With Syrian opposition splintering, no wonder Obama didn’t want to attack Assad

Over half of the fighters battling the butcher of Damascus are linked to Islamic extremist groups, and they’re now increasingly at war with the rest of the rebels

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.

In this July 29, 2012, photo, Free Syrian Army soldiers gather at the border town of Azaz, some 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Aleppo, Syria. Al-Qaida-linked gunmen in northern Syria captured the town near the Turkish border on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, following heavy clashes with mainstream, Western-backed rebels in the area, prompting Turkey to close a nearby crossing, activists and Turkish officials said. (AP Photo/Turkpix, File)
In this July 29, 2012, photo, Free Syrian Army soldiers gather at the border town of Azaz, some 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Aleppo, Syria. Al-Qaida-linked gunmen in northern Syria captured the town near the Turkish border on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, following heavy clashes with mainstream, Western-backed rebels in the area, prompting Turkey to close a nearby crossing, activists and Turkish officials said. (AP Photo/Turkpix, File)

If it weren’t so sad, it might almost be amusing. On Monday, the special UN inspection team that was dispatched to Syria to determine whether chemical weapons were used, dramatically declared that hundreds of people were indeed victims of sarin gas used east of Damascus on August 21. This, however, was the sole contribution of this special investigation committee.

The entire world had no doubt that Syrian citizens had been attacked with chemical weapons that day, and the UN delegation managed to determine the precise type of gas that was used to kill hundreds of Syrians. The problem is that, as expected, the report avoided establishing which side used the poisonous gas.

The conclusion does little to satisfy Syrian President Bashar Assad’s opponents who, at the very least, hoped the UN would hold the regime accountable for the chemical warfare attack in the Damascus suburbs, especially after it became clear that the US government has no intention of attacking Syria.

But then, the past days have brought plenty of grim tidings to the Syrian opposition, particularly the moderate groups — some secular and others that are considered “light” Islamists. They feel that they have been abandoned by the international community. The world not only failed to punish Assad for his crimes, but went as far as to draft the Russian-American agreement which, they believe, will empower radical factions, such as al-Qaeda-affiliated movements, in Syria.

While the agreement reached by foreign ministers John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov is potentially good news for Israel and may prevent Assad’s forces from using chemical weapons in the future, it allows the butcher of Damascus to continue killing his people as he wishes using conventional weapons and even constitutes a degree of recognition for Assad’s leadership. And this is not the only problem that the Syrian president’s opponents face.

The opposition’s structural-organizational status has been steadily deteriorating. While the Syrian army has managed to maintain relative order and has kept its hierarchy, Assad’s opponents suffer from a lack of leadership and from considerable internal strife and contention, making it increasingly unlikely that an alternative to his leadership will arise in Syria in the foreseeable future.

Infighting among the rebels reached a peak this week, when al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters “liberated” Azaz, a Syrian town near the Turkish frontier — not from Assad’s army, but from the rebel Free Syrian Army.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group that monitors the violence, said members of the al-Qaeda offshoot stormed the town in the northern Aleppo province on Wednesday evening, forcing the opposition fighters from the Western-backed bloc to pull out, AP reported.

There has also been infighting among rebel groups in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, which borders Iraq, and in the north where al-Qaeda fighters and their allies have been battling Kurdish anti-government rebels for months, AP said. The infighting has left hundreds dead.

This week, Jane’s Intelligence Review published a promo article in the Daily Telegraph for a major analysis of the Syrian opposition. The conclusion it emphasized was that Assad’s opposition has broken down into a multitude of different groups, some collaborating with each other and others in conflict. According to the same article, there are approximately 1,000 — yes, one thousand — anti-Assad groups throughout Syria. And what is even more troubling for Western countries is Jane’s conclusion that approximately half of the Syrian opposition is affiliated with Islamist organizations.

This article was published just as the first groups of CIA-trained opposition fighters begin to enter Syria, armed with advanced anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons from the American agency. Their activity has already made an impact as increasing numbers of Assad’s tanks are being destroyed by the fighters, equipped and trained by Americans in Jordan and elsewhere. Nevertheless, Jane’s summations are deeply discouraging. It would plainly now take a miracle to transform the Syrian opposition into a suitable alternative to Assad’s rule.

According to the British investigation, the armed opposition forces in Syria total 100,000, of whom 10,000 are considered Jihadists who actively support al-Qaeda’s ideology. (Israel’s security experts estimate that number as closer to 20,000). Another 30,000-35,000 activists are members of extreme Islamist groups that believe in the need for a Sharia state, but limit their aspirations to within Syria, instead of aspiring to instill Islamic rule worldwide. In total, over half of the Syrian opposition is guided by radical Islamic ideology, in addition to another 30,000 members of “moderate” Islamist groups.

This means that only a fraction of the anti-Assad activists are affiliated with nationalist-secular organizations. The British consider only about a third of the opposition’s forces legitimate and acceptable, while the Americans are willing to accept even fewer.

And if these numbers do not suffice to explain why President Barack Obama was so unenthusiastic about attacking the Syrian regime, Jane’s analyst Charles Lister explains that the two most dominant groups among the hundreds of opposition movements are affiliated with al-Qaeda: the al-Nusra Front and The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shām.

But even those who fight to promote al-Qaeda’s ideology have failed to work together, contrary to what we have been led to believe in recent months. They, too, have been unable to avoid strife and contention.

Aaron Zelin, an analyst at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, described the history of the rift in a document he published last week. It all began with an organization called the Islamic State of Iraq, which succeeded Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq. Zarqawi’s successor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was the first to understand the underlying potential for al-Qaeda in Syria, as soon as the protests there began. He sent the first Islamic State activists to Syria as early as late summer of 2011 in order to establish an organization there bearing the same name.

One of these activists was Abu Muhammad al-Julani, who in January 2012 announced the establishment of the al-Nusra Front, an organization that has since managed to carry out a substantial number of successful attacks against the Syrian regime, to recruit volunteers, and to take over land all over the country. Julani’s success apparently made Baghdadi, the “godfather,” jealous, because five months ago, last April, Baghdadi announced that the members of the al-Nusra Front would operate along with his own organization from that day on, and renamed the new organization The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shām.

A defiant Julani, however, promptly announced that the al-Nusra Front would continue to operate independently. He began to work directly with Ayman al-Zawahiri, the worldwide leader of al-Qaeda, but the damage to the al-Nusra Front had been done. Increasing numbers of activists crossed the lines and joined Baghdadi’s organization, making it the more dominant of the two. According to Zelin, it is the Islamic State, not the al-Nusra Front, which has succeeded in recruiting a majority of local Syrian activists to its lines instead of foreign ones.

The Syrian opposition in general, and the Islamist groups in particular, bring to mind the scenes from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” in which the protagonists bicker over whether they are members of, or avowed opponents of, the “Judean’s People’s Front” and “The People’s Front of Judea.” Watched from across the border in Israel, the not-dissimilar situation among the Syrian opposition groups can look ridiculous. The citizens of Syrian are doubtless less amused.

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