Syria: More Mayhem With No End in Sight

by Wayne White

With the boost from the chemical weapons deal now in the rear view mirror, the chilling picture of the brutal daily slugging match in Syria has remerged. The Assad regime’s offensive against rebel forces grinds on, but gains have been less of late, and the rebels have rebounded here and there. Islamist rebels of one stripe or another inside the country continue to gain ground within the armed opposition, and neither the moderate rebels, nor the opposition in exile currently support talks unless they are aimed at removing President Bashar al-Assad.

Heavy fighting has been raging over the past week in various sectors of the country. Rebel forces led by the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front in eastern Syria on Nov. 23 seized the country’s largest source of oil and gas, the Omar Field. The government has been unable to export oil since 2011 because of its inability to hold the entire route to the coast, but it has been using this oilfield for domestic consumption. Now the regime’s access to domestic oil supplies also has been disrupted with fuel shortages already evident in Damascus.

Rebels reportedly also launched an offensive last week to break the government siege against the opposition-held Damascus suburb of Ghouta. Fatalities on both sides were unusually high over the weekend, according to the UK-based “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights”: 100 rebels and 60 regime cadres. Government shelling of rebel-dominated suburbs has surged along with rebel return fire falling on the regime-held core of the capital.

Although claims by both sides are difficult to verify, so far there is no indication the rebels broke through to Ghouta, but the affiliation of the casualties on both sides is telling with respect to the sectarian and extremist nature of the struggle on the ground. Rebel dead apparently come mainly from the al-Nusra Front and the equally al-Qaeda linked Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL). Government dead so far reportedly included 20 fighters from the “Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade,” an Iraqi Shi’a militia that took the field this year in order to face off with the many Iraqi Sunni combatants in al-Nusra and ISIL. The collision of such fanatical elements doubtless explains, in part, the high rate of loss in this particular round of fighting.

The Assad regime’s most recent offensive has been aimed at seizing a key road in the mountainous Qalamoun area of central Syria linking Damascus to the city of Homs. Government troops had made significant gains in the Qalamoun area until Nov. 20 when rebel suicide bombers pounded a key frontline government position in the town of al-Nabak and rebels fighters moved against a nearby regime-held town not previously contested. ISIL and al-Nusra reportedly have shifted hundreds of fighters from elsewhere in Syria into the battle trying to halt the government drive (once again showing their prominence where the fighting has been toughest).

To counter the increased strength of al-Nusra and ISIL after these al-Qaeda affiliates wrested from other Islamists the town of Atma on the Turkish border through which many arms flow into Syria for the opposition, a group of relatively more moderate Islamist combatant groups last week united to form a new “Islamic Front.” Various more obscure Islamist groups like the “Suqour al-Sham Brigades,” “Ahrar al-Sham,” “Liwa al-Haq,” the “Islamic Army,” plus the better known “Tawheed Brigades” (in the forefront of the fighting in the large northern city of Aleppo), have banded together. The Islamic Front affiliates also seek a Sunni Islamic state in Syria, but they apparently have exhibited more tolerance than al-Nusra and ISIL.

Underscoring the disunity within rebel ranks, the Islamic Front’s reason for combining is not just to create a viable alternative to al-Qaeda associated rebel groups. Left unsaid, but rather obvious, is the Front’s determination also to confront al-Nusra and the ISIL when necessary. In fact, the Islamic Front has alleged ISIL colluded with the pro-Western and more secular “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) to take Atma from the “Suqour al-Sham Brigade.”

So, whereas the formation of the Islamic Front could weaken al-Nusra and ISIL, it also appears hostile to the FSA. And just as senior UN officials and UN Security Council members have revived efforts to cajole the Syrian National Council (SNC), the opposition’s exile leadership, into attending a second round of Geneva talks aimed at a peaceful transition, the FSA’s influence on the ground inside Syria (as well as the SNC, which is linked to the FSA) has further declined. All Islamist groups, now so dominant on Syrian battlefields, oppose SNC attendance at any conference that would not remove Bashar al-Assad (a notion again dismissed yesterday by the Damascus regime).

After failing to coax the SNC into attending a conference planned for last month, UN and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the Western powers, and Russia yesterday postponed the “Geneva II” conclave until Jan. 22 (with a preparatory meeting on Dec. 20). Ban met with SNC representatives on the 24th who seemed to agree to attend, but Ban stipulated that SNC participation would have to be “credible and as representative as possible.”

Making such meaningful opposition attendance less likely, however, was push back today on the part of the SNC: Bashar al-Assad cannot be part of any transitional government, and the international community should “prove its seriousness” by establishing humanitarian corridors to besieged rebel-held areas (something attempted — in vain — for months). Worse still, the head of the FSA, General Salim Idriss, declared that rebels loyal to him would neither join the Jan. 22 conclave nor cease fighting during the conference. Probably trying to shore up the FSA’s waning status among rebels in Syria, Idriss emphasized that “what concerns us is getting needed weapons for our fighters.”

Given the iffy prospects that the SNC could fulfill Ban’s conditions (or the international community those of the SNC), it probably is appropriate that Ban has characterized the renewed effort to convene a conference as a “mission of hope.”

Photo: An FSA fighter has to look out on many fronts now. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS.

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.