A series of clashes broke out on 19 January between al-Qaeda’s rebranded Syrian branch, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), and its heretofore close ally and portal into the Syrian rebellion, Ahrar al-Sham. By 23 January, JFS had expanded its targets, engaging in hostilities with mainstream rebel groups in the “Greater Idlib” area, and specifically trying—and succeeding—in dismantling the positions of Jaysh al-Mujahideen, a moderate group, west of Aleppo. The crisis continued to escalate, forcing many groups to merge with Ahrar al-Sham for protection, until 28 January, when a JFS-led merger was announced under the banner of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), or the Syrian Liberation Committee. HTS announced a ceasefire, and since then individuals and groups—including a significant number from Ahrar—have given allegiance to HTS. This radical reshaping of revolutionary dynamics in northern Syria has undoubtedly created antibodies going forward against al-Qaeda that could be capitalized on by the international community, but the present situation is highly favourable to al-Qaeda. Continue reading
A version of this article was published at NOW Lebanon.
In early November, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee released a report challenging the British government’s proposal to extend airstrikes from Iraq into Syria against the Islamic State (IS). Among other things, the report asked for a proposed political path to ending the Syrian civil war, a necessary prerequisite to defeating IS. On Thursday, Prime Minister David Cameron released a response, part of which said:
Military action against ISIL will also relieve the pressure on the moderate opposition, whose survival is crucial for a successful transition to a more inclusive Syrian government. Syria has not been, and should not be, reduced to a choice between Assad or ISIL. Although the situation on the ground is complex, our assessment is that there are about 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters on the ground who do not belong to extremist groups.
This number has blown up into a major political row, with many Members of Parliament and pundits taking their personal unfamiliarity with Syria’s military landscape as evidence that it cannot be so. The Labour Opposition has made the number of non-extremist rebels a focal point of their challenge to the Prime Minister’s proposal for moving forward in Syria, and one of Cameron’s own Conservative MPs referred to the number as “magical”. The challenge to the number is part of a longer-term trend, where a narrative has become prevalent that there are no moderate opposition forces left in Syria. The corollary of this view is usually the argument that the West should side with the “secular” Assad regime as the “lesser evil” to put down a radical Islamist insurrection.
Sidestepping the ignorance that goes into believing a blatantly sectarian regime propped up by an international brigade of Shi’a jihadists is secular: What of this claim that there are no moderate rebels left? It isn’t true, as I recently made clear in a paper for The Henry Jackson Society. Continue reading
The outreach director of CAGE (formerly Cageprisoners), Moazzam Begg, went to Syria between October 2012 and April 2013. Begg was arrested in Britain on Feb. 25, 2014, on terrorism-related charges because while in Syria, Begg attended a terrorist training camp. Begg was held in Belmarsh until Oct. 1, 2014. Begg had been due to begin trial on Oct. 5, 2014, but that trial was abandoned because of new evidence that meant there was “no longer a realistic prospect of gaining a conviction,” and Begg was released.
Begg is on record as having said that he “help[ed] to run a training camp in the countryside near Idlib … where opponents of the [Assad] regime could undergo physical exercise and acquire the rudiments of first aid and military training, with fake wooden guns.” There is certainly an ambiguity here: the only real defensive policy for Syria’s civilians is one that overthrows Assad, so Begg’s claim that what he did “was not an act of terrorism, but an attempt to help people defend themselves,” is not, on its face, ridiculous. Begg’s problem is that this was not a camp for Syrians; the camp he “help[ed] to run” was for foreign al-Qaeda members, who have done immense damage to the anti-Assad cause, associating it with fanaticism and atrocity and warding off necessary international support that could have toppled the dictator. Continue reading