This (long) post ends the current series of updates on the Syrian war. It focuses on the evolution within the National Coalition and the Supreme Military Council, the expected failure of Geneva 2 and the start of a new phase in the Syrian war. This will allow us, next, to finally turn to an evaluation of our scenarios and indicators.
The National Coalition and the Supreme Military Council
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.).
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).
On the Salafi-Jihadi front, the ISIS, thus now disavowed by Al-Qaeda, is still in Raqqa and in Aleppo, where it might to be growing weaker, present but in a much lighter way in Hasakah and practically expelled from Deir al-Zour (see 21 February 2014 Wikipedia map showing the positions of the various forces and ongoing battles on the Syria battlefield. Black dots represent ISIS). The offensive against ISIS had mainly been carried upon according to the local situation, by Jaysh al Mujahideen (see The rise of the Salafi-Nationalists), as well as by the SRF (see above).
On 11 February 2014, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham (Salafi-Nationalist) as well as Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), the Syrian Salafi-Jihadi group recognised by Al-Qaeda, have for the first time declared they were officially fighting ISIS (for a detailed post Daniel Abdallah for Syria Comment, February 14, 2014), which may thus increase the number and intensity of battles. This new war declaration, added to the already existing forces fighting ISIS, including the Kurdish YPG, may stop the ISIS advance and entrenchment. The conspiratory allegations of collusion between Jihadi groups and the regime of Bashar al-Assad have been clarified in detail in the excellent post on the topic by Aymenn Al-Tamimi in Syria Comment (11 February 2014).
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.
We may thus expect renewed fighting throughout Syria, in a new phase that will involve the new configuration of actors as has been detailed over the last posts.
Furthermore, it is increasingly impossible to look at the Syrian battlefield without also considering both Iraq and Lebanon. Taking into account the Iraqi theater of war jointly with the Syrian war is notably important as far as ISIS is concerned: not only did ISIS operate an offensive starting on 30 december 2013 in Western Iraq moving towards Baghdad, but as its stated aim is to implement a Caliphate, separating tightly both operations would be illogical. A similar argument may be made for Lebanon notably because of the Hezbollah involvement besides Bashar al-Assad and Jihadi activity in Lebanon ( for the last point Anno Bunnik for Syria Comment, Feb 13, 2014). Actually, as suggested by Bunnik, the need to look at a “SIL” or Syria-Iraq-Lebanon theater of war, goes much deeper and stems from “similar fault mines” within “the social fabric of society” across the three countries, where Sunni populations are increasingly marginalized and thus progressively radicalized by Shi’a power under a backdrop of “fragile state’s institutions” (Ibid.).
The Syrian war is thus now regional, if not global considering the involvement of the “international community”, entering a new phase, and, short of a major strategic change, will most probably not end anytime soon, at least not within the next few months.
*According to Abdallah: “The Sahwa (awakening) movement started in Iraq when local tribes collaborated with the US army to fight al-Qaeda. ISIS uses the term pejoratively to refer to groups who fight it.” fn 23 in Daniel Abdallah, “Inter-Rebel Fighting Enters a New Phase as Salafists Declare Open War on ISIS“, Syria Comment, February 14, 2014.
Featured image: An Iraqi Mirage F1 aircraft lies in ruins after it was destroyed by coalition forces during Operation Desert Storm. by SSGT. JOSE OTERO – As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.