There is no clear answer to what the Syrian revolution even is any more, let alone who is fighting legitimately on its behalf, writes Faisal Al Yafai
The battle in Afrin has highlighted divisions even among those opposed to Bashar Al Assad
To really understand how complicated the Syrian war is becoming, it is necessary to go back a week, to a meeting in Washington between US officials and the Free Syrian Army. Senior officials of the FSA were in the US asking for the CIA to resume its programme of military aid, which was suspended last year by Donald Trump. Without a resumption, they warned, Iranian militias would be free to expand and US-supported groups would diminish.
A week later and the FSA is now fighting alongside Turkey to clear a northern Syrian town of a militia that is supported by the United States. So rapidly has the conflict morphed in unexpected directions, that even those who oppose Bashar Al Assad's regime are uncertain which side they should support.
For most general newspaper readers, the details of the various groups and alliances in the Syrian civil war long ago took on a blurry, indistinct quality. The acronyms of the groups, their allegiances and sources of funding were hazily recalled; what was most important was whether they were against ISIL, shared an ideology with the extremist group or were backed by the western and Arab alliance.
But what has been less obvious – and what has been thrown into stark relief by the battle in Afrin – is that, since the marginalisation of ISIL on the battlefield in Syria, that blurriness has extended even to supporters of the various groups. The broadly delineated lines that existed for some years are now fuzzy. The days when the supporters of the Al Assad regime were on one side and FSA on the other have gone. Even those who follow the conflict closely, or who are involved in it as supporters, have very little idea with whom to side.
Nothing demonstrates this better than the battle for Afrin, which has split Syrian groups, on the ground and on the sidelines.
On the ground, Turkey, which was one of the first to explicitly support the Syrian revolution and call for Bashar Al Assad to step down, is fighting in Afrin alongside the FSA, who remain committed to ending the regime.
For Turkey, the US-backed People's Protection Units (YPG), a mainly Kurdish militia in Afrin, are too close to the Kurdish insurgent groups inside Turkey that have waged a long-running war against the Turkish state. Ankara has noted that US weapons supplied to the YPG have ended up across the Turkish border.
But the FSA's involvement in Afrin has more to do with Syria than Turkey. For them, the YPG, by carving out a space away from the regime, is trying to split Syria into several pieces. Many who support the revolution support the idea of maintaining Syrian territorial integrity – except that the Kurdish enclave in Afrin is also protecting Syrian civilians from the Assad regime.
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The FSA, in fact, has a broader disagreement with the YPG, one that goes beyond the specificities of this battle. The YPG want a Kurdish-majority region, even if that means pushing out Syrian Arabs by force. But one of the aims of the revolution, and of the Syrian opposition, is to move away from a Syria of ethnicities and faiths and towards a model of citizenship.
Syrian civilians, Kurdish and Arab, now being attacked in Afrin, might well ask how that admittedly lofty goal is served by the FSA allying itself with a foreign power (itself allied with Russia, a sponsor of the regime) and attacking an enclave inside Syrian territory. The people being attacked in Afrin are, after all, Syrians, regardless of ethnicity.
And they ask, with the Syrian regime now besieging the small district of Ghouta outside Damascus, with Russian and Syrian planes carrying out bombing raids, if attacking Afrin is really the most pressing issue the FSA have. The Kurds are right to feel hard done by. They have allied themselves with the US, only to find that, with troops on the edge of their territory, the US has turned away.
Away from the ground, on the sidelines, on social media and in endless debates over the past few days, supporters of the revolution have turned on each other, unable to decide which side to back.
The questions are posed like this. Does supporting the Syrian revolution mean being against everyone who supports or enables the Al Assad regime? In that case, removing the YPG from Afrin is a positive development, because it weakens the regime while opening up space for civilians to be autonomous.
Or does supporting the revolution, which aimed to free Syrian civilians from the Assad regime, mean supporting Syrians to live peacefully? In which case, an attack on Syrian civilians – and, worse, by Syrian fighters from the FSA – is a betrayal of those values. Moreover, for a revolution that started from the premise of a Syria for all, setting up a conflict between Syrian Arabs and Syrian Kurds is counterproductive and will have long-term repercussions.
At the heart of these disagreements is a brutal truth, one few supporters of the revolution have grappled with: there is no clear answer to what the Syrian revolution even is any more, let alone who is fighting legitimately on its behalf. Once ISIL was marginalised, the Syrian conflict entered a free-for-all phase, where decisions are being made on the basis of short-term political calculations.
This should be of great concern to anyone seeking the security of Syrian civilians. Because the plans of the players in the Syrian conflict currently all revolve around military power. The political vision is distinctly lacking. And in that context – and as can be seen in Afrin – it is the civilians who will bear the brunt of the consequences.
As long as countries outside and armed groups inside Syria continue to play out their plans across its soil, there will be no long-term solution. Syria needs to be whole, secure and stable. It will not get there with Bashar Al Assad in charge and it will not get there when Syrian civilians are killed by Syrian fighters.
The safety of civilians will always be a secondary priority as long as Syria is the backdrop for the ambitions of groups other than the Syrian people. And as long as civilians are threatened, regardless of who is holding the guns, the Syrian revolution cannot truly have been said to be successful.