The regime and government of Bashar al-Assad has lost full domestic legitimacy (or there would not be a civil war) and a large part of international legitimacy, but it remains recognized and backed notably by China and Russia – both with veto power at the UN security council – Iran and Iraq. Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon opposed the Arab League’s “decision to give the opposition the vacant Syrian seat” (The Guardian, 26 March 2013), suspended since November 2011.
The pro-Assad Syrian fighting groups are composed of the regular Army and the Republican Guards, as well as pro-Assad militias (both Alawite and composite – Sunni, Christian, Druze), all backed up by the Security Forces and the Police Force. All Alawites should not be considered as supporting the Assad regime, as shows the conference organised in Cairo on 23 March 2013 by Alawites promoting a “democratic alternative” (Reuters).
According to Holliday, Al-Assad has a policy of only “electively deploying [t]his loyal core of military supporters.” As a result “a working estimate of 65,000 to 75,000 loyal, deployable Syrian regime troops emerges” out of “the Syrian Armed Forces, a basis that includes over 300,000 troops (including Air Force and Air defense personnel)” (p.27). From this figure should be removed casualties, estimated by Holliday at 7620 killed and 30500 wounded by end of December 2012 (see table p.28), which represents approximatively half of the regime estimated deployed troops, partially or completely compensated by recruitment (p.29). As underlined by Holliday and the International Crisis Group, those men are however a “hardcore nucleus of regime supporters”(p.29). A decentralization of command and control, allowing for flexibility and initiative by low- and mid-level officers, according to local conditions, was implemented during the Summer 2012 (Ibid).
(For a more detailed and clear explanation, read Holliday, Appendix 3) They are constituted of four intelligence services, whose “primary mission was to ‘monitor and intervene aggressively against potential domestic threats to the regime’ (Campbell, 2009).” (p.54) However, they are now acting more like militias than like intelligence services (p.30). In addition, each operates its own prisons. Each service is present throughout the whole territory with a branch in each province. Using an interview he realized, Holliday writes that “one former regime insider suggested it [The Mukhabarat] could be as large as 200,000 security officers and personnel, but this figure could include administrative personnel and informants and cannot be verified” (p. 55), and, most probably, not all of them are fighters. (p.30).
As underlined by Holliday, fear, reprisals, massacres and atrocities of minorities at the hand of extremists may only increase the number of people joining the various militias.
Iran’s action with the militias would support Smyth‘s point (2013), according to which Iran is also preparing for a post al-Assad situation by creating sub-networks within the Syrian Shia community, as well as by supporting other (Sunni) militiamen. Holliday suggested a similar Iranian role in a post al-Assad Syria (p.32).
To the Syrian forces must be added foreign groups such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, groups coming from Iraq with Iranian support such the Mahdi Army (Muqtada al-Sadr’s Liwa al-Yom al-Mauwud), Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Hizbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force (Ammar Abdulhamid, 2013; Smyth, 2013). See the full report for further details, pp.11-12.
Update 24 February 2014
see update below for the NC and SMC
Strengthening the Bashar al-Assad regime
Meanwhile, Jonathan Saul and Parisa Hafezi for Reuters revealed on 21 February 2014 that Iran would have been boosting its support to the regime of Bashar al-Assad “in recent months”:
“Assad is now benefiting from the deployment by Tehran of hundreds more military specialists to Syria…
These include senior commanders from the elite Quds Force, the external and secretive arm of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, as well as IRGC members.
Their function is not to fight, but to direct and train Syrian forces and to assist in the gathering of intelligence, according to sources in Iran and outside….” Jonathan Saul and Parisa Hafezi Reuters, 21 February 2014.
Weapons continued to be delivered by Russia and include “unmanned spy drones, guided bombs and spare parts for combat craft… Iranian-made Falaq-1 and Falaq-2 rocket launchers… relatively new Iranian small arms ammunition… machine guns and ammunition for artillery and tanks” (Ibid.).
This would show that, on this side too, the start of a new, more intense phase, aiming at ending the war by victory, or at least at helping the regime of Bashar al-Assad to be truly preponderant on the battlefield, should Geneva fail, as was highly probable, had been envisioned and prepared for months.
Update 7 October 2013
- Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov and US Secretary of State Kerry reiterated their hope to see the peace conference organised in mid-November on the sideline of the APEC summit (7 October 2013, Ria Novosti), however Lavrov also underlined he doubted the West capability to bring in the “opposition”. West may fail to bring Syrian opposition to Geneva talks in time – Lavrov“, 1 October 2013, RT News, mentioning he was ready to see this date postponed “as the formation of the opposition delegation may require more time” (3 October 2013, Russia Beyond the Headlines).
- Secret talks would have taken place between one part of the “Free Syrian Army” (see below) and the regime, starting “six weeks ago” (Robert Fisk, “A Syrian solution to civil conflict? The Free Syrian Army is holding talks with Assad’s senior staff: Secret approach to the President could reshape the whole war,” The Independent, 30 September 2013). Within the framework of a mounting Islamist threat, this would potentially result, according to Fisk, from a campaign undertaken by the regime to win back the many defectors composing the FSA. This information has been denied by the NC or rather “Colonel Malik Al-Kurdi, the Deputy Commander of the Free Syrian Army”, who emphasized the fragmentation power of secrecy (“Free Syrian Army denies secret negotiations with Assad regime“, 1st October 2013, Middle East Monitor).
The timing of those talks, as told to Fisk by “a senior official on the staff of President Bashar al-Assad” is also particularly important: if we count 6 weeks back from Monday 30th September, we get 19 August, i.e. 2 days before the chemical attack (see below). We may thus be led to wonder if, hypothesis 1, Fisk’s source is reliable and the information he gave his true, which Fisk seems to believe considering the other signs he indicates in his article, this would not increase the likelihood that Russia and the regime of Bashar al-Assad are correct and that one fighting group loosely associated with the opposition but refusing the possibility of such a peace could have carried upon the chemical attack. Alternatively, hypothesis 2, the information given to Fisk is false or partly true and planted to lead people to reason as done here for hypothesis 1, and thus to enhance Bashar al-Assad’s regime status. The indications selected by Fisk would then be nothing else than a smart strategy by the regime and tiredness by the FSA having to fight on multiple fronts. We should not forget that we are here in the context of war and of international politics, and that disinformation and psychological war have been used by all sides and in multiple ways.
Other reasons could exist for having interest in spreading news (which could also have been disseminated on the ground before 30 September) regarding the very existence of the talks and their content – be it true, partly true or false (considering the scattered, chaotic and localised quality of the Syrian fighting forces opposing the regime of Bashar al-Assad, such talks may well have taken place but represent only one or a few groups within the FSA). Some of the new groups or loose alliances that were announced at the end of September 2013 could use it to enhance their own legitimacy and thus gain ground and mobilisation power, while discrediting the NC and FSA or some elements within it. The Al-Assad regime could have interest in underlining the weakness and division of the opposition. It could seek to provoke a reaction from the less moderate part of the warring groups, which would polarize further the conflict, frighten the moderates – as well as “the West” – but also reduce the number of opponents for the Al-Assad regime. Some groups within the Bashar al-Assad regime could have interest in seeing a continuation of war for profit and power, etc.
Read Der Spiegel article by Christoph Reuter: ‘Sex Jihad’ and Other Lies: Assad’s Elaborate Disinformation Campaign“, 7 October 2013.
- The regime of Bashar Al-Assad continues to welcome a Geneva 2 and to state that it would participate, emphasizing that “There is no civil war in Syria, but it is a war against terror…” (“Statement by Walid al-Moualem, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates of Syria” at the 68th session of the U.N. General Assembly, 30 September 2013, also summary of statement in “Syrian FM to UN: ‘Terrorists from 83 countries fighting in Syria‘,” 30 September 2013, RT News )
Chemical attack(s) in Syria
On 21 August 2013, attacks using chemical weapons were made in Syria, in Gutha, a suburb of Damascus, where fighting between factions opposing the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the latter’s armed forces was ongoing. As underlined by Kendall, in her detailed and comprehensive early reportage (Bridget Kendall, “Syria ‘chemical attack’: Distressing footage under analysis“, 23 August 2013, BBC News), those attacks were first denounced by groups fighting al-Assad regime (e.g. EinTarma Coordinating on its Facebook page) and followed by many videos made available on the internet. The regime of Bashar al-Assad denied using chemical weapons during the fighting.
Since then, Syrian forces on the ground used abundantly classical and new media to see their viewpoint heard and believed.
As the use of chemical weapons is proscribed according to international law, as “since 1968, Syria has been a party to the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of War, better known as the Geneva Protocol.” (Zilinskas, National Interest, 6 August 2012), and as US President Obama had warned on 20 September 2012 that Syria would face American military intervention if it used unconventional weapons (e.g. Mark Landler, The New York Times, 20 August 2012), then international reactions could only follow. The challenges that had to be faced were first to be certain that chemical weapons had been used in this specific case, and second to identify with certainty the perpetrator of the attack.
In a nutshell, the UK, France and the US argued first that Sarin had been used, according to their intelligence services, and second that the regime of Bashar al-Assad was responsible. On the contrary, Russia, and also China and Iran, asked for more neutral evidence regarding the use of chemical weapons (a U.N. inspection – their report (or access here) establishing the use of Sarin was made public on 16 September 2013), and then asserted that some group from the opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad was the perpetrator.
International actors tried to give as much legitimacy to their positions as possible, using not only domestic and international law, but also making public intelligence assessment in the case of France (Synthèse nationale de renseignement déclassifié, 2 Septembre 2013) and the US (Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013, 30 August 2013) and making abundant use of media in the case of Russia. Afraid to be dragged into another war on another intelligence failure as had happened with Iraq, on 29 August 2013, the UK parliament, refused to authorize military action (e.g. Andrew Sparrow, Politics Live Blog, The Guardian).
Considering irreconcilable positions from members of the U.N. Security Council, which thus forbade any full international legitimacy to any armed action against Syria, yet the necessity to act to ensure the continuation of the current international order, not only Syria but the world were in a very dangerous situation that could potentially have led to another world war or to a disaggregation of the international order. “The use Russia made of US Secretary of State Kerry’s comment, transforming it in a practical and actionable – however complex and difficult – strategy, according to which “the Bashar al-Assad regime could avoid a strike by “agreeing to give up his chemical weapons” (for a summary, see Gordon and Lee Myers, New York Times, 9 September 2013, among others), was an extremely smart move, which took the whole international order out of a very dangerous quagmire” (Democracy: the Key to Avoiding Future Wars 3).
On “14 September 2013, Syria deposited with the Secretary-General its instrument of accession to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction (Convention) and declared that it shall comply with its stipulations and observe them faithfully and sincerely, applying the Convention provisionally pending its entry into force for the Syrian Arab Republic.” (U.N.)
The 14 September 2013 Kerry – Lavrov agreement: Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons was endorsed by the Security Council resolution 2118 on chemical weapons in Syria on 26 September 2013.
Syria’s chemical disarmament has now started and can be followed on the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA).
Yet, uncertainty regarding the perpetrator does remain – it is likely to remain so in the absence of certain direct evidence as well as considering the psychological war that has been waged through the media. New “revelations” are made by the Russian side. The latest is that “the August chemical weapons attack in the Syrian capital’s suburbs was done by a Saudi Arabian black operations team, Russian diplomatic sources have told a Russian news agency [Interfax]”, according to RT (4 October 2013). This alleged Saudi involvement is to read in the framework of the evolutions among the anti al-Assad factions (see, for example, Joshua Landis and Syria Comment experts “Syria’s Top Five Insurgent Leaders” 1 October 2013), notably – but not only – following from the loss of influence of the Muslim Brotherhood (see below updates for the NC) and of the regional tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Russia also insists in seeing another chemical attack that would have taken place on 19 March in the vicinity of Aleppo investigated (“Sergei Lavrov will meet Syrian rebels halfway“, October 3, 2013, Russia Beyond the Headline, Ria Novosti). Another attack using Sarin has taken place in April 2013, as French declassified intelligence report (ibid. p.2, 6) recalled and was according to the French report perpetrated by the Al-Assad regime.
As a result of the chemical attack and consequent developments, if everything goes well in terms of disarmament, the regime of Bashar al-Assad is most likely to see its credibility and status enhanced internationally, while the international public opinion, so important nowadays, has grown more confused.
The National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (NC) and the Supreme Joint Military Command Council (SJMCC or SMC)
An umbrella group of various opposition and fighting factions, of more or less moderate obedience, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (also translated as National Coalition for the Forces of the Revolution and the Syrian Opposition – Lund, 2013), which absorbed the previous Syrian National Council (Lund, 2013: 12), was formed in November 2012, pushed among others by the U.S. and Qatar. It was initially headed by Ahmed Moadh al-Khatib. It was recognized by many Western nations (see list on Wikipedia), by Turkey, by the Arab States of the Gulf (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Oman), as the “legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The Arab League (except for Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon) recognised the Coalition as their “legitimate representative and main interlocutor”. This recognition was reasserted at the recent Arab League summit in Doha on 26 March 2013 (The Guardian).
Then, the united face of the Syrian moderate opposition – as well as its moderation – was questioned, notably by the election of Ghassam Hitto as Prime Minister of the interim opposition government, recommended by Mustafa Sabbagh, Secretary General of the Coalition, and supported by the Muslin Brotherhood and Qatar (see update 8 July 2013 below for the changing face of the “moderate opposition” with the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood following events in Egypt). As a result the president Al-Khatib resigned, confirming he was stepping down on 21 April 2013 (Al Arabyia and AFP), while some leaders in the opposition voiced their disapproval, including in the Free Syrian Army (FSA), refusing to recognize Hitto (e.g. AFP 24 March 2013). See update 8 July 2013 below for the changing face of the “moderate opposition” with the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood following events in Egypt.
The SNC created the Supreme Joint Military Command Council (SJMCC or SMC) with Brigadier General Salim Idriss elected as Chief of Staff. The SMC is meant to integrate and lead the FSA and is organised according to five fronts (Eastern Front: Raqqa-Deir Ezzor and Al Hassakah – Northern Front: Aleppo and Idlib – Central Front: Homs-Rastan – Western Front: Hama-Latakia-Tartus – Southern Front: Damascus-Dar’a-Suwayda).
A detailed report by the Institute for the Study of War’s Syria Analyst Elizabeth O’Bagy on this endeavour may be found here, but must be read in the light of the debate between Debeuf and Lund on the FSA.
How many fighters belong to the SMC? This is a crucial question however a very difficult one. If we use David Ignatius estimates for the Washington Post, we read that “Idriss and his Free Syrian Army command about 50,000 more fighters, rebel sources say” (Ignatius, 3 April 2013). However, Lund (4 April 2013) in his comment on Ignatius’ article for Syria Comment questions this estimates, considering the complexity and fluidity of the situation on the ground. O’Bagy, in her detailed report on the FSA does not seem to include a global estimate. Lund in his article on the FSA (16 March 2013) underlines that “If all the factions which have declared in favor of Idriss were added up, they’d count at least 50,000 men, perhaps many more.” However, as he stresses, those groups include some that belong too to other nexus, such as Suqour el-Sham that is part of the Syria Liberation Front (SLF) also known as the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF). Thus, if we are looking at the number of fighters who are “moderate,” then one should substract from the 50.000 all those men who fight first for other groups, and thus are only very loosely affiliated with the SMC.
The NC and SMC are those who receive “Western” aid, which is, officially, non-lethal, although, as monitored through crowdsourcing and explained in Chivers and Schmitt article for the New York Times (24 March 2013), military aid “from the C.I.A.” (mainly a consultative role) “Arab governments and Turkey” has found its way into Syria since early 2012. Meanwhile military training, on a small scale, “led by the US, but involves[ing] British and French instructors” would be provided in Jordan (Borger and Hopkins, 8 March 2013, The Guardian). It is thus crucial for the NC and the SMC to present a united front to the world, to reassure regarding their capacity to act and harness various groups and to reassert their moderation, because it is only under those conditions that they will continue to receive support or even increase its amount and change its nature. The fear from potential backers is that aid and weapons provided spread throughout groups and not only fuel the Syrian conflict but also favour regional spill-over, while also potentially finding their way back into Western countries, favouring violence in an environment made more volatile by the crisis.
The meeting of the Friends of Syria group in Istanbul on 20 and 21 April 2013 exemplifies those interactions. There, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced that a new non-lethal package to the SMC of up to USD 130 million would be added to the 117 million already given (AP, 20 April 2013). France and Great Britain push for changing the EU arm embargo on Syria; Germany is more reserved but announced it would accept it (Spencer, 21 April 2013, The Telegraph, EUbusiness, 22 April 2013), while The Netherlands would be more reserved (AP, 20 April) and Scandinavian countries would oppose it (EUbusiness, 22 April). Both France and the UK have let believe that they could decide to move forward even without a European agreement (Traynor, 14 March 2013, The Guardian). The EU also decided to ease its oil embargo on Syria to support the NC (EUbusiness, 22 April).
Update 24 February 2014
The last alliance to emerge over the Autumn has been Syria Revolutionaries Front (SRF), created on 9 December 2013 (see Youtube video), which is composed of moderate or non-ideologically motivated groups, as detailed by Lund (13 Dec 2013) and mapped below (click on the image for a larger picture). It is a reaction to the Salafi-Nationalist re-organization as underlined by Landis in Lund’s article (Ibid.). It is thus under the SMC, and is the only one to do so out of the three major alliances that were created since November. Notably, whatever support the SLF/SILF had brought to the “FSA” in the past disappeared with its dissolution and the creation of the Islamic Front (IF).
The SRF has been one of the main force to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) notably since the January offensive (Lund, 7 January 2014).
There seems to be no precise estimate regarding the number of fighters in the SRF. However, to get a very rough idea, if we take past estimates of 50.000 forces for the FSA, to which we add estimates for the SIF (10.000 to 30.000) and SILF (37.000), and assuming the number of recruits compensate the number of deaths, we would have as global figure for the forces of the opposition between 97.000 and 117.000, without counting all smaller groups, Jihadi and Kurdish forces. This would fit with Landis’ statement in his latest article Analysis: Why Syria’s Assad heads to Geneva from a position of strength (22 Jan 2014) “rebel fighters… number well in excess of 100.000 by most estimates.” If now we remove from those figures the estimates for the IF and the Army of the Mujahideen (between 50.000 and 75.000), we obtain as forces for the SMC between 42.000 and 47.000 fighters. This is far from being negligible, but, as noted by Lund for the SRF and Landis for all opposition forces (ibid), fragmentation, especially in the light of the strengthening of the Islamic Front, and inferior armament, are major disadvantages.
The expected failure of Geneva 2
As forces were reorganizing on the ground, the international community moved forward with its project to convene a peace conference it hoped to see settling politically the war. Geneva 2 opened on 22 January, followed by a first round of negotiations between 24 and 31 January and a second round between 10 and 15 February, a third round might take place – e.g. UN website and Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi’s speech, 15 Feb).
An improbable agreement
However, considering what happened in Syria, the different factions and their forces, and their rejection of Geneva, as we saw previously (here for the Salafi-nationalists and here for the Kurds), Geneva 2 had little chance to lead to any agreement, and was even less likely to open the way to a political settlement of the conflict from the start. Indeed, the political delegation said to represent “the opposition” to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the NC (and the SMC), represented at best half of the overall “opposition” fighting forces on the ground. The delegation thus would not have been able to enforce any agreement, had one occurred, besides the area where the troops which are affiliated with the SMC are.
Furthermore, the only chance for the NC and the delegation in Geneva to remain relevant would be or more exactly would have been to show that they could have obtained politically what other fighting groups failed to obtain militarily, i.e. the removal of Bashar al-Assad and its close associates, while also securing support for their factions (and we are not here dealing with the problems that would follow from the potential fragility of the state apparatus once major elements of the Bashar al-Assad regime would be removed). However, considering the relative position of strength of the Bashar al-Assad regime, as explained by Landis (AlJazeera America, 22 January 2014), and the advances of the ISIS both in Syria and Iraq (e.g.) that may only further frighten Western powers while entrenching the support of both Russia and Iran to al-Assad, there was no hope to see the groups faithful to Bashar al-Assad even starting to discuss the demise of their leader and their own. According to Phil Sands and Suha Maayeh (5 Feb 2014, The National) for example, “in the run up to last month’s Geneva talks, Russia reportedly increased supplies of military hardware to Mr Al Assad “. Again, negotiations could only fail.
The tragic problem of humanitarian aid in a war situation
As for more modest aims, compared with a full resolution of the conflict in Syria, such as targeted humanitarian help, it was as unlikely to see any serious agreement being signed. To believe that an agreement can be easily reached on humanitarian help is to believe that people are neither actors nor stakes in a war, which is plainly not true, as shown by the whole history of warfare. As tragic as it may be, insistence on the neutrality of humanitarian aid can be ignorance, hypocrisy, or motivated by double or even triple motives, such as bringing indeed relief to populations, but also securing military advantage and obtaining international legitimacy, notably in the eyes of a non-informed domestic and international public.
This is why the fight for humanitarian help goes on beyond Geneva and also takes place at the U.N.. Indeed on 22 February 2014, the Security Council finally voted the debated aid Resolution 2139 (2014) to Syria, Russia and China voting in favour and not vetoing it, however after Russia saw the threat of sanctions removed ( see UN News).
To come back to Geneva and the position of the Syrian actors regarding such aid, on one side, the regime of Bashar al-Assad has clearly used a strategy including displacement of populations to separate them for “the rebellions”, while putting under siege “rebellious strongholds”. It was thus quite unlikely that it would abandon its strategy, besides a token effort as in Homs (e.g. The Guardian), risking to see it completely collapse or used against him militarily by its foes. On the other side, “the opposition” may only push for those “lesser” aims, as they could then be transformed militarily by the fighters in Syria and used politically by the NC and the various leaders to gain clout. Internationally and ideologically, the NC position is here stronger as they may then use it to show the pitilessness of the Bashar al-Assad regime and its backers, indeed the fact that they do not behave as proper political authorities and are thus illegitimate for a large part of the population. All those advantages would help them progress towards their overall aim which is to win by seeing the regime of Bashar al-Assad removed, which is of course well understood by the latter. Only a more important strategic gain or threat, or a more pressing tactical threat for the regime of Bashar al-Assad might change the odds to see such an agreement happen.
Looking for leverage?
This might be the logic that presided to the start on 1 February 2014 of what Lund calls Syria’s Southern Spring Offensive (14 Feb 2014), right after the failure of the first round of talk, as also suggested by Sands and Maayeh (5 Feb 2014, The National). In a nutshell, American funding to the Southern fighting groups “secretly” authorized by the US Congress has resumed (Ibid.). “The figure could be at least $31.5m for the southern area — excluding money for weapons and other supplies,” and is now added to the $1.2bn support given by Gulf states since July (Sands and Maayeh). The offensive would have started “less than 48 hours after the fighters received U.S. money through the “secrete” Military Operations Command located in Jordan and organizing and supporting aid to the Southern fighters (Ibid., Sand and Maayeh, 28 December 2013). (For detailed accounts read notably Sands and Maayeh; Lund; Michael Weiss, 12 Feb 2014, Now)
Whatever the motivation, this offensive was however insufficient to obtain any agreement during the second round of talks. It most probably plays its role, however, in the U.N. Security Council vote on the aid resolution for Syria. Furthermore, it can even be seen as actually preparing the start of a new period, finally ushered by the expected and now quasi official failure of Geneva 2 (Brahimi, Ibid.), even if, diplomatically, the possibility of a third round of talks is left open.
The start of a new phase
Remaking the moderate forces
While the southern part of Syria has started its new offensive against the Bashar al-Assad regime, as soon as Geneva ended, on 17 February 2014, a “coup” took place within the SMC, removing General Idriss and his deputy, and replacing them by “Brigadier General Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir al-Noeimi … as the new SMC chief of staff, with Colonel Heitham Afeisi as his new deputy” (see Lund, 18 Feb 2014 for a detailed account). This change was allegedly fomented by “Saudi-backed opposition figures” (ibid.) and reflects the novel configuration of forces within the NC and SMC, with, according to Lund, al-Noemi representing the Southern Front and Afeisi the SRF as he is one of its co -funder of the SRF.
The newly strengthened Southern Front, under the leadership of Bashar Al-Zoubi, the Commander of Liwa al-Yarmouk, would now be all the more important because, according to Landis, it will benefit from what all opposition fighting groups had so far cruelly lacked: advanced anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons as revealed by Maria Abi-Habib and Stacy Meichtry (the Wall Street Journal, 14 Feb 2014). According to the AFP (23 Fev 2014), Saudi Arabia would also try to buy weapons from Pakistan. The Southern Front would now count 10.000 fighters (ibid.).
The new command of the SMC was officially immediately acknowledged by the NC (President Al-Jarba declaration, NC, 17 Feb 2014), which is also backed by Saudi Arabia.
A land of mirages
Analysts wonder how this renewed and important support notably in terms of types of weapons to the more moderate and secular groups may play out with the Islamic Front: for example Lund, who asks if there is “still a role for the Islamic Front?”and Landis who wonders “Will the Islamic Front accuse the new “moderate” groups cooperating with the CIA of being Sahwa*?”, stressing that “The Islamic Front is mainly a Qatari-Turkish supported coalition. Saudi Arabia might not be as keen on them as many at first thought,” but nevertheless underlining the Saudi support to the Islam Army, an important member of the front.
The answer may not be in an “either-or” way to perceive the situation, but in the fluid, continuously shifting and moving pattern of temporary cooperation and in the related utter pragmatism of actors. If all actors remain “flexible”, then clear-cut enmity or friendship needs not to be decided and may remain subordinated to specific tactical goals, to interest, as well as, to a point, to the overarching one of defeating the Bashar al-Assad regime. If this approach is correct, then the revisited SMC may lead to better relationships with the IF than existed previously, as indeed suggested by Lund (ibid.), who mentioned that the SMC and the IF may have already met, however pointing out the potential unreliability of the source “Kulluna Shuraka, a widely read Syrian opposition website”. There would be some uncertainty regarding at least Harakat Ahrar al-Sham (ibid.), which is not surprising considering their history which would imply lesser links with Saudi Arabia, but again, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham would most probably not deprive itself from whatever advantages they can gain from cooperation, while their strength and organization makes them an actor that cannot be forgotten. The same logic would prevail for both the IF and the forces affiliated with the SMC, none of them can dispense with the other.
A rather lax and flexible application of any ideology added to respect for their autonomy within an indivisible Syria would also be crucial not to exclude and alienate the Kurds and Rojava.
A Saudi Regional Strategy?
Does it make sense from the Gulf States’, notably Saudi Arabia’s, point of view to strengthen the moderates when having previously contributed to reinforce the Salafi-Nationalists groups? Actually, and although we must remain here too cautious as struggles among clans and factions may also exist among backers of Syrian groups, there is a logic to have two strong nexus of fighting groups. With the moderate, Saudi Arabia pays attention to bring in the conflict the U.S. and the Friends of Syria, as many of its constitutive countries apparently tend to participate in the Jordanian “secrete” Military Operations Command (Sand and Maayeh, 28 December 2013). They thus secure support, potentially, for any “humanitarian” aid to Syria, with all the military implication it may have and keep good relationships in general with those states. With the Salafi-Jihadis, notably in case the negotiations with Iran would not follow a path that would suit them, they could then use the prospect of a Salafi Syria as a threat (on the importance of Iran for Saudi Arabia, and “how Saudi Arabia’s royal politics is influencing the Kingdom’s regional role” read, for example Mai Yamani “The Last of the Sudeiri Seven” in Project Syndicate (13 Feb 2014). Moreover, in case the Jihadi Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), even if it has been disavowed by Al Qaeda (e.g. Lund 4 Feb 2014), continues its advance in Syria and Iraq (and potentially beyond), and if it becomes threatening, then the religious component of the Salafi-Nationalists and their strength may prove crucial in struggling against ISIS, in a way that moderate and non-religious groups could not ensure.
Yet, some split and tensions are still to be expected, without being over-played considering the relative strength all each group, as General Idriss did not accept his dismissal, while “unidentified” “unit commanders representing the relatively secular rebels in Syria’s five main battle zones” support him (Al Arabiya News, 19 February 2014). For example Mohammed al-Abboud, the SMC’s top commander in eastern Syria” and denounced it as invalid (Lund, 17 Feb 2014, referring to his interview by journalist Zaid Benjamin).
Update 16 October 2013
Evolution on the ground
As far as the battles and reconfigurations with and within the various Salafi groups are concerned, during the Q&A with the press at the 7 October Press Conference, President Jarba recognised that the brigades that signed the “Islamic framework” (see Lund, 24 September 2013) were not anymore “with” the SMC and the NC but “under the command of al-Nusra” (which is actually not in the statement of the “Islamic framework” but allowed the NC and SMC to save face).
On October 7, at a press conference, President Jarba stated “we have decided to deal with Geneva II openly but cautiously. We have said clearly we do not reject Geneva just for the sake of rejecting it. But we agree on Geneva under certain parameters” and those conditions are imperative:
- “…no dialogue with the criminal regime…”
- “…prior to any negotiation process there must be guarantees from Islamic and Arab states; … under the supervision of the Arab League.”
- rejection of the “the participation of Iran as a broker in any negotiation process…”unless it “withdraw its Revolutionary Guards Corps and mercenaries, who have come from Lebanon and Iraq, from Syria immediately…”
In a letter to the U.N., dated 19 September, President Jarba “”reaffirms its willingness to engage in a future Geneva Conference”…”all parties must … agree that the purpose of the conference will be the establishment of a transitional government with full executive powers”. (Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Reuters, 22 September 2013).
NC and SMC representatives
A new provisional Prime Minister, Ahmad Tumeh was elected on 14 September 2013. According to Reuters, his priority is “to restore stability in the liberated areas, improve their living conditions and provide security” (Ibid.) Tumeh is an ex political prisoner of the Eastern province of Deir al-Zor and should thus be agreeable to Syrians within Syria. The Gulf States and notably Saudi Arabia should finance the new provisional government (Khaled Yacoub Oweis and Dasha Afanasieva, Reuters, 14 Sept 2013).
The NC must face the evolutions linked to the chemical attacks (see update 8 October Al-Assad Groups above).
On potential secret talks between some representatives of the “FSA”/SMC and the Al-Assad regime, see update 8 October Al-Assad Groups above.
Update 8 July 2013
The Egyptian revolution of 30 June 2013 with the ousting of President Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, the refusal by the Muslim Brotherhood to join the new coalition and its call to fight had immediate implications for the SNC in Syria. Indeed the SNC was meeting in Istanbul to elect a new President. After the usual discussions and delays, the Egyptian defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood most probably contributed, along other factors specific to Syria, to see the Saudi backed Ahmad Al Assi Jarba elected, over the Qatar backed Mustafa Sabbagh, knowing that Qatar is a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, “the Brotherhood representative, Farouq Tayfour, was elected one of two vice-presidents of the Syrian National Coalition in a sign the group still retains influence in Syrian opposition politics.” (Erika Solomon, Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Reuters, 6 July 2013). Badr Jamous is General Secretary.
Update 28 May 2013
The road to Geneva 2
See here for detailed bibliography and list of primary sources.