Two recent developments in the context of the Syrian conflict have serious consequences for the Free Syrian Army: The scope of the airstrikes by the US-led coalition against the Islamic State and other jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq and the proposal of utilizing local ceasefires between the regime and the opposition as a way to end the conflict. Despite the tactical gains of the airstrikes, they may actually backfire and indirectly disadvantage the Free Syrian Army. Meanwhile, UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura has proposed implementing local ceasefires in Syria to pave the way for a political solution to the conflict. De Mistura’s proposal is meant to allow both the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition to catch their breaths and focus on fighting the Islamic State group, which de Mistura regards as a more immediate threat to stability in the Middle East.
But in the current context, neither airstrikes nor ceasefires are sufficient tools for ending the Syrian conflict and eradicating the Islamic State. What is likely to happen in the near future as a consequence of the continuation of the airstrikes in their current scope is an escalation of the confrontation between the Islamic State and its key rival, Jabhat al-Nusra. The two groups have been engaged in an existential battle in which, so far, the Islamic State has had the upper hand, and this battle will intensify as a result of the two rivals’ being pushed to demonstrate their resilience in the face of the airstrikes. Such an escalation would in turn make the Free Syrian Army vulnerable.
There are reports that the latest coalition attack against the Islamic State may have seriously injured its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but his death—whether imminent or not—would not result in the automatic breakdown of the group, as demonstrated through the cases of Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, and other assassinated jihadist leaders over the past decade. The death of Baghdadi could somewhat weaken the group, but any weakening of the Islamic State would also give its key rival, Jabhat al-Nusra, a potential opportunity to reassert itself.
Al-Nusra has already started such an endeavor. Unable to overcome the stronger Islamic State, al-Nusra has been preying on the Syrian opposition in the north and west as a way to demonstrate its power. A fortnight ago, al-Nusra conducted a significant raid on the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, one of the strongest opposition brigades in the north fighting both the Assad regime and the Islamic State. Al-Nusra’s raid resulted in the defection of 3500 fighters from the SRF to al-Nusra, and to the dissolution of the SRF, particularly following unconfirmed reports of the capture of SRF leader Jamal Maarouf by al-Nusra. On November 5, the US-led coalition bombed the headquarters of Ahrar al-Sham in Idlib, the first such attack on this Islamist group that has informal links with Jabhat al-Nusra. The coalition’s attack on Ahrar al-Sham has been interpreted as targeting al-Nusra fighters who were using Ahrar al-Sham’s building.
But this attack has limited benefits. Prior to al-Nusra’s raid on the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, it had become apparent that, despite its strength, the SRF as well as the Free Syrian Army more generally was under growing threat from al-Nusra. Maarouf had attempted to reach out to al-Nusra to convince its leaders to agree to some form of compromise in order to avoid a deadly confrontation with the group. Meanwhile, the Free Syrian Army in the south was also facing attacks by al-Nusra, with the latter assassinating seven of the FSA’s top leaders to date. The FSA made it clear to the United States that it was in need of significant support not just to protect itself from the tripartite threat posed by the Assad regime, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Islamic State but also to be able to overwhelm its enemies further down the line. However, the United States was too slow to respond, and when it did, its response was not comprehensive. Instead of offering the FSA preemptive, defensive support, it attacked Ahrar al-Sham’s headquarters only after al-Nusra was able to cause significant damage to the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, and only after that did the coalition attack the Islamic State convoy that might have been carrying al-Baghdadi. The coalition’s delayed action contributed to leaving its allies exposed, and despite the setback to al-Nusra caused by the potential killing of some of its fighters in the Ahrar al-Sham attack, the targeting of the Islamic State leadership convoy has also meant that al-Nusra can benefit from this strike, while the Islamic State itself now faces the greater challenge of proving that it can survive with or without al-Baghdadi.
All those challenges are already resulting in stepped up efforts by the Islamic State and al-Nusra to demonstrate their resilience, while smaller jihadist groups continue to migrate in the direction of both groups, the latest being Ansar Beit al-Maqdis in Egypt. This process can be expected to continue. In the context of war, the desire for self-protection as well as power often translates into pragmatism on the part of smaller players. This means that despite the losses faced by the Islamic State and al-Nusra as a result of the airstrikes, the wider the scope of the airstrikes, the more the two groups are likely to increase their activities to prove their resilience, and consequently, the more other jihadist groups begin to find in the Islamic State and al-Nusra potential havens. Ultimately, Syria would be led to a scenario in which its eastern, northern, western as well as central areas are divided between the Islamic State, al-Nusra, and the regime, while opposition control is limited to the south. This chain reaction can be broken when the FSA becomes a strong contender on the ground that is able to overwhelm both groups as well as the Syrian regime. Ceasefires in the current situation would work against the FSA.
Throughout the conflict, local ceasefires proved to be purely useful for the Assad regime, not the Syrian opposition: Following each ceasefire to date, the regime was able to regain areas it had lost to the opposition in ceasefire areas, as seen in Homs for example. Ceasefires might work in the context of warring actors who are on relatively equal footing militarily. But because the Assad regime is stronger than the FSA, in the current context, ceasefires would empower the Assad regime against both the FSA and the Islamic State, not just the latter.
If local ceasefires are implemented while the coalition continues to attack the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra without also empowering the Free Syrian Army, the latter will be the clear loser in the ensuing scenario, especially that neither the Islamic State nor al-Nusra would agree to any ceasefire. While the coalition strikes stoke the fire of confrontation between the two groups as they escalate their military activities in their struggle to prove themselves, the Free Syrian Army will become the lowest hanging fruit. As the Syrian conflict grinds on and increases in intensity, what the FSA needs to weather this storm is neither retaliatory action by the coalition nor a ceasefire that would empower its enemies but defensive support in the immediate term and support for offensive capabilities in the longer term.