Violence erupted between Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the rebranded al-Qaeda branch in Syria, and Ahrar al-Sham, its long-time ally and its bridge into the Syrian rebellion, beginning on 19 January. These clashes expanded to encompass the mainstream armed opposition on 23 January. Today, al-Maqalaat, a pro-JFS outlet, published a long statement explaining the fighting from JFS’s point-of-view. The salient points of the argument and other interesting elements are highlighted in bold. Continue reading
In Geneva on 9 September 2016, the United States and Russia announced an agreement to implement a ceasefire—formally a “cessation of hostilities” (CoH)—in Syria, which is intended to allow humanitarian access and restart the political process to end of the war, and then to begin jointly targeting the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, recently rebranded Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS).
There is reason to wonder if the deal will ever take effect and the lack of an enforcement mechanism against Bashar al-Assad’s regime leaves open the possibility that the pro-regime coalition will, as it did after the February ceasefire, abuse this process to their advantage.
Most dauntingly, if this process worked to the letter it will legitimate the gains of the regime’s aggression, carried out under the cover of the last ceasefire, and has the potential to weaken the insurgency and embolden the regime, strengthening radicalism on all sides, pushing a political settlement further away, and thus protracting the war. Continue reading
A website, siegewatch.org, has been set up that tracks the areas under siege in Syria. Siege Watch is a joint project of PAX, an organization that works in conflict zones to foster peace, and The Syria Institute, a non-partisan research centre directed by Valerie Szybala.
At the present time, according to Siege Watch, there are forty-six sieges operating in Syria, forty-three of them (93.5%) imposed by the Assad regime, two (4.5%) imposed by Jaysh al-Fatah, an insurgent coalition that includes Jabhat an-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria), and one (2%) by the Islamic State (IS).
Siege Watch also documents the severity of the sieges in three categories. Category one (C1) is the most severe: very little gets in even by smuggling and international aid deliveries are rare if at all; the risk of malnutrition is high. Category two (C2) sieges are porous enough for the black market and/or locals might have some access to locally-grown produce, but prices for basics are extremely high and residents are at “some risk of malnutrition/dehydration”. Category three (C3) sieges require smuggling to get food, but there is a consistent supply, even if home-grown. While risk of malnutrition is low in C3 zones, medical emergencies are likely because of attacks by besieging forces.
All six C1 sieges are imposed by the regime. Thirty category C2 sieges are operating: twenty-nine by the regime and one by IS. The regime is also operating eight C3 sieges and Jaysh al-Fatah is operating two C3 sieges. Continue reading
This morning, Russia ostensibly agreed to help the U.S. impose a ceasefire in Syria within a week—on the way to a negotiated settlement. This could not work right now, even if Russia intended it to. But Russia does not. Russia’s role since intervening in Syria in late September 2015 has been to bolster the regime of Bashar al-Assad and a primary tactic in that overarching strategic aim has been the attempt to destroy all opposition to Assad that the international community could possibly deal with, and to create a binary situation where there is only the regime and jihadi-Salafist terrorists, primarily the Islamic State (IS), and secondarily—in areas where they do not threaten key regime interests—Jabhat an-Nusra (al-Qaeda). Moscow will eventually turn on IS, but in the short-term Russia has engaged in indirect coordination with IS to weaken the rebels and push them out of key strategic areas, notably in eastern Aleppo where Russia bombed rebels out of the way who had been holding IS out for years. On Tuesday, Foreign Policy reported on another aspect of this Russia-IS collaboration that aims to empower the takfiris in the short-term as part of the long-term plan, also supported by Iran, to secure the Assad regime in power. Continue reading
Published at NOW Lebanon.
So the Syrian opposition can unite. Foreign powers have been the major cause of rebel discord. Previous rebel unity initiatives like the Joint Command were pulled apart by the competition between the insurgency’s sponsors—Saudi Arabia and Qatar primarily—and the last rebel umbrella group, the Supreme Military Council, which was identified with Western power, collapsed after President Barack Obama decided not to punish Bashar al-Assad for the massive chemical weapons attack on the population of Ghouta. But under Saudi auspices, an opposition “team” was announced on December 10 after a three-day conference in Riyadh, which includes the political and military opposition and groups with varying ideologies and patrons. This is an achievement. Unfortunately, this team’s task is an impossible one: intended to partake in the Vienna process begun in October, ostensibly to negotiate an end to the war, Syria is not, at present, in a condition where a political agreement can be made and implemented, not least because the Assad regime and its supporters in Iran and Russia have doubled down, and the opposition continues to receive insufficient support to pressure the regime enough to force an agreement. Continue reading
A version of this article was published at Middle East Eye.
The Syrian opposition is meeting in Saudi Arabia between December 8 and 10 in an attempt to create a unified structure that can credibly sit across the table from the Bashar al-Assad regime in the internationally-organised peace talks in Vienna, and make a binding commitment on the path forward for Syria. 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