Syria’s armed rebellion has undergone visible consolidation both in the field and at the command level since September 2013. Long overdue, this is a highly positive development. Still, it is unlikely to be enough to best the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. While the armed rebellion is far from being defeated, it has plateaued, both militarily and politically.
Fragmentation and dysfunctional competition among the rebel groups persist, and new rebel alliances have not yet demonstrated a notable increase in operational effectiveness. Credible estimates, moreover, indicate that overall rebel strength has not increased over the past year, suggesting that the rebellion has a “shrinking population of potential new recruits,” as a Carter Center report based on exhaustive field data noted in March 2014.The critical problem is political. The interface of class and sectarian conflict that has characterized the entire Syrian crisis is leading to greater compartmentalization of the opposition. Each kind of political or military actor is consolidating within a narrowing social and geographical sphere. This is especially true of the growing number of rebel groups declaring an Islamist or Salafi orientation.
These trends point to a growing disjointedness between the distinct components of the Syrian revolution: the formal political opposition, the armed rebellion, and the grassroots movement of activists, local administrators in liberated areas, and relief providers. Major parts of the armed rebellion are either unwilling or unable to integrate into this wider structure, opting instead to attempt to supplant it. Unless the rebels can overcome their internal fragmentation and become part of the broader opposition, their ability to reverse trends on the battlefield and survive in the longer term will be in question.
The armed rebellion has made some gains in consolidating organizationally and improving its combat effectiveness. But what at first appeared to be a remarkable consolidation of Syria’s armed rebellion since late 2013 has in fact owed much to Saudi efforts to promote greater unity and cohesion among rebel groups. Riyadh has sharply increased funding for the rebels since August 2013 as part of an attempt to bring the rebels into political and operational alignment with the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, ostensibly the primary political representative of the opposition. The actual gains have been more modest than expected.
Although the frequency with which new rebel formations are announced has diminished steadily since November 2012, many rebels still prefer to form their own groups and coalitions rather than join any of the larger “conglomerate organizations.” And despite considerable hype in sympathetic Arab and Western media, those conglomerates are the product more of repackaging and remarketing than transforming existing groups.
The shift toward consolidation was signaled by the announcement on September 29, 2013, of the Army of Islam, which brought together 43 rebel brigades and battalions in the eastern Ghoutah area near Damascus. Nearly two months later this morphed into the much-larger Islamic Front. In so doing, it merged with several of the bigger rebel formations that had established themselves over the preceding year, especially around Aleppo and Damascus, most prominently the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement and the Tawhid Brigade. Several new alliances quickly followed, including the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front in December and the Mujahideen Army in January 2014.
The ranks of the the Supreme Military Council (SMC), the nominal command of the Free Syrian Army that is affiliated with the National Coalition, also swelled thanks to the promise of funding and arms from Saudi Arabia as well as sustained political pressure from the kingdom and a newfound U.S. willingness to deal with Islamist forces not affiliated with al-Qaeda. Principal among those joining the SMC were leading members of the Islamic Front–including the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement that had previously been aligned with the jihadist Nusra Front and the more extreme Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (known as ISIS)– and the Syria Revolutionaries' Front.
However, the sharp increase in Saudi funding and Qatar’s continued readiness to sponsor groups other than those backed by Riyadh have done much more than incentivize consolidation. These efforts have also fueled competition, exacerbating the rebel tendency to fragmentation.
New groups and self-styled alliances have continued to appear instead of merging with the larger coalitions that have been formed since late 2013 because they hope to compete for external political and material support. Several have emerged in the Damascus area alone: the Assembly of Mujahideen of Old Damascus and its Surroundings and the Glories of Islam Assembly formed in October, and the Ansar al-Ummah Officers and the Syrian Movement for Reform and Construction formed in February 2014. Another Islamist alliance, al-Sham Army, announced its existence following the expulsion of ISIS from Idlib Province.
The fact that most of the new groupings have declared an Islamist orientation yet have not joined forces clearly demonstrates the strength of the competitive dynamic. In some cases, the tendency toward independence reflects the reluctance of established political factions to relinquish their influence. For example, al-Sham Legion, formed in Aleppo in March 2014, mainly comprises groups that were previously part of the Commission for the Protection of Civilians, regarded as close to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, a veteran Brotherhood member founded the Syrian Movement for Reform and Construction, and the Brotherhood has sponsored a network of loosely affiliated rebel groups under the umbrella of the Revolution Shields Commission since late 2012.
Self-styled moderate, non-Islamist groups have also sought to compete. For example, the Union of Free Syrians announced that it was “the nucleus of the future Syrian army” on October 13, 2013, claiming to unite 106 non-Islamist groups across Syria. But it has shown little substance since then beyond a Facebook page. In March 2014, the former head of the Free Syrian Army’s Revolutionary Military Council in Aleppo, Colonel Abdul Jabbar al-Okaidi, who had resigned his position and left the country last November, returned to Syria amid reports that he had founded another new, non-Islamist “national army.” His public relations officer claimed the creation of the national army was starting with an “elite forces” unit of 500 rebels, which could expand to 15,000 men if funding were available. More recently still, the Battalions of the Sun of the North declared itself a new component of the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo on April 16, 2014, and similarly promised it would eventually “extend operations to all Syrian provinces.”
The most-hyped example of a “moderate” group is the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front (SRF). It is also the best instance of the smoke-and-mirrors game played by some of the rebels and their external advocates when it comes to seeking material support or favoring one rebel alliance over another. Typical of the hyperbole that accompanied the SRF’s formation, estimates of its strength have ranged from 5,000 to a highly unlikely 40,000. SRF leader Jamal Maarouf presented the group in January as “the primary nucleus in forming a free national army” and confidently predicted it would attract “50 percent of the [rebel] battalions fighting in Syria.”
The SRF, which Maarouf acknowledges has received funding from Saudi intelligence, is frequently touted in the Western media as moderate and pragmatic, and it is praised for including secular brigades in its ranks. But it also plays the moderate Islamist card. In an interview in mid-March, for example, Maarouf said he believes that Islamic sharia should govern Syria in the future, while accepting that this development should be subject to the people’s vote. Another SRF commander, Colonel Haitham Afeisi, had previously also called for a “state of right and law with an Islamic character.”
More problematic than Maarouf’s political opportunism is his reputation as a profiteering warlord. This image has earned him the sobriquet of Jamal Makhlouf, a reference to Assad’s maternal cousins, the Makhloufs, who amassed monopolistic business empires under the regime’s predatory economic liberalization policies. But the mainstream Syrian Movement for Reform and Construction has gone even further, accusing Maarouf of having “made big money by protecting Wadi Daif [a regime stronghold] for two years.”
The consolidation of forces, marked by the appearance of several major rebel alliances, remains worryingly contingent on the consistency of the external funding and political support on which the armed rebellion depends heavily. This renders the process of consolidation vulnerable to the political vagaries of the armed rebellion’s main regional backers, whose own feuding stands in the way of genuine integration and unification of rebel ranks.
Meanwhile, the armed rebellion has no credible political leadership to resolve or at least mitigate these dysfunctional dynamics. That missing component continues to weaken the rebellion’s cohesion. And it hands regime forces significant tactical advantages while severely impeding the rebels’ ability to go on the strategic offensive.
The rebels have fought a semiconventional war against the Assad regime—defending fixed lines and going from smaller to larger formations—neither by design nor thanks to their ability to hold ground. Rather, this outcome has been due to the regime’s inability to saturate the battlefield with troops and to defend or counterattack in all locations, which means that Assad has relinquished large swathes to the rebels. But the costs of this kind of conflict are high, while the duration tends to be relatively brief, as political scientists Laia Balcells and Stathis Kalyvas argued in a recent comparative survey of civil wars.
The Aleppo Revolutionary Military Council’s former head Okaidi claimed in mid-April that, learning their lesson, the Syrian rebels have shifted to guerilla-style hit-and-run tactics, but there is little real evidence for this. And the rebellion does not appear to have expanded its number of core personnel—full-time fighters available for duty wherever they are sent, as distinct from the much-larger number of local militiamen who defend their villages and city neighborhoods. On their present course, the rebels are unlikely to overcome their inherent obstacles.
Rebel successes remain overly reliant on the role of a few groups with proven superior capabilities such as the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. Rebel flaws have proved a serious handicap during confrontations with regime forces in the Qalamoun region northwest of Damascus since the start of 2014. They have also played a part in violent clashes between ISIS and other opposition groups that have taken place throughout northern Syria since January 2014. A major aim of the Saudi push to engineer the formation of large new rebel alliances was for these new groups to take on ISIS, which sought to pre-empt them by encroaching on their zones of control. But although ISIS’s adversaries made significant inroads against it, the confrontation again exposed their limited ability to plan and maintain large-scale military operations—especially nationwide—and revealed the fragility of their recent alliances as some members remained neutral or changed sides.
Indeed, as a detailed study by the Carter Center in November 2013 noted, “an overall increase in armed group connectivity. . . . has not improved the operational capacity of the opposition.” Subsequent battlefield developments confirmed this assessment. The rebels were initially able to respond to, and in some instances reverse, regime advances to the southeast of Aleppo and around the eastern Ghoutah region in Damascus, where they briefly came close to breaking an army siege in November. But they had ceded to the regime on both fronts by December. And by early April 2014, they had also lost the Qalamoun region, enabling regime forces to threaten Zabadani near Damascus, the last rebel holdout on the border with Lebanon that has effectively been under opposition control since 2012.
Similarly, the Islamic Front, the SRF, and the Mujahideen Army made rapid advances against ISIS in mid-January 2014 but lost their gains just as swiftly to counterattacks. ISIS was better prepared and demonstrated superior cohesion and discipline. Several rebel brigades refused to join the offensive, and a few even defected to ISIS, such as the Suyuf al-Haq Brigade, which joined former ISIS members to establish the new al-Sham Army. And although on the defensive strategically, ISIS reappeared at the end of March in the rebel stronghold of Rastan in Homs Province, which its foes had declared entirely clear of ISIS presence, and then wrested several towns from rival rebels in the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor in mid-April.
In contrast, rebel offensives in the border town of Kassab in the northern coastal region and in and around Aleppo in March and April 2014 were well-coordinated and effective. The rebels also pushed regime forces out all or most of Mourik and Khan Sheikhoun, giving the opposition control over much of the highway between the central city of Hama and Idlib Province to the north. But these were mostly localized operations on relatively narrow fronts that slowed after the initial surprise, and some depended heavily on the lead of the Nusra Front and on foreign contingents such as Sham al-Islam.
There were other indications of the weak cohesion of the new rebel alliances. The announcement by SRF leader Maarouf at the end of March that the SRF was launching its own offensive in the coastal region showed that dysfunctional competition remains a powerful factor within the rebellion. Predictably, the offensive did not take place; instead, other rebels accused the SRF of seeking to expand its zone of control in already-liberated areas in early April.
Similarly, the fall of Yabroud to regime forces in mid-March led the Army of Islam and other rebel groups to accuse each other of abandoning their positions. The Army of Islam, meanwhile, engaged in a public struggle to assert the authority of its local judicial council over that of its main rival in the besieged eastern Ghoutah, the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union, which was aggressively expanding by absorbing rebel battalions in the area.
Such rivalries and disputes are natural in a complex revolutionary process, but it has been nearly three years since the first armed groups appeared in response to the regime’s violent crackdown on peaceful protests. The continuing lack of cohesion within the rebellion, and its weak integration into a wider political and administrative structure provided by the National Coalition, impedes lesson learning and consolidation. And the pace of improvement is dangerously slow. The armed rebellion has not lost its sting, but it remains considerably less than the sum of its parts.
Perversely, the Salafi Islamist orientation declared by many of the rebels—that marks them more powerfully as Sunni in sectarian terms—reveals that they are focusing ever more narrowly on what they perceive as their “natural” social constituency. The Salafists’ constituency consists overwhelmingly of conservative rural and urbanized rural migrant populations in the poverty belts around Syrian cities who have been the foot soldiers of the conflict and suffered most of the casualties. This focus limits the scope of the armed rebellion, restricting its support base. And it also reinforces the trend toward political disengagement and withdrawal from overt activism among the large constituency of grassroots civilian activists, whether in regime-held or opposition-held areas, who never became militarized.
Certainly, as a September 2013 study by the Arab Reform Initiative detailed, Syria’s armed rebellion contains many pro-democracy groups, and the declared “loyalty to some Islamist agenda” is often a device to secure external funding. But the publication of the Islamic Front’s political charter, Project of the Community of Believers , in November 2013—arguably the most developed founding document published by any rebel group—showed that the trend toward Salafism has not shifted, let alone reversed. In addition to predictably opposing secularism, the charter explicitly regarded shura (consultation) rather than democracy as the only viable means of rule, and it called for the establishment of a “guiding Islamic state .” Moreover, it pointedly rejected the term “civil state”—developed by “centrist” Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood to bridge the divide with secular liberals over the rival notion of “secular state”—deeming talk of such a state “misleading and resulting in the loss of rights.”
Formalizing and entrenching a Salafi agenda enables certain Islamist rebel groups to mobilize their social base and use resources and opportunities more effectively. By the same token, it alienates other communities—not just Alawites or non-Muslims but more generally urban middle classes, including many Sunnis, among whom overt activism has retreated despite widespread dislike of the Assad regime. It does not help the rebels’ cause more broadly that Saudi lobbying ensured that some of the opposition’s most visible leaders—National Coalition chairman Ahmad al-Jarba, provisional defense minister Asaad Mustafa, and SMC head Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir—were selected implicitly for their tribal backgrounds.
This might not have mattered as much had the Syrian opposition succeeded in building a genuinely united front in which Salafi Islamist rebels represented one constituency and diverse political parties and grassroots movements credibly represented the others. But such a front does not exist: the National Coalition lacks both credibility and substance as an all-encompassing framework. Additionally, the Saudi campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood—whose appeal in Syria is strongest among urban entrepreneurial classes—can only discourage parts of the opposition’s social base while diminishing further its ability to mobilize support among Syria’s smaller religious and ethnic communities.
The armed rebellion’s ability to encompass other parts of Syrian society has decreased. The fact that this translates into a definite divide between rebels and civilians over what motivates each of them, and over whether to seek a negotiated solution with or full military victory over the regime, points to a fundamental problem that is deepening rather than receding with the passage of time. Much like the regime, the armed rebellion’s Achilles’ heel is not military but political.
Most of the debate about how to support Syria’s armed rebellion focuses on either supplying weapons and training or increasing operational capacity by building command and coordination structures. But important as these objectives are, they will not resolve the rebellion’s underlying flaws and strategic challenges.
The rebels have proven remarkably tenacious, reflecting their social base’s deep resentment of decades-long regime mismanagement of the country’s resources and of the endemic corruption that compounded it by state officials and security agents. And the armed rebellion’s achievements in the face of severe material constraints and the regime’s marked advantages cannot be underestimated.
But despite their tenacity, it is dangerous to pin too much hope on the rebels’ promise of bringing down the regime or even of weakening it further. The armed rebellion’s underlying problems leave it ever more vulnerable. Anecdotal evidence and sample surveys conducted in liberated areas suggest that, as a result, a growing number of grassroots leaders inside Syria now believe that the longer the armed conflict continues, the less ground the opposition can hold. If this is true, then the rebellion will wane faster than it can consolidate from now on.
Correction: This article has been revised to correct information about the rebel brigade founded by Maarouf and the SRF’s offensive in the coastal region.
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