Expert Commentary

Telling Friend from Foe in Syria

Fabrice Balanche
Visiting Fellow, The Hoover Institution

Following the aggressive Russian and Turkish interventions in Syria, it can be difficult to tell where the various parties in the conflict stand. Between the U.S.- backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the mix of opposition forces trapped in east Aleppo, it can be difficult to tell where the rebellion really lies. Similarly, as regional and international powers shift the amount and kind of funding, weapons, training, and military support that they offer to combatant parties, U.S. policy is faced with an ever-changing battlefield. The Cipher Brief talked with Visiting Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), Fabrice Balanche, to bring some clarity to the five-year long civil war.

The Cipher Brief: What is the state of play?

Fabrice Balanche: If we put aside the Kurds and the Islamic State, the Syrian military opposition is divided between four different trends: the global jihad fighters, Syrian Salafists, groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and groups without an explicit religious ideology (although this does not mean they are secular). This last group accounts for between 100,000 to 150,000 militants. About 30 groups exceed one thousand fighters and a myriad of other local groups have only a few hundred, or even only a few dozen, fighters and switch from one coalition to another, depending on funding and the groups’ hyper-local interests.

The Nusra Front, now Jeish Fatah al Sham, is at the center of a nebula, which includes the Salafist group Ahrar al Sham and extremely radical jihadist groups like Jund al Aqsa and the Uighurs of the Islamic Party of Turkmenistan. Through its acceptable – to the West – branch, Ahrar al Sham, the Syrian branch of al-Qaida participates in nearly all regional coalitions. Nusra Front has maximalist aspirations and seeks to completely dominate the entire Syrian rebellion. Its main enemy is ISIS, because they are ideologically the closest, in addition, to all groups who resist Nusra Front’s authority.

TCB: Can the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) remain a cohesive force?

FB: The Syrian Democratic Forces are a coherent force but the Kurds dominate, constituting three quarters of the 40,000 fighters. Still, Sunni Arabs are of growing importance in the SDF, as the Rojava territory has expanded to include Arab territories. Local groups join the SDF because it is through this organization that the U.S. distributes weapons. The ideological framework, the common enemy (Islamic state), and the access to weapons are the three factors of SDF cohesion. But since the Turkish intervention in Syria, only a few Arab groups have defected to the Shield of the Euphrates (the coalition created by Turkey around the brigade Sultan Murad and other pro-Turkish groups), including the Liwa al Tahrir, which is only a few dozen fighters. Other defections may occur if the Turkish intervention proves sustainable and if Turkey continues to successfully buy Arab groups.

TCB: In your opinion, what are the goals of the opposing sides in eastern Aleppo?

FB: In East Aleppo, the Nusra Front wants to continue the fight until the end. Its policy at the country-level is to make no concessions to Damascus and to refuse any international negotiations.  It hopes to recover the groups frustrated by failed peace talks. The Nusra Front wants to create an Islamic emirate based on the model of ISIS in northwestern Syria, but its construction would have more weight if it managed to seize Aleppo.The Nusra Front has immense prestige within the rebellion; its success would revive the hope of the fall of Assad through armed struggle. For instance, in August 2016, when the Nusra Front managed to open a breach in the regime’s encirclement of Aleppo, this made the group appear to be the liberator of Aleppo.

The rebels linked to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), on the other hand, are more willing to negotiate with Damascus and move to safe areas under rebel control. It happened in Homs in April 2014 and in Daraya last August. These were examples of the Assad strategy, which is not to completely eliminate the rebels, which would take too much time, but rather to negotiate their surrender, which makes the reconquest of the country and its governance easier. Under this strategy, the regime will try to use some warlords to rule the part of the country where it cannot come back directly.

TCB: Is there a sense that the parties in Syria are attempting to reposition themselves in order to create beneficial facts on the ground before the inauguration of the next U.S. president?

FB: The Russian and Iranian presence in the country gives a considerable advantage to the Assad camp. It was in the first two years of the Syrian revolt that the USA had a chance to massively intervene and change the tide. The repositioning we are witnessing today – the former Free Syrian Army/US-supported al-Zenki brigade joining the coalition leaded by the Nusra Front for instance – is more related to Saudi Arabian funding and the new and the growing importance of jihdadists, not the proximity of the U.S. presidential election. A lack of American commitment in the months following the election would likely accelerate this radicalization.

TCB: How have outside powers altered their approach to the Syrian conflict over the past several months?

FB: The Russian intervention, which began in September 2015, has significantly changed the geopolitical situation in the region. Jordan was the first country to negotiate with Russia, freezing all operations against the Syrian regime from its territory in exchange for the creation of a de facto safe zone in the neighboring province of Deraa in order to prevent Russian carpet bombing pushing several hundred thousand more refugees into Jordan.

Turkey concluded a similar agreement last August, with the add on that Russia allows Turkey to block the ambitions of Syrian Kurds to unite the Kurdish-controlled territories of Afrin and Kobane in northern Aleppo province. This Turkish-Russian agreement weakens the rebellion in the northwest, leaving the Syrian regime free to retake east Aleppo and then, without doubt, a large part of the province of Idlib. I suspect Turkey has also negotiated the creation of a friendly safe zone around Idlib. Without Turkish and Jordanian cooperation, Saudi Arabia is less likely to help the Syrian rebels.

If U.S. policy is not more aggressive in Syria, the Saudis will gradually withdraw from the party. They have enough to do in Yemen. The election of Michel Aoun, an ally of Hezbollah, as the President of Lebanon is also a sign of the beginning of Saudi abdication in favor of Iran on the Syrian playground.

The Author is Fabrice Balanche

Fabrice Balanche, an associate professor and research director at the University of Lyon 2, is a visiting fellow at The Hoover Institution. Balanche, who also directs the Research Group on the Mediterranean and the Middle East (GREMMO), has spent ten years in Lebanon and Syria, his main areas of study, since first engaging in fieldwork in the region in 1990. Today, he is frequently called upon as an expert consultant on Middle East development issues and the Syrian crisis. His... Read More

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