x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Rebel factions work against each other in Syria's civil war

Until Syrian opposition forces coalesce, or at least form a recognisable coalition, the chances of meaningful negotiation are vanishingly slim.

There are now said to be more than 1,000 separate rebel units fighting the regime of Bashar Al Assad. Despite American attempts to unite the disparate forces, it seems they are becoming more factionalised with every passing week.

This a topic of anguished debate in the region. Rami Khouri, a commentator and former editor of TheDaily Star in Beirut, concludes that the fragmentation of the Lebanese, Iraqi and now Syrian states is part of a trend under which the whole region is being "re-tribalised". The fracturing of Syria among local warlords, he concludes, is the norm for the states of the Arab Levant.

In a bitter dispatch to the London Review of Books from the front lines of Syria, Baghdad-born Ghaith Abdul-Ahad puts Arab factionalism in a broader historical context: it is "the main reason for all our losses and defeats, from al-Andalus to Palestine". The Palestinians in their heyday had only a dozen factions, and the Lebanese in their 15 years of civil war never exceeded 30, but the Syrians have reached new heights.

Many of these so-called factions are no more than a man and his cousins, with perhaps a few country boys. What matters more than ideology or arms is to have a multimedia producer who can upload videos of the battalion's exploits and so gain funding from foreign sponsors. This is war by YouTube, where the faction's virtual presence on the web is as important as its footprint on the ground.

Against the background of this jockeying for foreign sponsorship by groups of limited or non-existent military capacity, there is a second trend: the increasing domination of the struggle by jihadist elements who have years of experience in Iraq of rigging and exploding roadside bombs. At the start of the rebellion these foreign warriors were clear interlopers in a movement which prided itself on representing Syria's patchwork of religious and ethnic groups.

But with their experience in battle, ruthless discipline, clear goals and close links with Islamist sources of funding, the jihadists have emerged as the leaders of the struggle, with Jabhat Al Nusra, declared by the US to be a terrorist organisation, at their head.

The new US secretary of state, John Kerry, thus faces a near-impossible task. US efforts to unify the resistance movement have failed, because Washington is reluctant to get fully engaged. Attempts to bolster the secular forces against the Islamists have only made the Free Syrian Army, the US- and Turkish-supported grouping, look like stooges of the West.

President Barack Obama has refused to lift the arms embargo on the Syrian factions, on the basis of a simple political calculation: if US arms ended up in the hands of the jihadists, it would be far more damaging to him in the eyes of US voters than two more years of civil war in Syria, with a further 70,000 dead.

After much lobbying by the Free Syrian Army, it is now likely to receive some "non-lethal" support - training, vehicles and body armour. This is a typical diplomatic fudge: enough to show support for the FSA, while not risking any American lives or the possibility of weapons ending up in the wrong hands.

If this judgement seems cynical, it is by and large shared by the Europeans. The FSA has not earned full confidence either in its effectiveness or morality. In the city of Aleppo, which is largely in rebel hands, the FSA are known as the "bread stealers". While they were in control of the city, bread was scarce, prompting accusations that the officers had sold all the flour for their own profit. With the bakeries now under the control of the Islamist militants of Jabhat Al Nusra, reports from the city suggest that bread rationing is under tight control.

With the conflict in stalemate and the rebels not yet strong enough to topple the regime, it seems that everything is for sale. Given the financial backing enjoyed by the Islamists, it is quite likely that sophisticated weapons given to the FSA could be sold to jihadists.

The regime may have its back to the wall, but the situation could have been far worse. Few commentators had expected Mr Al Assad still to be in power almost two years after the start of the uprising. He has made some territorial gains - the city of Homs is now safe enough for the regime to escort foreign journalists there. He enjoys the strong support of Iran, while the western powers do not trust their allies. American military calculations are overshadowed by the prospect of deep Pentagon budget cuts made necessary by the mounting federal debt burden.

The strength of the jihadists in rebel ranks only complicates western calculations. Policy-makers cannot see Syria as an island on its own. What effect would a hard-line Sunni Muslim regime in Damascus have on Syria's neighbours? For Iraq, it would be a springboard for anti-Shia revanchist forces.

The feeling that America's hands are tied has spurred the regime to use its missiles against civilian targets in Aleppo, including in one strike that killed more than 140 people last week. This is a dangerous tactic: such outrages in past conflicts have inflamed public opinion in the West and forced governments to act. But the regime clearly feels that fatigue has set in, and they can use their heavy weapons with impunity. That may not always be the case.

Efforts are meanwhile under way to convene the first peace talks in Moscow between the opposition and representatives of the regime. But it is not clear to what extent the leader of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, Moaz Al Khatib, represents fighters on the ground. Until the opposition forces coalesce, or at least form a recognisable coalition, the chances of meaningful negotiation are vanishingly slim.

Such a coalition is not in sight at the moment. It could perhaps happen if the rebels established firm control over a swathe of the northern borderlands, and used it to set up some realistic power structures and thus end the factional free-for-all. But we are a long way from that.

 

aphilps@theantional.ae

On Twitter: @aphilps