x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Syria's rebels are winning ground war

While Syrian rebels are enjoying victories against government forces on the battlefield, their progress on the political front shows no signs of keeping pace.

Syrian rebels celebrate on top of the remains of a government fighter jet which was shot down at Daret Ezza, on the border between the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, on Wednesday.
Syrian rebels celebrate on top of the remains of a government fighter jet which was shot down at Daret Ezza, on the border between the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, on Wednesday.

ANTAKYA, TURKEY // While Syrian rebels are enjoying victories against government forces on the battlefield, their progress on the political front shows no signs of keeping pace.

After reaching an agreement to unify in Doha last month, the new Syria National Coalition (SNC) plunged back into disarray in Cairo this week.

The fractious talks underlined international concerns about the group's ability to effectively oppose the Bashar Al Assad regime.

Although the coalition has been recognised by Britain, France and Spain western governments are reluctant to provide rebels with weapons unless the opposition settles its differences. They are also concerned about the influence of Islamists within the coalition.

Rebels have nonetheless made inroads in the fight to overthrow Mr Al Assad as they have this week overrunn military bases and shot down military aircraft.

"For about two years we have been asking for weapons ... I got bored of asking for them," said General Mustafa Sheikh, the head of the higher military council of the rebel Free Syrian Army, which aims to form a new national army.

Rebels do what they can to get hold of weapons. They confiscate them from regime forces or purchase supplies from arms dealers. Then there are shipments from Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who provide arms through Turkey's intelligence service, MIT, according to Syrian activists and western diplomats.

Turkey's government and the US have sought to limit the types of weapons reaching the rebels through Gulf partners, multiple sources told The National, fearful of the arms reaching extremists. The goal of the West is arms delivered through one controlled channel.

"Until now we have many battalions because of [the lack of organised support], because of the many different sponsors giving weapons," said Gen Sheikh. His goal is to unify the different rebel groups under the command of the higher military council and organise them into five regional fronts: north, south, east, west, and central.

Gen Sheikh, in his late 50s, is one of the highest ranking Syrian army defectors and arrived in Turkey a year ago. He divides his time between a camp for defected Syrian military officers in southern Turkey and a rebel base in northern Syria.

For now, the rebels consist of hundreds of khattibas or brigades, some of which are unifying into Liwas or battalions, and then local military councils, according to Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy.

"That is a clear trend," said Mr Tabler. "You have some efforts to unify those Liwas into provincial military councils and city military councils. Those involve soldiers and civilians."

Abu Gheiath, a commander of the local military council of Jisr Al Shughour, a town in the north, said that he had been coordinating with the higher council military council, which was reportedly formed in February, for about four months. The higher military council had not provided it with any weaponry because it was not needed, said Mr Gheiath. "We have our own resources," he said. "We want to cooperate with the idea, but many times we don't need anyone so we don't call."

One example of successful coordination between the Jisr Al Shughour military council and the higher military council was in July, when rebels successfully seized the Bab Al Hawa border crossing with Turkey from the regime, said Mr Gheiath.

A small number of fighters were sent to serve as reinforcements after a request from figures in the higher council. "When we need we ask, when they need they ask [for reinforcements]," he said.

Mr Gheiath was returning to Syria after two days in Ankara, Turkey's capital, where he met with members of the SNC. He said that he would coordinate with the political coalition because he supported "any unifying of political opposition", but that the meeting was only an "exchange of ideas … more like preparing for the big meeting".

"This coalition is still new, they are trying to have connections with the international community," said Mr Mossab, a civilian working with the Jisr Al Shughour military council. "When they have resources we will support them."

Basam Hajji Mustafa, the leader of a Kurdish rebel battalion based near Aleppo said he was waiting to join the higher military council.

"Some people get more support than others," he said. His group, the Yousef Al Azma brigade, aimed to coalesce within the next weeks into a Liwa of seven Kurdish fighting groups and then join the higher military council. "Once they have the ability to supply everyone then the problems will be less."

Messrs Gheiath and Hajji Mustafa agreed that "about 80 per cent" of the fighting groups were unifying and coordinating together.

"Some people got used to working alone," said Mr Mossab, when asked why the rebels are taking so long to coalesce into a single group.

"They are not used to be under a leadership. Generally, we are going in a positive line towards more unification. If Syrian people had got real support this would have been much easier."

Some extremist rebel groups such as Jabahat Al Nusra, which is accused of ties to Al Qaeda, have rejected the new political coalition and continued to operate independently of the higher military council. Yet, Mr Gheiath said there was already coordination with them.

"We are forced to work with them because they have good support and good weapons," he said.

Even while Mr Tabler said western governments are becoming more involved with the armed opposition, it remains to be seen what relations will be like in the future.

The rebels might not need support, Mr Tabler said. "It might make dealing with them harder as they are not dependent."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae