Syria, Infighting and a Negotiated Settlement (1)

Part One: Fragmentation

Two weeks ago, a new offensive to claim ar-Raqqah province from the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham [Levant] (ISIS), a former Al Qaeda-branch, was announced by rival rebels. Fighters from the Liwa’ Thuwar ar-Raqqah brigade, formerly part of Jabhat an-Nuṣrah li-Ahl ash-Shām (JAN), Al-Qaeda’s (AQ) current branch in the Levant had been partaking in the battles in ar-Raqqah for the last couple of months but recently took on a bigger role when the Euphrates Liberation Front, a group allied to it, suffered heavy losses. Together with the Kurdish YPG-militia, the battles had taken place in the north-western part of ar-Raqqah during the last couple of months but now have become concentrated to the town of Tal Abyad which sits on the Turkish border. Boasting of newly arrived weapons particularly for this battle, a new attack loomed. The stage had been set during the preceding weeks with some anti-ISIS opponents claiming that ISIS had fled ar-Raqqah in fear while others claimed that ISIS had sold ar-Raqqah to the Assad regime for USD 1 billion and was retreating to Deir ez-Zor and al-Hasakeh provinces. No further attempts were made to explain why ISIS would leave the heartland it had defended from rival rebels during the last four months, for two provinces in which it has been attacked by the Iraqi Maliki regime twice and has limited presence in.

At around the same time, rumors of a potential truce in Homs surfaced. On Tuesday that very week, rebels and government troops reached a wide-ranging agreement whereby rebels agreed to surrender the 13 encircled neighborhoods of Old Homs to government forces after nearly two years of siege and evacuate to the north, allowing the Assad regime to consolidate its grip on western Syria. The truce, a setback for the opposition to the Assad family’s 40-years of rule, was the latest in a series of treaties that have come to define the new strategy adopted by the Western and GCC-backed opposition groups; the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front (IF), a coalition of seven rebel groups and arguably the most influential group in Syria. The shift in strategy came after infighting between rival opposition groups broke out around New Year when a coalition of rebels launched widespread attacks against ISIS in dozens of locations in Idlib and Aleppo provinces.

Infighting On December 13, ISIS arrested Lieutenant Colonel Ahmad Saoud of the 13th battalion along with two lower-ranking soldiers were accused of being “agents of the United States and the West in general.” Two weeks later protests in Maarat al-Nu’man, Idlib province, were held for the release of the FSA officers and within hours Saoud was released. A couple of days later on New Year’s Day, Hussein as-Suleiman (رحمة الله عليه), better known as Abu Rayyan, a respected physician and commander in Ahrar ash-Sham was killed by fighters belonging to ISIS. He had been held in custody by ISIS for 20 days and horribly tortured before being shot to death. Ahrar ash-Sham is one of the strongest fighting brigades in Syria and is part of the IF.

Following his release, Ahmad Saoud, announced that he was a member of the recently formed Syrian Revolutionary Front, headed by Idlib-born Jamal Ma’rouf. Ma’rouf had previously lead the Martyrs of Jabal az-Zawiyeh Brigade, which later developed into the Syrian Martyrs Brigade, and finally the Grandsons of the Prophet Brigade (Liwa’ Ahfad ar-Rasoul). In an interview with Michael Weiss, Saoud claimed that The Syrian Revolutionaries Front, a coalition of 14 FSA-factions with particularly strong presence in the northern Idlib province, “is designed to fight [ISIS]”.

On the second of January, an Aleppo-based coalition called Jaish al-Mujahideen (Army of the Mujahideen) was announced. Eight seemingly Islamist-leaning rebel groups with strong presences particularly in Aleppo and Idlib provinces merged together and simultaneously declared war on ISIS. The group said ISIS was “undermining the stability and security in liberated areas by resorting to gangsterism and draconian Shariah law. We, the Army of the Mujahedeen, pledge to defend ourselves and our honor, wealth, and lands, and to fight [ISIS], which has violated the rule of God, until it announces its dissolution. Either ISIS defects to the mainstream rebellion, or it gives up its weapons to the true rebels and gets the hell out of the country.”

Many of those groups had close ties to the Islamic Front and were already well into negotiations to join the Islamic Front prior to its formation. It therefore did not come as a shock when the Islamic Front joined the infighting shortly after, together with smaller FSA-brigades. Remnants from the Northern Storm brigade (Liwa Asifat ash-Shamal) also joined the fighting in Aleppo and in the Idlib villages of Atmeh and Hazano. The Northern Storm brigade later merged with Liwa’ at-Tawheed, one of the seven constituent groups of the IF, thereby joining the IF-umbrella.

And so the following day, the third of January, saw a blitzkrieg launched against ISIS across several provinces, particularly in Aleppo, Idlib, Latakia and ar-Raqqah. Several other groups with many foreign fighters were also attacked, such as the Jund Al Aqsa brigade. ISIS suffered enormous losses in this day, leading to the deaths of between 350-450 ISIS fighters in the first 24 hours, most of whom were foreigners. At the same time rumors that ISIS was working with the regime began to surface, claiming that the Syrian military did not attack ISIS-held positions, along with political cartoons and hashtags.

This surprise attack came while ISIS was engaged in two particularly large offensives in Deir ez-Zor province in Syria and in Anbar province in Iraq. ISIS decided to pull out of several towns that it controlled – including Atmeh and ad-Dana – which border Turkey, without a fight; thereby consolidating its power in ar-Raqqah province, and then released a statement listing three demands. They demanded all road blockades intended to stop the movement of ISIS fighters be removed; that none of their fighters be detained, insulted or harmed; and that all ISIS detainees and all foreign fighters from any other groups be released immediately.

That day, a foreign fighter from an independent brigade who witnessed the attacks tweeted: “Heavy clashes between ISIS and FSA in Atareb (Aleppo) last night. Still going on. FSA surrounded some ISIS brothers and the clashes started. A mortar grenade just hit the Islamic court of #Isis in #Atmeh. It’s surrounded by civilian families subhanAllah. Even Turkey has cut the electricity in the area. Probably fearing that something might hit them by mistake. This isn’t a small thing. Even the radios has been hacked, and every time it’s fixed they ruin it again. They’re getting help from abroad. This is an excuse for secularists and the west to get rid of the foreign terrorist as they see us. We will remain by Allah’s will.” At the same time, the Islamic Front released a statement on the recent clashes in Atareb and demanded that ISIS withdraw from Atareb and cease its aggression against “the Mujahedeen”. A few days later another fighter claimed that FSA-brigades fighting ISIS were entering through Turkish borders to launch attacks.

The fourth of January was just as eventful, and ISIS continued to lose even more territory. Over Skype, speaking from Turkey, Syrian rebel Captain Ammar al-Wawi told Al Arabiya News Channel “ISIS is trying to hijack the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad” and was “a group of gangsters following” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Iran and Iraq.”

That day, reports of wives of ISIS fighters being raped spread while the IF, and in particular its constituent group Liwa’ at-Tawheed, attacked ISIS near Bab al-Hawa, a Syrian-Turkish border crossing, and arrested 13 non-Syrian fighters. Ahrar ash-Sham also arrested fighters from Suqour al-Izz, which especially attracts Saudi “immigrant” fighters and is led by a Saudi man named Saqr al-Izz. Suqour ash-Sham, also in the Islamic Front, claimed to have seized an ISIS convoy headed to Al-Atareb and the 46th Brigade. The SRF, after seizing both Kafranabel and Atmeh from ISIS, executed the leader of Jund al-Aqsa, Abu Abdul Aziz al-Qatari, when he attempted to mediate between ISIS and the SRF and dumped his body in a well for public display.

The battle for ar-Raqqah didn’t begin until Monday, January 6, it marked a serious escalation in the infighting. Liwa Thuwar ar-Raqqah, which at that time was part of JAN, launched a campaign to oust ISIS from ar-Raqqah, its main base and the only province ever to be completely taken from the regime. ISIS was largely expelled from Raqqah City. The campaign however did not meet its full objective in part due to JAN protecting ISIS in some cities in the north while most fighters of the IF refused to fight until they had received clerical support. In addition, ISIS demonstrated enormous resilience during the assaults, adjusting to the situation instantly.

According to an ISIS fighter, 450 ISIS were killed during the first night, 700 during the first three days and over 1000 during this first week. ISIS later regrouped, reinforced by fighters who had to abandon offensives in Deir ez-Zor and Iraq. The group retook Raqqah city and most of ar-Raqqah province, and consolidated its strength in northern Syria across a connected swathe stretching from western al-Hasakah and Deir ez-Zor provinces to eastern Aleppo province.

While most groups that participated in the first week of rebel infighting still are at war with each other, the infighting is by no means as intense as it was during the first week. Fighting is now mainly contained to the outskirts of ar-Raqqah and Deir ez-Zor provinces.

Fragmentation and Western policy As with most matters in international politics, the Syrian uprising that later turned in to an armed conflict between forces loyal to the Assad-family regime and those seeking to oust it, divided the international politicians into two camps. By virtue of being Alawite, a sect accepted by the Shiite-clerics in the 70s as fellow Muslims, the Assad regime could rely on Shiite regimes and militias for support. Their biggest ally therefore remains Iran and with it the Revolutionary Guard and its many proxies such as the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, Iraqi Badr Corp. et cetera. Russia, China and North Korea are some of the other international powers that have allowed the Ba’ath government to remain in power.

The rebels on their part have to rely on the group so eloquently described as “the friends of Syria” which includes amongst other the U.S., the U.K., France, the KSA, Qatar and Turkey. Early on in the conflict, the U.S. stated that Assad, following repeated massacres of civilians, had to step down, preferably through a negotiated political transition based on the mutual consent of the regime and opposition. However, four years into the conflict, western policy has consistently failed to achieve its stated aim. As Andrew Exum, a former U.S. official who worked on Middle East issues at the Pentagon explained, this is because: “The U.S. has a stated policy of regime change, but it never devoted the resources to effect that change. The de facto U.S. strategy of containment is very well suited for what is likely to be a very long war. This is why the latest American position was to leave the situation in Syria in a state of attrition.”

The reason behind this ambivalent behavior by the American regime is due to long-term geopolitical concerns. If the rebels managed to defeat the regime, an overwhelming majority of the Syrian people would want the state to be built on Islamic principles. A future government would thus likely include “Islamists” with some having ambitions of a “global jihad”. Such a state would pose a direct threat to American allies in the region and Israel in particular. In addition, the West fears that the Alawites would be persecuted in revenge for the previous atrocities carried out by the Alawite-backed regime.

If on the other hand, the regime crushes the rebels, they would still have a minority-based government in a country with a large Sunni majority with a history of persecution. Just as in Iraq, this would likely create tremendous potential for continued resistance, and thus pose a threat to Western interests in the Middle-East, they reason.

Bruce Riedel, a former senior CIA analyst and sometime foreign policy adviser to President Barack Obama, said: “The Syrian war is a stalemate. The rebels lack the organization and weapons to defeat Assad; the regime lacks the loyal manpower to suppress the rebellion. Both sides’ external allies… are ready to supply enough money and arms to fuel the stalemate for the foreseeable future,” he said.

This appears to be well understood by the Assad-regime and his allies. The deputy leader of the Iranian-backed Shiite militia Hezbollah, Sheikh Naim Qassem, said the West now must accept Assad will go on ruling Syria after fighting rebels to a standstill – a “reality” to which his foreign enemies seem increasingly resigned, and that he expects the stalemate will continue in the Syrian crisis “because of the lack of an international and regional decision to facilitate a political solution.”

Supporting this, the French foreign ministry said: “Maybe he [Assad] will be the sole survivor of this policy of mass crimes”, and called “transition” the “only plan” – a view U.S. officials say Washington, and notably military chiefs, supports, preferring Assad to sectarian chaos.

A negotiated settlement Most international proposals for ending the Syrian war therefore imagine a negotiated settlement in which a power-sharing agreement with representatives from all sides in high-level offices. Previous attempts at initiating such a dialogue through the United Nations-backed international peace conference on the future of Syria failed for a number of reasons. In fact, the opposition’s demand that Bashar al-Assad steps down from power removed all possibility for negotiation. Because the Assad-regime, having weathered the huge rebel momentum from the early stages of the uprising, still has no incentive to share power, this pose a major obstacle for any future negotiated settlements. Rebels on the other hand, having witnessed the extent of the regime’s atrocity and tolerance to opposition, know that if they were to stop fighting and undertake any measure of disarmament, would be left at the mercy of the Assad-regime’s notorious prison personnel.

Most importantly however, negotiated settlements would require a nation-wide body that would be able to represent the rebellion in such negotiations. With most Syrians rejecting the legitimacy of the Syrian National Council, the coalition of Syrian opposition groups based in Istanbul, Turkey, and opposition elements inside of Syria, namely rebel brigades, refusing to neither recognize nor attend the conference, negotiations were futile.

“In civil wars, those doing the fighting and dying call the shots.” – Faysal Itani, resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Center for the Middle East.

To bring about a negotiated settlement, not only would the rebels have to give up the condition of Assad’s abdication, a legitimate body representing fighters with real influence in Syria must be formed.

Legitimacy could be gained both internally through the Syrian people, but also externally via the international community and in particular its foreign backers, by using seized territory as a model for how a future Syria would look like. Combining ceasefire agreements in certain areas while aiding the inhabitants with aid received from abroad would add further legitimacy. In addition, temporary truces with the Assad regime could serve as bellwethers.

In order to gain legitimacy among Syrians in as many provinces as possible, in particular after ceding the condition of Assad stepping down, the coalition would have to engage large influential tribes and minorities that have so far sided with government or kept outside of the conflict such as Kurds, Armenians, Druze, and Christians.

A negotiated settlement however requires that the influence of groups with an uncompromising view of a future Syria be contained while pragmatic elements, in particular secular moderate groups, be empowered. In an unfinished piece I posted in December, I wrote about evolving division within the opposition and the Western-backed FSA’s diminishing influence. Undermined by well documented escapades including looting, kidnapping, extortion, highway robbery and indiscriminate shelling of liberated areas by FSA-leaders such as Hasan Jazra, late leader of the Northern Storm Brigade and Khaled Saraj, leader of the Martyrs of Badr brigade (Liwa Shuhada Badr), the reputation of the FSA was dropping. Groups that fought to establish an Islamic state on the other hand were expanding rapidly; ISIS and JAN continued to seize territory and to attract foreign volunteers, while the IF had just evolved from a merger of seven strong brigades to form a formidable front with a presence in all but one province.

Factionalism amongst the rebels however, if approached correctly, reduces the military threat and challenge that the rebel side poses to the regime. Divisions on the rebel side makes a deal more feasible than it would be if the rebels were unified. It gives the Assad regime the option of attempting to make a deal with the relative moderates while isolating the Islamist groups and perhaps even negotiating a common cause with the regime against some of them.

The easiest way for the West to achieve its objectives and reduce the threat of Islamism, is to identify, train, arm and fund the groups willing to absorb other groups with similar ideologies and fight off the groups which are more unpalatable to Western interests and values. This was suggested by Faysal Itani in an article he wrote for CNN.

I wrote in December that “Dynamics in Syria don’t allow for new groups to emerge and smaller groups seem to already be edging towards the side they sympathize most with. Therefore, new groups had to be formed, with a camp of “pragmatic Islamists” emerging.

A second step would be to isolate groups that pose a threat to such a settlement, such as the Islamists that won’t settle for anything less than an Islamic state and the foreign fighters in particular. ISIS, with its sophisticated media strategy is said to attract the lion’s share of the increasing number of foreign “jihadists”, who in turn pose a continuously growing problem. Furthermore, prior to the infighting, ISIS enjoyed a military presence in 10 of Syria’s 14 provinces, with a significant presence in northern Syria and many bases close to the Turkish border. The unofficial border crossing through the Orontes river in particular served as a corridor for foreign fighters, and thus a threat to the prospect of negotiated settlements.

This in particular has attracted the attention of Turkey. Early on, Turkey took a leading role as a liaison between the West and the Syrian opposition, housing most of the defecting soldiers who would cross the border in a special tightly guarded and off-limits camp near the town of Apaydin. In December last year, the U.S. State Department called on the countries neighboring Iraq and Syria to not allow the passage of weapons and fighters through their territory. The following day Turkish forces shelled rebels from ISIS near the Turkish-Syrian border, inflicting a number of casualties.

Turkey’s counter-terrorism joint efforts however are not limited to the West. Since the infighting broke out the Turkish government has vowed to “fight terrorism” together with Iran and earlier this month Hayati Yazici, Turkey’s Minister of Customs and Trade called upon Europe to help prevent jihadists entering Syria.Need to attract the Islamic Front The entrance of ISIS made JAN “less radical” which in turn had made IF’s constituent Salafi groups “moderate”. The merger of seven brigades that led to the formation of the IF, announced on 22 November 2013, included groups from across the Islamist spectrum, from those who had called for a moderate state with a foundation of Islamic law, to those who called for a state with strict interpretation of Shariah, and gave many observers the hope of a final unified fighting force that the Syrian rebels had been waiting for. In addition, the IF, boasting between 40 and 60 000 fighters, has visible links to JAN and maintains a military presence in all but one province. Engaging the IF is thus not only vital for Western interest, thereby preventing JAN and by extension AQ from pulling the IF towards it, but also for the legitimacy of a future unified representative body.

The IF appears to have understood the dynamics well and early on signaled that it could be the pragmatic Islamists a unified national-scale body would have to include for legitimacy. Immediately after the merger announcement, one of its constituent groups, Liwa’ al-Haqq, published a statement declaring that while they appreciated ISIS for its support in fighting against the regime, they did not recognize ISIS as being legitimate leaders for Syria. An additional sign of such pragmatism could be found in the naming of Ahmad Eissa, leader of Suqour ash-Sham, as the leader of the Islamic Front over commanders from much more powerful brigades. Eissa had previously called for a moderate Islamic state that is not imposed on society. In fact, immediately, it was reported that the “alliance of Salafi groups had significantly halted the drifting of Syrian fighters by virtue of its Islamic rhetoric and pragmatism.” It was said that the more moderate groups were drawing the Salafist Ahrar ash-Sham towards them while at the same time avoiding a confrontation JAN, a long-time ally of Ahrar ash-Sham.

The IF appears to follow the model of the Muslim Brotherhood, combining democracy and foreign relations with Islamism, as indicated by secret documents seized by ISIS during a raid on Ahrar ash-Sham’s headquarters in ar-Raqqah. The documents, which were made available to the public, demonstrated an emphasis on foreign relations. Deemed top secret general guidelines for the organization, they stated that a political committee is responsible for maintaining political relations both domestically and internationally. It also stated the need for having ambassadors abroad to study their public image and perhaps most importantly – the need for political and financial support from foreign governments and organizations.

Further demonstrating an emulation of the Muslim Brotherhood project, Ahmad Eissa congratulated Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) bears many similarities with the Muslim Brotherhood, following his victory in the Turkish elections in.

In my previous piece I also wrote about the effect that the American intelligence officials’ sudden public acknowledgement of the role AQ-linked Mohamed Bahaiah (Abu Khaled al-Suri [رحمة الله عليه]) had on Ahrar ash-Sham. I suspected that this was an attempt to intimidate the IF from moving toward the “radical” side of the Islamist spectrum and that it seemed to have worked as Hassan Abboud, head of the political bureau of the IF and leader of Ahrar ash-Sham shortly after denounced the employment of suicide-bombings in an interview with Al Jazeera.

Written in May 2014 (Source)

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