Syria: Massive Rebel Infighting
In the early days of the New Year 2014, Syrians woke up to a new and somewhat unexpected reality. A massive military offensive launched by the majority of the Syrian Rebels against their apparent brothers-in-arms, The Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL or ISIS). In northern Syria in regions around Idlib, Aleppo and Ar-Raqqah, many villages and towns held by the al-Qaeda affiliate were overrun by numerous other rebel factions, inflicting heavy casualties on the ISIS, while a large number of their fighters were forced to flee or defect, in what appears a concerted operation aiming the weakening of the infamous extremist organization.
The two sides hurried to explain what is happening, each blaming the other for the cause of this infighting. The ISIS claimed it was a victim of a conspiracy, synchronized for the upcoming Geneva II Conference on Syria. On the other hand, the rest of the Syrian rebels consider the events as a genuine popular uprising against the mostly foreign extremist warriors, and also a chance for a long due reckoning with the crimes of the ISIS.
Despite the different narratives, we believe that both sides are right, in their own way. ISIS has undoubtedly managed to achieve very poor relations with the other rebel factions all by itself, which made it an easier target for the others, while at the same time there is certainly a degree of cooperation between the attackers that implies weeks of planning and preparation, making the claim of a “conspiracy” not so far-fetched. Also, the fact that this infighting happens only a few weeks before the long-awaited Geneva II Conference is definitely not just an accident.
We believe that is important to clarify at first what are the causes for this anti-ISIS outburst. The immediate reason appears to be the torture and murder by ISIS of a rebel fighter-doctor from the Ahrar al-Sham militia, Abu Rayyan. But beside this last-straw action by ISIS, the group has been capturing territory indiscriminately from both the Assad regime and fellow rebel factions since the summer of 2013. In addition, it made very little to no effort to explain its position in public (a practice used within the Syrian Insurgency by uploading videos on YouTube) and generally refused propositions for arbitration and compromise with the other rebel militias, thus making enemies on all sides.
Also worth mentioning is the ISIS governing history in Syria, mainly in Ar-Raqqah province, which is full of reports of indiscriminate aggression against the religious minorities, a severe and most of the times brutal punishment even for the most minor trespassing and an imposition of a stern Islamic conduct which does not resonate with Syria’s ancient history and rich culture, in which many religious and ethnic denominations have lived rather peacefully. This has worked against the ISIS, by alienating the majority of the population against their rule.
In addition to its rather indiscriminate aggressions against other rebel groups, ISIS leadership seemed to have failed to understand the restructuring process that occurred within the Syrian Insurgency throughout the autumn and early winter 2013.
A number of new rebel coalitions have emerged since September 2013, that have generally excluded the Jihadi-oriented groups fighting in Syria. Some of these were intended to delegitimize the Syrian National Council, the Istanbul-based and Western-backed government-in-exile and the Geneva II Conference on Syria. This is the case of the Islamic Front, which is a direct product of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) interference in the Syrian Civil War.
Also, a few of these new coalitions were a direct response to the increased pressure and aggression from ISIS. This is the case for the Syria Revolutionaries Front, which tried to reorganize the battered FSA brigades that survived the early December 2013 FSA debacle in the Aleppo region, and merged them with some local rebel units.
These new Syrian Rebel formations have had ideological and political disputes with each other and sometimes they have even fought with one another. But their main characteristic is the exclusion of the Jabhat al-Nusra Front and The ISIS from their restructuring efforts.
Another point that is worth mentioning is that besides the KSA and other Gulf petro-monarchies efforts to redesign the Syrian Insurgency, the divide between the ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra on the one hand and the rest of the Syrian Rebels on the other may be traced to the “national” versus “foreign” rebel dichotomy.
It is well known the fact that fighters from all over the Muslim world have come to fight the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. But the overwhelming majority of these recruits have joined the most extremist factions, the al-Qaeda franchises in Syria and Iraq. This is for a number of reasons: a rather well developed ideological fundament, based upon religious principles, a large and universal objective – the imposition of a new Islamic Caliphate, in opposition to the “petty” and “local” objectives of the native insurgents – a good organization that successfully managed to attract funds, equipment and logistical support, and so on.
They were welcomed at first as a useful addition of veteran fighters, but the population and the other rebel formations did not acquiesced to the general purpose of their fight, or the means by which they tried to achieve it. Also, their behavior did nothing to help their cause, and now they are opposed throughout Syria. As such, a thorough division now exists between the “national” Syrian Insurgency, and the “foreign” Jihadis. The “native” insurgency has an Islamic ideology and program in fighting the Assad regime, but they generally lack the fanaticism of the foreigners or their universal Caliphate ideal.
Considering a wider view of the events in Syria in late 2013, another cause that could be considered for explaining the recent rebel infighting may be the fact that in early December 2013 the US and Britain have suspended their lethal and non-lethal aid to the Syrian Insurgency.
As such, their need to replenish the supplies of weapons, ammunition, communication hardware, medical and so on, may have added to the general plans for an offensive against the ISIS. It is important to remember that when ISIS stormed the FSA headquarters in December last year, they have looted numerous FSA military depots. As such, those spoils of war and military supplies come in handily for the victors of this ongoing struggle.
The timing of this strike against ISIS is also noteworthy. The offensive against ISIS has started in the days in which the group was involved in capturing the Iraqi cities of Anbar province. As such, its attention and efforts were focused on the Iraqi theater of operations, leaving the Syrian side rather undefended. This may explain the quick territorial gains the other Syrian Rebel formations have made against ISIS in the last few days.
Also worth mentioning is the proximity of the Geneva II Conference on Syria, which is scheduled to start on January 22, 2014 in the Swiss city of Montreux. The offensive against ISIS may serve two purposes here. The first is that the recent spike in violence will hinder the negotiations between the parties at the Conference, rendering it useless.
The other purpose that may be served by this offensive against the al-Qaeda affiliated ISIS it to show that the Syrian Insurgency is still a viable option to support by the international community. The new restructured and rebranded Syrian Rebels are fighting against the same al-Qaeda franchise that is conquering pieces of Iraq, making them real “heroes” in the eyes of the world. Also, they have not been accused of religious intolerance or crimes against the local population, at least yet. As such they are proving themselves a major player in the region, worthy of receiving international aid.
This is a good thing for them, because will help their cause immensely. This is a bad thing for Syria, because it may very well mean more and more war, with slim chances of peace. The continued fighting has a strong chance of making the sides more and more intransigent, considering that they also have thoroughly opposite ideologies. Hopefully, the upcoming Geneva II Conference will find a way for peace.