by Wayne White
With the Assad regime already on the rebound, violence has spiked between rebel Islamic militants and more moderate opposition combatants within Syria. Although tensions between such groups have existed for some time, changes in the Islamist lineup in Syria and perhaps impending Western arms shipments exclusively to moderate rebel groups have intensified rivalries. Hezbollah’s entry into the conflict, notable regime gains against the rebels overall, and now the possibility of a rebel-on-rebel conflict within a conflict could reduce considerably the likelihood that the rebels — any rebels — would succeed in taking down Assad and Co. in the near-term.
In just three months the character of the struggle in Syria has taken a dramatic turn in favor of the regime. Rebel forces, reportedly short of munitions of late, have been driven from some key positions near Damascus, along the Lebanese-Syrian frontier, and in central Syria in and around Homs. Since Islamic extremist rebels have been in the forefront of the fighting, shortages of munitions might well have resulted from initial European-US efforts to re-focus collective arms resupply more tightly to embrace only more moderate rebels. Meanwhile, the recent intervention of thousands of fanatical Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon replenished and reinvigorated the regime’s own depleted infantry capabilities.
Rising violence between militant Islamist rebels and cadres of the more moderate “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) appears to have broken out following the assassination of FSA Supreme Military Council member Kamal Hamami by jihadists in Syria’s northern port city of Latakia on July 12 (where Hamami had previously organized one of the first successful FSA combat units). There are different accounts of how Hamami died, but it happened within territory controlled by the relatively new al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has been pushing aside the previously powerful jihadist al-Nusra Front. Hamami may have gone there for a meeting, and was killed by the ISIL. Furthermore, the ISIL is not at all apologetic — quite the contrary.
Clashes had increased even before the killing of Hamami across rebel-held territory in northern Syria. The ISIL appears more fanatical than even al-Nusra. It has produced footage of its executions of captured leaders of rival rebel groups allegedly guilty of corruption. And there have been other recent examples of internecine violence. In early July, near the Syrian-Turkish border, heavy fighting broke out between a local moderate group and a rival Islamist cell that resulted in dozens of casualties and the beheading of the Islamist leaders involved.
ISIL, with the approval of al-Qaeda’s leadership, has, unlike al-Nusra (and as its name suggests), expanded its Islamist vision to include practically all the lands of the traditional “Fertile Crescent.” It also appears better organized than al-Nusra and has successfully expanded its influence across quite a lot of rebel-held northern Syria. This ambitious power play inevitably pitted the ISIL against many elements of the FSA, such as the Tawhid Brigade, affiliated with the FSA since last November and fighting in areas in and around the large northern Syrian city of Aleppo. An FSA commander claims that apparently prior to the Hamami killing, ISIL personnel had warned FSA-affiliated groups that the ISIL planned a complete take-over of rebel-held areas of Syria’s sprawling coastal province of Latakia.
Even worse, one ISIL source reportedly has claimed that the entire FSA is now regarded as heretical and an enemy of this burgeoning new extremist grouping. FSA sources indicate they will retaliate harshly.
I warned last month that US and Western plans to provide arms to “vetted” moderate rebel groups would have to be implemented quickly to forestall regime efforts to gain increased military advantage before they arrive. I also noted how regime gains over the past two months already have made moving arms among vetted groups inside Syria more difficult. Yet, no substantial arms shipments seem to have arrived a month later, and politicians in both Washington and London have been attempting to block them.
Meanwhile, the adverse impact inside Syria of the presumption such arms will be delivered has worsened. Regime forces have made new gains, further disrupting rebel lines of communication. And expanding violence between rebels tagged for arms deliveries and their extremist rivals means that in the opposition’s patchwork of control, groups like the ISIL probably would block (or seize) any arms deliveries attempting to cross territories they control. Moreover, some stronger extremist groups probably would be in a position to seize hefty quantities of such arms from vetted groups. Finally, talk of arms deliveries also may have inflamed moderate-extremist tensions since Islamic militants resent the one-sided nature of the impending aid and, in part, may be seeking to weaken moderate groups to reduce their ability to gain advantage from more and better arms.
Another rebel weakness overall is declining popular support. Over the past 18 months, local populations under rebel control in the north (from which we receive the most reliable reporting) have become more alienated by moderate rebel domination, which often has been dysfunctional and corrupt. Increasingly, Islamist rule became a preference, as it was accompanied by far less corruption, civil courts, and even some social services. With the rise of ISIL, however, much of that appeal has dissipated as well, with its more rigorous imposition of strict Sharia rule sullied by executions of inhabitants for alleged collaboration with the Assad regime or moral offenses.
Clearly, the collective opposition cause in Syria is in crisis. The most formidable rebel forces remain Islamic extremist, but they and their rivals are wasting combat power in self-destructive in-fighting. Moreover, the Jihadists’ rising militancy, broader ambitions and aggressiveness against rival rebel groups have not only potentially eroded their own ability to obtain foreign arms, but hurt efforts to secure arms for other rebels as well.
All this is splendid news for the Assad regime (and its allies) because earlier this year the government probably hoped only to keep hanging on. Now, however, it has been able to set its sights higher on the possibility of regaining control over still more lost territory. Yet, Syria continues to bleed with about 100,000 dead, vast numbers made homeless, much of the country already in ruins and real doubts as to whether central authority of any sort can be re-established over all of Syria in the foreseeable future.