x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Despite the narrative, Syria’s rebels may be gaining ground

Ignore the headlines, Hassan Hassan writes, because on the ground in Syria, the rebels – and especially the Syrian Free Army – are making steady headway against the Assad regime.

Almost everywhere in Syria – with the exception of the human tragedy that is Homs – the rebels are making surprisingly steady progress. On Monday, armed groups in Idlib bombed a key checkpoint, an action that paves the way for anti-Assad forces to push through Wadi al Dhaif, one of the regime’s largest military bases in the north of the country. Regime-controlled areas in Aleppo, Idlib, Deraa, Rif Dimashq have also come under pressure.

These gains arrive as the political opposition reached a landmark, with the US recognising its offices in Washington as a foreign mission, an upgrade that confers a sense of legitimacy to the National Coalition. The recognition was announced during the opposition chief Ahmed Al Jarba’s week-long visit to Washington, which he made shortly after a trip to Riyadh. These developments highlight an increased attention to the rebel cause by the two countries that matter most for the opposition.

Rebel sources report a “massive flow” of arms, including advanced weapons, into moderate rebel groups. Publicised footage of powerful weaponry, such as US-made anti-tank, wire-guided rockets, represents only a fraction of the arms that have been provided to Saudi-backed groups in recent weeks. Rebel leaders expect significant gains as they prepare for major offensives against anti-regime extremist forces such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (Isil) in Raqqa.

One of the recent changes in the conflict has been that the rebels are becoming more organised and more effective. Infighting is still common, but they are learning to coordinate operations.

It is safe to say that the Free Syrian Army, in particular, is back after months of being eclipsed by Salafist and jihadist groups. A process of consolidating rebel factions under a common leadership is underway.

According to rebel sources, the FSA is winning back armed factions, previously acquired by religious groups. These factions are joining the FSA for several reasons, not least because the FSA is increasingly better funded and as supplies to extremist forces are no longer steady as was the case in the past – unless such forces control resources inside Syria, such as oilfields.

Another reason for the improved reputation of the FSA is the worsening reputation of other groups.

The Islamic Front, for example, has recently received criticism for a series of defeats from some who previously sympathised with it.

That criticism gained traction because the Islamic Front has been perceived as the most powerful coalition around Syria and thus any defeats were blamed on it.

Also, the Islamic Front has been subject to Isil’s propaganda machine as some of the Front’s factions joined the battles against the jihadi group. Additionally, the Front is no longer as organised as before. Its factions are now coordinating with other armed groups more often than they do with each other.

Jabhat Al Nusra, the official Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, has been exhaustively battling Isil since February. Unlike FSA groups that fought and defeated Isil in northern Syria and elsewhere, Jabhat Al Nusra is in a very tight position when it comes to fighting Isil. This is because the two groups operate in similar geographical and ideological territories.

Jabhat Al Nusra’s strategy to avoid infighting and hostilities with other rebel groups has been compromised. There are indications that the jihadist group is losing its cool, so to speak. Last month, it carried out its first suicide operation against another anti-regime group since it was established in January 2012, in a twin attack against an Isil base in Deir Ezzor on April 22.

Also, unusually for the group, Jabhat Al Nusra abducted an FSA commander in Deraa after he made statements asserting that extremists have no place in future Syria. Colonel Ahmed Ni’ma comes from a large tribe in Deraa and the group’s move has put it in an awkward position.

Jabhat Al Nusra’s strategy of playing nice and focusing on fighting the regime has made it impossible for any rebel group to attack it. But its inability to keep its head is symptomatic of the increased heat against it, as it fears it would be eventually targeted from more than one side, as well as the increased relevance of the FSA.

It is not hard to predict that Jabhat Al Nusra is now on a downwards trajectory in terms of self-restraint and misrepresentation of its future goals in Syria. Even Selim Idriss, the former chief of the FSA who is known to have praised the group, condemned its abduction of a rebel leader, and said that it is no different from Isil. A prominent FSA leader, Qassem Saadeddin, said on Monday that it was during General Idriss’s reign that Jabhat Al Nusra and the Islamic Front gained strength at the expense of the FSA.

These developments and gains on the ground hardly dominate the headlines about the conflict. The reason is partly because outsiders appear to be content with the current narrative, which is that the rebels cannot win the war.

But the changes offer a renewed chance for stepping up support for the moderate opposition.

Hassan Hassan is a Middle East analyst based in Abu Dhabi who focuses on Islamic groups and regional politics

On Twitter: @hhassan140