Every few months over the past few years the British Government has declared a new plan to support opposition groups fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Recently, these have been vetted to ensure they’re opposed to Islamic State (Isis) as well. For the most part, the support has been “non-lethal aid” – 4x4 vehicles, satellite phones, laptops – but early this summer, British soldiers began to train Syrian fighters at a desert camp in eastern Saudi Arabia. The effort to strengthen Syria’s “moderate” rebels dates from the early days of the conflict, in 2011, when an umbrella group led by deserters from Assad’s army – the Free Syrian Army – was formed, and briefly appeared capable of winning the war.
Still on the battlefield, popping up in various guises, and with unpredictable allies. This summer, FSA units successfully teamed up with Kurdish rebels on Syria’s northern border to repel Isis. But further south, near Aleppo, the group’s “Division 16” has formed an alliance with al-Nusra Front – who have sworn allegiance to al-Qa’eda – in order to fight the Kurds the FSA supports in the north. To those sceptical from the start, the FSA has never been more than a patchwork of local armed groups, known as khatibas, or battalions, up to 1,000 of which are thought be active in Syria. Since Russia entered the war, Vladimir Putin has dismissed the importance of the FSA and the idea of a “moderate” opposition. The only battle that matters in Syria, he insists, is between the Assad regime and Islamist extremists.
The map of the conflict suggests it is more complicated. After four-and-a-half years of fighting, the Assad government controls about 25% of Syria; with its main enclaves being in the far west, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast and bordering Lebanon, where one of Assad’s key allies is the Shia Islamist militant group Hezbollah. To the north and south, the country is controlled by assorted rebel groups, including the Kurds, who oppose both Isis and Assad. Isis’s power base is in the east. What is true, however, is that as the war has progressed, more and more of its rebel factions have used increasingly religious rhetoric, and imposed versions of Islamic rule on the territory they occupy.
According to freelance journalist Tam Hussein, who last year interviewed fighters from Ansar al-Sham, an Islamist faction based in northwestern Syria, the reasons are both ideological and pragmatic. The human cost of the war has been appalling: more than 200,000 people have died, and some 11 million out of Syria’s pre-war population of about 22 million have left their homes. In the anarchy, religious groups have filled the vacuum, providing not just schools and aid but a legitimacy that other political movements have lost. One former FSA commander told Hussein he had defected with his battalions to Ansar al-Sham because its religious goals seemed “more correct”. But Islamist rebels also have a better chance of getting funds from abroad, notably from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Being identified as “moderate” has proved a harder route to get funding.
Take Jamal Maarouf, a former labourer, who was one of northern Syria’s most important rebel commanders until late last year. Maarouf founded the Syria Revolutionaries Front, an umbrella group that he claimed comprised 17 factions, with 20,000 fighters. It was one of the first rebel groups to oppose Isis, and Maarouf initially attracted both US and Saudi Arabian backing. “We had the impression he was a nationalist, not an ideologue,” said Robert Ford, a former US ambassador to Syria. But there were also reports of corruption. The US stopped funding Maarouf – preferring to form its own rebel groups (see box) – and, last November, half of his men deserted to the Islamist al-Nusra Front. Maarouf’s reputation as a Western stooge hastened his downfall. “We didn’t rise up against Bashar to replace him with someone like Jamal Maarouf,” said one Islamist commander.
Yes, Jordan, Syria’s neighbour to the south. According to Thomas Pierret, a specialist in Islamic Studies at Edinburgh University, Jordan’s intelligence services have been active in funding and training “FSA-type rebel groups” since the start of the war, which have had more success as a result. In June, FSA fighters captured a southern Assad army base in Deraa, a rare “moderate” victory in the war. By contrast, Syria’s northern neighbour, Turkey, has designated the mainly Kurdish rebels fighting on its borders as “terrorists”, and tried to stay out of the conflict; thus inadvertently helping to create a vacuum in the north that Islamist groups have since filled. Russia’s recent air and missile strikes have mainly struck Syria’s north and central contested regions.
Putin’s analysis of the war as a straight fight between Assad and Islamist terrorism could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Last week, the Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, claimed that 55 out of 57 of Russia’s first air strikes were against “moderate” opposition groups, rather than Islamic State. “Russia is challenging everyone and saying there is no alternative to Bashar,” said Hassan Haj Ali, the leader of Liwa Suqour al-Jabal, a US-backed faction hit by missiles in Idlib province. What seems unlikely after more than four years of fighting, however, is that one side will now be able to gain a decisive advantage over the rest. Last week, Edward Djerejian, a former US ambassador to Syria, compared the conflict to the Lebanese civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990 and ended with an unhappy, exhausted peace. “Can Syria ever be put back together again?” He asked. “Nobody has an answer for that.”
In June 2014, Barack Obama requested $500m from Congress to train and equip non-Islamist rebels to take the fight to Islamic State in eastern Syria. “Train and Equip”, as the programme was imaginatively known, was to produce a fighting force of 15,000 trained rebels in three years, from volunteers in Turkey and across the Middle East. Around 1,000 American trainers were sent to Turkey and Jordan, and applications from some 7,000 volunteers were checked on US Army computers for possible terrorist and criminal connections.
Background checks were the first problem; they took weeks to fulfil. Second was the rebel fighters’ narrow mandate to fight Isis but not the Assad regime. “I told them I wouldn’t offer one man as long as the force was only going after Isis,” a rebel commander told the Daily Beast. Finally, this July, the first 54 troops of the “New Syrian Forces” went over the border. Almost all were killed or captured by al-Nusra Front within days. A second wave of 71 rebels surrendered six vehicles and ammunition to the same faction in September. Last month, US officials admitted that a mere “four or five” of its first wave of rebels were still active. The programme has now been ditched.
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