Syria’s secular rebels caught between Assad and the Islamists

One of the reasons for Obama’s swerve away from intervention is the sorry state of the opposition, increasingly infiltrated by jihadi extremists

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Columns of smoke rising from heavy shelling in the Jobar neighborhood in west Damascus, Syria. (photo credit: AP/Hassan Ammar)
Columns of smoke rising from heavy shelling in the Jobar neighborhood in west Damascus, Syria. (photo credit: AP/Hassan Ammar)

The media — this writer included — have a natural tendency, almost a reflex, to try to summarize events as quickly as possible. We want to award scores, to declare winners and losers, to transform a vague, sometimes confused picture into something clearer and sharper, divided into blacks and whites.

In the American and Israeli media, immediately after Syria agreed to the Russian initiative for international supervision of its chemical weapons, clear divisions of just that kind were immediately registered by US President Barack Obama’s supporters and his critics. There were those who said Bashar Assad was the big winner, and those who insisted that Obama had proved his mastery of international diplomacy and forced Damascus to surrender without a bullet being fired.

But the truth is, in the current Syrian situation, it’s actually premature to determine winners and losers. The bottom line, which will determine the significance of this week’s Russian-led move, will not be clear for another few months, and that is: will Assad manage to make a fool of the West and keep at least part of his chemical weapons stockpiles, or will Obama manage to completely disarm Assad of WMD and register a genuine Middle Eastern achievement without resorting to force?

Syria declared this week that it would join the treaty against chemical weapons proliferation. But despite Damascus’s ostensible enthusiasm, a scenario in which the Syrian president actually transfers all his chemical weapons to international oversight, while possible, is not likely. Syria needs this kind of weaponry in order to deter outside players like the United States from attempted intervention, and to deter Israel. It is Assad’s insurance certificate. So it is more logical that Assad will agree to hand over part of his chemical weapons, maybe even most, but will keep at least some for himself, just for emergencies.

He has all the time in the world to try to hide this weaponry. It will be weeks until a binding decision is reached at the United Nations. And even after that, we will doubtless enter the familiar territory of delayed UN delegations because of pretexts such as warfare in precisely the areas they are supposed to visit. This could go on for months, and it is reasonable to assume that the US administration would not attack Syria during this period.

Meanwhile, it seems that the civil war in Syria has been forgotten altogether, and the crisis reduced to the debate over chemical weapons. Who gives a damn that since August 21, when the chemical missiles fell on the Ghouta al-Sharkya neighborhood, 200-250 people have been dying every day in Syria.

“The situation in Syria gets worse by the day,” E., a well-known opposition figure and human rights activist in Syria, told The Times of Israel this week. “The death toll is considered by the international community to be 110,000-115,000, but in my opinion, it is a lot higher than that. To my sorrow, the most recent decisions in Washington and Moscow have paved the path to more slaughter and killing. Bashar Assad now feels that he has more international protection. He has support from China, Russia and Iran, and that gives him breathing space and the capacity to continue killing as he wishes, just not with chemical weapons. Practical assistance from Hezbollah and Iran will continue. These activities, in turn, will draw more jihadists to Syria to protect the civilians.”

The Free Syrian Army was waiting for an American attack mainly in order to see a respite in the killing, according to Abu Adnan, another Syrian opposition figure. “We didn’t have great expectations that American intervention would be decisive in the conflict here,” he said. “We knew that we’d have to continue to fight Assad’s army. But we did hope for some kind of new page in terms of America, and even Israel, with respect to the Syrian people, and also for a few days in which Assad’s men would stop the killing.”

Mendy Safdie, an Israeli who maintains connections to Syrian opposition members and was previously the bureau chief of former Israeli deputy minister Ayoub Kara, says that among Assad’s opponents, “there was a fear that Obama would reverse his decision to intervene, but nobody in the opposition anticipated that he would fall for Putin’s ruse. For the Syrian people, the chemical weapons are not the main issue. A no-fly zone would be much more important.

“There’s lots of black humor now among the Syrians about the attitude of the international community,” he added. “In one joke, Obama and Putin meet and Obama says to Putin, ‘Let’s kill 13 million Syrians and one blonde.’ Putin responds, “Why the blonde?”

One of the problems for Syria’s people, and the international community, is the absence of an alternative to Assad. The dismal reality among Assad’s opponents was presumably one of the factors in Obama’s decision not to intervene militarily: The Syrian opposition continues to fracture, with the jihadist elements becoming ever more dominant. There are 20,000 armed fighters in various factions affiliated with al-Qaeda, according to Israeli estimates.

The rebels are losing “because they are divided among themselves. They are scattered over too large an area. They do not have a unified military force or unified aims and demands. They have no central military command structure or significant political leadership,” Syria expert Professor Eyal Zisser, dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Tel Aviv University, said at a conference this week held by the International Policy Institute For Counter Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzilya.

“What’s more, they’re affected by radicalism and Islamification. Many Syrian citizens are secular and have no interest in taking part in terrorist actions or Islamification, so that even Syrians who had supported the rebels have reached the conclusion that they are better off sticking with Bashar Assad’s regime. This is not a case of success for the Syrian regime, but mainly of failure by the rebel forces.”

Zisser’s prediction as regards Syria’s future was deeply ominous: “The conflict is likely to continue for a long time; it cannot be resolved by diplomatic efforts, nor in a decisive battle,” he said. And “if it continues without change or significant intervention, Assad is absolutely likely to win the war.”

And indeed, no radical change or significant intervention is now in the offing. So E’s forecast seems entirely reasonable: More massacres by the regime, bringing more jihadists to Syria, making matters ever worse.

“This is exactly what the regime wants to happen,” E. said. “Bashar wants the world to believe that this is a Syria caught between the regime and al-Qaeda. He absolutely wants neighboring nations, and especially Israel, who fear the Islamists could replace him, to believe this. But those Islamists do not represent the Syrian people. And most fighters in the Free Syrian Army are worried Syrian citizens, not al-Qaeda operatives.”

E. may be right that, at this stage, most opposition fighters are not necessarily affiliated with the jihadist streams. The problem is that the balance among the rebel forces is rapidly shifting in favor of the Islamists, most of whom are not even Syrian. Already the most significant combat units associated with the “Free Syrian Army” are drawn from Jabhat al-Nusra or “al-Qaeda in Syria and Iraq.” These two organizations both identify with the same Islamic extreme ideology, and may even have unified.

Aaron Zelin, a researcher at the Washington Institute, said at the same Herzliya conference this week that there is substantial foreign involvement from Islamists, coming from all parts of the world, to fight against Assad, impacting the nature of the war.

“Their numbers are without precedent,” Zelin said. “The fighters have come from over 60 countries to fight alongside the rebels. At the moment, there are 5,000-10,000 foreign fighters in Syria, a thousand of them European. This is a phenomenon we haven’t seen before.

“The main concern stemming from this phenomenon is that the foreign fighters will return to their home countries. And with the indoctrination they received, and the connections they made with the jihadist forces in Syria, they will carry out terror attacks in the West.”

The opposition’s difficulties are not limited to the issue of these radical reinforcements. They are exacerbated, too, by the conflicts and tensions within its ranks between the secular and lightly religious factions, on the one hand, and the jihadists, on the other. More and more incidents are being reported of attacks by al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters on other opposition groups in an effort to take control of certain areas and quash competition.

In the last few days, operatives from “the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham” (a branch of al-Qaeda that is competing with al-Nusra operatives in various places, even though they all started out with al-Qaeda in Iraq) tried to assassinate a prominent member of the Ahfad al-Rasoul brigade of the Free Syrian Army (a moderate Islamist brigade, despite the many foreign operatives in its ranks). Similar incidents have been reported in the Reka region.

It looks like the moderate opposition is finding itself under attack from two sides, at least in some places: Bashar Assad’s army, and al-Qaeda groups.

On Wednesday, the UN investigation team that inspected human rights violations in Syria over the last 18 months published a report that indicates direct involvement by the regime in at least eight mass slaughters. The report also states that the opposition — more specifically, jihadist operatives — participated in at least one mass slaughter against innocent Syrians.

There are many question marks surrounding the future of Syria at this stage, but on one thing there is a (rare) consensus among commentators and experts: The mass killings, by both sides, will continue, and likely worsen, in the coming months.

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