideological disagreements with Jund al-Aqsa, a group that started as an al-Qaeda front and is now—after its al-Qaeda leadership left—trending into the Islamic State’s (IS’s) orbit. Probably for this reason, Jund al-Aqsa has been excluded from Jaysh al-Fatah this time around. Faylaq al-Sham is a moderate Islamist group that has been drawn closer to the West recently, including having been seen in the last few months operating TOW anti-tank missiles, while expanding its influence throughout Aleppo. The only other change is the addition of the largely-Uyghur al-Hizb al-Islami al-Turkistani fil Bilad al-Sham (The Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria, or TIP)*, a Jihadi-Salafist group that is heavily dependent on Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch.
Jaysh al-Fatah retains as its dominant forces al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. Of the other components of the original Jaysh al-Fatah: the smaller Islamist groups Ajnad al-Sham (not to be confused with al-Ittihad al-Islami li-Ajnad al-Sham, the Sufi rebel group in East Ghouta that recently merged its forces in that area with Faylaq al-Rahman) and Liwa al-Haqq remain, as does Jaysh al-Sunna, a small, non-ideological faction that was absorbed by Ahrar in February.
When the offensive began in the early afternoon (British time) yesterday, it honed in on the regime-held Khan Tuman, south-west of Aleppo City, with reports of fighting in the adjacent district of al-Khalidiya and insurgent shelling against Barnah and Khalasa. It is likely that the intention is to clear the ground for a run at the important town of al-Hader further to the south and just east of al-Eis, which al-Nusra-led insurgents took over temporarily on 2 April and where a regime plane was shot down on 5 April. Iranian-led forces conquered al-Eis on 12 April, sapping the momentum of this insurgent push. The next attempt was not long in coming, however, when simultaneous offensives in southern Aleppo, Latakia, and Hama erupted on 18 April.
It was Ajnad that made the first formal announcement that Jaysh al-Fatah was moving in southern Aleppo and Ajnad and Jund al-Aqsa were the most visible for some time in terms of the social media and video output from Aleppo. Soon enough the centralized—effectively al-Nusra—output began. Al-Nusra deployed suicide bombers in Khan Tuman and the town appears to have fallen overnight. A video allegedly showing the capture of a member of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was filmed from a drone. Later in the day, Jaysh al-Fatah disclosed their capture of a foreign Shi’a jihadist, very likely an Afghan Hazara of Liwa Fatemiyoun, one of the many IRGC-run militias on which the Assad regime is now dependent for any offensive capacity and increasingly for defence, too.
Concurrent with this, in Zahraa district and New Aleppo on the western edge of Aleppo City and near the nearby military base, mainstream rebels vetted by the West recommenced an assault they had begun on 3 May, when Jaysh al-Tahrir (which contains the U.S.-vetted Division 46), Liwa Suqour al-Jabal, Division Sixteen, and (less formally in the U.S.-supported camp) al-Jabhat al-Shamiya (The Levant Front) were seen using TOWs.
Russia, meanwhile, was in the middle of staging a concert in Palmyra, a city whose partially-choreographed exchange between the pro-Assad coalition and IS had been the cause of such misplaced optimism in March when the propaganda of Assad guarding the boundary for civilization was so credulously accepted by so many. The concert was evidently meant to reinforce that narrative, but the pro-regime coalition’s responding to the Aleppo offensive by bombing the Kamouna refugee camp in the far-north of Idlib Province, thirty miles away from Aleppo City, killing thirty people and burning down more than fifty tents, was surely a far better indication of what Vladimir Putin and his client mean by “modern civilization“.
Al-Qaeda and the United States
The waves of insurgent offensives in Aleppo certainly have been pushed by al-Nusra, which found that during the reduction of violence the moderate opposition was reinvigorated. Without extreme violence imposed on Sunni communities by the Assad regime and its enablers, al-Nusra’s tactical usefulness to the opposition was diminished. For the first time in more than three years it was possible to hold peaceful protests of the kind that began the uprising. The nationalist, revolutionary discourse re-asserted itself, and it wasn’t long before al-Nusra cracked down, in Maarat al-Numan on 11 March, leading to a counter-reaction that threatened its long-term durability in Syria.
Needing to undermine the CoH, al-Nusra met with armed opposition leaders on about 20 March, Charles Lister reports. “They presented some convincing arguments,” an opposition commander who attended one of the meetings said. The argument doubtless will have been that the pro-regime forces continued their war against the rebellion, albeit at a lower level and in a more localized fashion, while the rebels were restrained from responding. This kind of one-sided restraint was never going to last, so al-Nusra had plenty to work with. “But,” added the commander, “mostly, it seemed we were being threatened: If we didn’t join the operation, we would be seen as an enemy.”
The U.S. has in recent weeks put a renewed emphasis on getting the mainstream rebellion to separate itself militarily from al-Nusra. While a defensible (and ultimately necessary) goal, the method has not been. As one FSA commander put it to Lister: “Don’t you think we would prefer not to have al-Nusra in our trenches? They represent everything we are opposed to. Sometimes, they are the same as the regime. But what can we do when our supposed friends abroad give us nothing to assert ourselves?” But rather than—finally—empower the moderate armed opposition so that it is not dependent on al-Nusra, instead, the U.S. effectively leveraged the prospect of Russian atrocities against its own allies and in practice tried to have them surrender Aleppo City to the pro-Assad forces.
On 20 April 2016, as Russia was clearly building up to an attack on Aleppo City, Colonel Steve Warren, the spokesman for Operation INHERENT RESOLVE, came very close to saying that the U.S. position was one of support for Russia’s airstrikes against Aleppo City. While “concerned” about the Russian moves, said Col. Warren, “it’s primarily al-Nusra who holds Aleppo, and of course, al-Nusra is not part of the cessation of hostilities.”
But the eastern part of Aleppo City that is out of regime control is not held “primarily” by al-Nusra, as a representative of al-Nusra himself conceded. The Nusrawis in the city are mostly locals and al-Nusra is a distinct minority. It is true, as Hassan Hassan notes, that al-Nusra has an outsize influence compared to its numbers because while al-Nusra “does not hold territory [in Aleppo City], it controls vital services and institutions, such as the electricity company and the sharia commission.” But it is also true that al-Nusra had to rebuild from scratch when a lot of its Aleppo-based affiliates turned out to be IS agents, publicly defected after the announcement of the schism between al-Nusra and its parent organization in April 2013, and were then pushed out by the rebel offensive that cleared IS from Aleppo City and much of the west and centre of the province in early 2014. And this rebuilding is in the face of popular resistance. “Jabhat al-Nusra is widely rejected by citizens of the city, and clashes with local groups are not infrequent,” Hassan adds.
Al-Nusra has seized the opportunity of the pro-regime coalition’s assault on Aleppo to try—as it did during the early stages of rebellion in the city in 2012—to re-insert itself into revolutionary dynamics. The pro-Assad forces went on the offensive in late January, capturing areas in north Latakia before driving on to take control of parts of north-western Aleppo Province and cut the final Aleppine supply-line into Turkey for the rebellion on 2 February. The pro-regime coalition broke the incomplete sieges on Nubl and Zahra the next day and began to move against the provincial capital after that. Al-Nusra had withdrawn from northern Aleppo in August 2015—and remains largely absent from that area, having no more than 100 fighters in the Azaz pocket—redeploying those forces from Aleppo to Idlib. On 26 January 2016, as the pro-regime forces were advancing, al-Nusra sent a convoy of up to two-hundred vehicles that by one estimate constituted 1,000 fighters to Aleppo City. This immediately provoked resistance, however, especially from the local, Free Syrian Army-style groups but also from Ahrar al-Sham, and by mid-February more than two-thirds of al-Nusra’s arrivals had been sent out of Aleppo City, either taking up residence in the south (and some in the west) of Aleppo Province or returning to Idlib Province, where al-Nusra is strongest.In sum, al-Nusra has a presence in Aleppo City**, and Ahrar al-Sham, too, is present, as is the Abu Amara Special Forces, a unit of 300 rebels led by Muhanna Jaffala, which joined Ahrar in October while remaining somewhat autonomous. But the rebel-held areas of Aleppo City are overwhelmingly under the control of Fatah Halab (Aleppo Conquest), an operations room that specifically excludes al-Nusra.
The Fatah Halab factions dominating Aleppo City include some larger groups of moderate Islamists who have received Western support before, notably the increasingly powerful Faylaq al-Sham and the Levant Front, which has a significant presence in the city. Kataib Nooradeen al-Zangi has also been active in Aleppo City, though it appears to have redeployed resources toward its stronghold west of the provincial capital. In terms of numbers, however, U.S.-vetted, Free Syrian Army-branded groups are the most substantial force in rebel-held Aleppo City: Tajamu Fastaqim Kama Umrat, the Northern Division, Liwa Suqour al-Jabal (notably in the northern suburbs like Handarat), Liwa al-Sultan Murad (also concentrated in the north), Jaysh al-Mujahideen, the First Regiment, and Divisions Sixteen and Forty-Six.
Col. Warren’s statement that Aleppo was fair game for Russia because al-Nusra held it was clearly not a slip of the tongue, but rather an administration line, because it was echoed within forty-eight hours by Secretary of State John Kerry, who said it “has proven harder to separate [the rebels and al-Nusra] than we thought,” and that “Russian impatience and a regime impatience with the terrorists” was quite understandable. (Warren did later walk back his statement, saying al-Nusra only “controls the northwest suburbs” of Aleppo City—and even that is stretching it: al-Nusra’s numbers in the Handarat and al-Mallah area cannot really be said to give it control—but the damage was already done.)
The State Department spokesman John Kirby added on 25 April that the U.S. was “reminding” the rebels of the “inherent dangers of intermingling” with al-Nusra, who are “a legitimate target”—for Russia or anyone else. Kirby then went on to explain that in fact the U.S. was effectively telling the rebel groups it has vetted, and is or was funding, to give up their positions in Aleppo to al-Nusra—which dovetailed exactly with Russian messaging. Since al-Nusra was agreed by the U.S. to be a legitimate target for Russia, this hinted strongly that there were no U.S. objections to a Russia-Assad takeover of the city. “We don’t want to see our guys get hurt,” said Kirby. Whether that was a platitude or a threat was not exactly clear.
If this was being interpreted on the ground as the U.S. using threats of Russian war crimes to force the rebellion into a political settlement that was a surrender to the Assad regime in all-but name, it had form.
Russia Directs the Peace Process
Before the mythical “ceasefire” ever went into effect, it was widely suspected that Russia would—since it actually was true in places that al-Nusra was tangled into the rebellion—use the al-Nusra exception to attack the rebellion wherever and whenever it suited Moscow’s purposes. Asked about this likelihood, and whether the U.S. had called for moderate groups to geographically separate themselves from al-Nusra, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said: “[T]hat’s for them to … resolve. I mean … if you hang out with the wrong folks, then you make that decision. … [W]ho you hang out with … sends a signal.”
In short, the U.S. had provided an excuse, in advance, for Russia to bomb anybody it liked. (Russia did, as expected, continue its airstrikes wherever it wanted, though for the first six weeks or so largely didn’t even bother with the smokescreen of al-Nusra.) In combination with other reported remarks from Secretary Kerry at the time, it was clear that the U.S. would hold the armed opposition responsible for Russian strikes upon it—and was actually seeking to leverage the threat of Russian strikes to press the opposition into a “peace process” that was tilting ever-more toward the regime’s position: total victory.
In seven days of Russia-led airstrikes on Aleppo City between 22 and 29 April, more than 140 civilians were killed. Russia bombed al-Quds hospital on 27 April, a very well-known establishment in Aleppo City supported by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), murdering fifty people, including one of the last paediatricians in the rebel-held areas of the city. At least two more medical facilities in rebel-held Aleppo City were attacked by the pro-regime coalition on 29 April, as the death toll continued to rise. The Assad regime and Russia agreed to a truce—a “regime of quiet,” a ceasefire on top of the still-running CoH—to begin on 30 April in areas of Latakia and Damascus, but excluded Aleppo. It would not have made that much difference: since Russia had said all insurgents in Aleppo were either terrorists or working with terrorists, the attack would have gone on, but it was a flagrant statement of intent—and one not countered by even rhetorical opposition from the West.
The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on 3 May he supported the extension of the “regime of quiet” to Aleppo and even claimed to be within hours of securing such an agreement—which was then, in Moscow’s telling, scuppered by al-Nusra. The insurgents Moscow was referring to in Zahraa were almost exclusively U.S.-vetted groups, a rather clear signal of Russia’s seriousness about only targeting terrorists in its air campaign. Lavrov was also able to reflect back at the U.S. the rhetoric Washington had picked up from Moscow on the need for separation between al-Nusra and the rebels. A forty-eight-hour ceasefire was ostensibly agreed the following day and has been extended by seventy-two hours today. Other than some temporary respite after more than 300 civilians have been killed in the last fortnight, this is not likely to mean much.
While Russia now voices such concern about al-Nusra’s presence, from September 2015 when Russia began airstrikes in Syria to March 2016 when it announced a partial withdrawal, the forces most weakened were the moderate rebels, specifically those supported by the West, with some modest damage done to al-Nusra, and IS virtually unscathed. IS’s siege at Kuweris was broken, though elsewhere Russian airstrikes enabled IS gains in Aleppo and Russia continued facilitating the regime-IS collaboration in the energy sector. IS also suffered some token Russian airstrikes—that mostly hit civilians—in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. (The loss of Palmyra came after the formal end of Russia’s operation and was very much “more of a public relations victory than a military one“.) Al-Nusra meanwhile was able to spread out from Idlib and secure this power-base in southern Aleppo with Russian jets overhead. Since Moscow has declared mission accomplished, it stands to reason that counter-terrorism was not the main purpose of the Russian intervention and any pretentions to the contrary are a means of legitimizing Russia pursuing its actual aims.
While Russia agreed to the CoH, it never actually ceased operations to bolster the Assad regime, and the reduction in hostilities at that moment in late February was helpful for Russia to consolidate. Now the consolidation is complete and the next phase of the attempt to destroy the rebellion has been planned, Moscow can afford to risk the “formal” breakdown of the CoH—and benefit in the meantime from the West continuing to restrain its allies even as they come under attack by diverting the whole discussion into one about terrorists and the rebels’ relationship to them.
The return to all-out war benefits the extremists in Syria, namely the pro-regime coalition and al-Qaeda. The benefit to al-Qaeda, indeed, is a benefit to the regime. For a regime that has staked its life on the proposition that it is a partner against, rather than the generator of, terrorism, the ongoing dynamics of insufficient Western support for the rebellion and Western pressure on rebels to accept a political settlement that leaves Assad in place—both of which strengthen al-Qaeda—are a godsend. With no other source of support—and with cut-backs such as those in January in preparation for “Geneva Three”—rebel dependence on al-Nusra grows: the rebellion cannot fight on two fronts and in the face of atrocities on the scale of the last two weeks the impulse is toward insurgent unity, not isolating the extremists. Under even a modest reduction in violence, fissures opened between the opposition and al-Nusra; a credible ceasefire could do much more. But the attempt to halt the violence by pressuring rebels to stop fighting the regime and join a unity government while Assad remains at the head of it is bringing discredit on the entire peace process, which redounds to al-Nusra’s benefit since, as their leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani made clear in an interview on 12 December 2015, al-Nusra rejected the process in the first place exactly on the grounds that it was a conspiracy against the revolution. Even if some rebel commanders can be convinced to enter such an arrangement—and it is very unlikely—all it would do is further marginalize the moderate rebels: most of the rank-and-file will never accede to such an arrangement and will join whoever is available to continue the fight.
The chances that this prospect will change U.S. policy seem slim. As was recently revealed, President Obama has blocked requests for even limited strikes against Assad to increase U.S. leverage in transitioning him out in the peace process. This is in-keeping with the broader U.S. policy of détente with the Islamic Republic of Iran—now erupting into public as one of its lead architects takes credit for providing the misdirection as this policy was implemented—which has given Syria to Tehran, whose forces hold up Assad, as a sphere of influence. That all anti-Assad insurgents were extremists would be—though untrue and negligent of Assad’s history of weaponizing jihadism—an excellent ex post facto justification for all-but siding with the Assad regime.
[*] A reader directs me to a message by a semi-official representative of the Turkistan Islamic Party that denies they are participating in the Jaysh al-Fatah operations room.
[**] Hadi al-Abdullah—the famous opposition journalist, who was “arrested,” along with Kafranbel’s Raed al-Fares, by al-Nusra in January 2016—described al-Nusra’s presence in Aleppo, in late May 2016, this way: “Most of the brigades in Aleppo [City] belong to the Free Syrian Army—groups like Jabhat al-Sham, the Nooradeen al-Zangi Movement, as well as the Mujahideen Army. Those are the most prominent groups, although there are some Islamist factions from Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam and so on … Al-Nusra is rarely seen inside Aleppo [City]. There are some individuals from al-Nusra who hail originally from Aleppo and live inside the city, but there’s no headquarters for al-Nusra and they don’t have a significant presence inside Aleppo. They exist more as part of Jaysh al-Fatah in the countryside to the south. As I said, the main presence in the city is the FSA.”
Post has been updated