Syrian opposition forces have won a number of significant military victories in Idlib governorate in recent days. These notable gains have been focused along an area that hugs the strategically important M5 international highway, south of the town of Maarat al-Numan and north of the border with Hama governorate. The village of Kafr Basin was captured on May 23rd; a major army refueling base, known as Hazj (or checkpoint) Khazanat was taken on May 25th; followed shortly thereafter by the seizure of Hajz al-Salaam and the town of Khan Shaykhun on May 26th.
Practically speaking, this string of victories will advance a long-term opposition military strategy aimed at posing an increased threat to the government’s control of Idlib city and Hama governorate. More immediately, the seizure of Khan Shaykhun will have cut off an invaluable government supply line to the large Wadi al-Deif base in Maarat al-Numan, which has allegedly been the source of the several recent chlorine gas attacks reported across Idlib. In fact, shortly after fighters seized Khan Shaykhun, the town itself was struck by an apparent gas-filled barrel bomb attack.
With regards to intra-insurgent dynamics, these latest developments have been equally important. Contrary to suggestions made in some recent analyses that suggested this may no longer be possible, the Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, the conservative Islamic Front, mainstream Islamist alliances, and moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups were all involved, many having been engaged in close cooperation and coordination.
As I recently wrote (in Dynamic Stalemate: Surveying Syria’s Military Landscape), the conflict in Syria is intensely complex and the overall strategic-level battle dynamics are consolidating into a state of near-total stalemate. I contend that this state of affairs will continue for some time to come, at least until the Syrian opposition is able to impel the Assad regime onto a negotiating table that better favors genuine dialogue and the chance for a peaceful solution.
A key element within this complexity is the involvement of many different actors on all sides of the conflict. This has lent considerable importance to the adoption of rhetoric. For insurgent groups, this rhetoric has a number of target audiences, including Syrian civilians, other insurgent groups, and most importantly, a group’s existing and potential future funders. A group’s rhetoric, or public messaging, is a constantly evolving (or adapting) machine, frequently reacting to events inside and outside Syria. While the foundational politico-ideological beliefs and objectives can be safely assumed for most FSA-branded groups and for extremist jihadist groups, the vast swathe of the middle-ground is far more complicated.
In late 2013, the popular legitimacy of the exiled political Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and its effective armed wing, the Syrian Military Council (SMC), was at an all time low. Their commitment to attend the Geneva II talks with Syrian government representatives resulted in a wave of condemnation from a large majority of insurgent groups on the ground inside Syria. By extension, this state of affairs encouraged an intensification of Islamist rhetoric, in so far as it served to clearly differentiate much of the insurgency from the political opposition.
Today, the dynamics are quite different and appear to potentially be shifting. There have been increasing signs — both behind the scenes and in the public eye — that elements within Western political circles may be in the process of choosing to enhance their role in bolstering the military opposition, at least as much as to potentially reassert some level of threat to the Assad regime’s survival. Meanwhile, there are (as yet unconfirmed) whispers beginning to circulate within diplomatic and some opposition circles that the often competing and conflicting strategies of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey may be beginning a delicate process of gradual realignment — generally in the direction of adopting the dual-track objective of simultaneously bolstering moderate forces and isolating extremists.
The emergence since December 2013 of four noteworthy moderate Islamist insurgent fronts (Jabhat Thowar Suriyya, Jaish al-Mujahideen, Harakat Hazm, and Faylaq al-Sham) and the more informal Southern Front alliance has been a consequential development. All these forces have subsequently enjoyed increased levels of external support (primarily US- and Saudi-led) and their roles within the overall conflict have increased resultantly. All of this — compounded by the highly symbolic provision of American-manufactured and likely Saudi-supplied anti-tank weaponry to some of these forces — appears to have had a discernible effect upon the strategic calculations of the largest insurgent alliance in Syria, the Islamic Front, which counts approximately 50,000 fighters within its ranks.
The most notable sign of this came on 17 May when the Islamic Front released a “Revolutionary Covenant” alongside Al-Ittihad al-Islami al-Ajnad al-Sham, Faylaq al-Sham, Jaish al-Mujahideen, and Alwiyat al-Furqan — more mainstream Islamist alliances. In the document, the five groupings announced their general commitment to 12 broad points, condensed below:
- To continue “revolutionary work as derived from our authentic religion” and “avoid fundamentalism and radicalism.”
- “Overthrow the current regime and all its components and bring them to justice in fair trials, avoiding revenge or retaliation.”
- “Military action will be limited to Syrian territory” and will be directed at (I) the regime and its supporting groups (“who exercised terrorism”), (II) those who carry out aggressions against our people and excommunicate them, such as ISIS.”
- “Welcome the opportunity to communicate and cooperate with regional and international actors who show solidarity with the Syrian people.”
- Preserve “Syria’s territorial integrity.”
- All “military and political decisions within the revolution should be completely Syrian.”
- “Establish a state of law, freedom, and justice.”
- “Establish freedom, justice, and security for all Syrian society, with its diverse multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian social fabric.”
- Remain “committed to respect for human rights, as encouraged by our authentic religion.”
- We condemn the regime’s use of weapons of mass destruction against civilians and our “forces strive to keep civilians out of the circle of violence.”
- “Anything seized from the regime is the legal property of the Syrian people.”
The covenant was immediately interpreted as a dramatic reversal in the Islamic Front’s publicly stated objectives, particularly with regards to the lack of a reference to an Islamic state. But this analysis is not quite accurate. The covenant was described by its signatories simply as “a common framework” and the 11 points contained within are what they were all able to commit to as five operationally distinct and ideologically varied organizations. This does not in any way nullify the political objectives of any of the signatories, so long as they do not fundamentally contradict the covenant’s 11 points. In fact, Hassan Abboud — the Islamic Front’s political chief and the leader of its most conservative member group, Ahrar al-Sham — said just that in an interview with Al Jazeera shortly after: “each of the groups that signed the covenant have their own political aims. We simply offered a bunch of principals acceptable to the signed groups – we never spoke of the type of state Syria will be in the future.”
In other words, the signing of the covenant does not mean the Islamic Front (or any or all of its constituent groups) no longer desires an Islamic State in Syria, but rather that the currently prevalent conditions have forced them to [re-]project their desire to be part of a wider and more broad-based revolutionary movement. Crucially — and this often gets forgotten in favor of more sensationalist focus on extremities — this is by no means an alien image for the Islamic Front to be painting. In fact, using content only from the Islamic Front’s charter (published on 22 November 2013), it is possible to replicate the Revolutionary Covenant’s 11 points nearly in their entirety (the only exception being a marginally increased — and expected — value attributed to Islam):
- “To defeat the enemy and to establish a state in which justice and progress rule under the umbrella of Islam.”
- “Overthrowing the regime means dismantling and ending its legislative, executive, and judicial authority, along with its armies and security bodies, and then trying those involved within it, along with their supporters… in a Sharia trial.”
- “To topple the regime across Syria, along with its legacies and all ignorance — to eradicate this all from Syria’s reality and to defend the blood of the oppressed along with their goods and money.”
- “The Islamic Front is keen to foster good relations with all international states who do not declare it an enemy.”
- “The Syrian territory does not accept any partition project.”
- “The Islamic Front is an independent entity established on Syrian territory subordinate to no external group or organization.”
- “To rebuild Syria on the sound foundations of justice, unity, and solidarity.”
- “Syrian soil includes a diverse tapestry of ethnic and religious minorities who have lived among Muslims for hundreds of years under Islamic law, which has consistently preserved all their rights”
- (No equivalent parallel, though the rights of Kurds and minorities are discussed).
- (No equivalent parallel, but this point in the covenant is likely linked primarily to the government’s increased use of barrel bombs and chlorine gas — both of which have received increased attention since November 2013).
- “Work on the management of resources and wealth and harness for the benefit of the individual and the community in order to meet the needs of the country for food, health, and education.”
More than anything, the covenant simply demonstrates the fact that despite their more conservative outlook, the Islamic Front still perceives itself as Syrian and fighting for Syrian objectives. This is in fact an elemental feature of the Islamic Front’s Political Charter. That the Islamic Front took the lead in signing and releasing the covenant also underlines that its senior leadership — particularly Abboud — perceive themselves primarily as political actors within a military context. This author has met countless high-level individuals within more moderate and mainstream Syrian opposition circles who have, despite disagreeing with his ideological beliefs, been profoundly praising of Abboud’s intelligence and his potential value on the political side of this conflict. Despite this, it should not be forgotten that Abboud’s personal mentor was a long-time senior Al-Qaeda veteran, Mohammed Bahaiah (Abu Khaled al-Suri), and his group’s military leadership contains several other individuals with potential Al-Qaeda histories. As I say, this is a complicated conflict on all levels.
Despite not necessarily representing much of a change in the Islamic Front’s actual politico-religious objectives, the covenant nonetheless is significant in its symbolism. If rumors are to be believed, the Islamic Front, and particularly Ahrar al-Sham, had recently been forced into a corner by its backer/s — “publicly distance yourself from Al-Qaeda (Jabhat al-Nusra) or lose your plentiful support.” If true, this would go some way toward strengthening the suggestion that inter-Gulf relations, at least regarding Syria policy, were re-aligning closer towards the earlier mentioned dual-track objective of simultaneously bolstering moderate forces and isolating extremists. As such, we may well be entering a pivotal few months in which the place of Jabhat al-Nusra within the wider insurgency may be challenged.
Within existing military dynamics vis-à-vis pro-government forces across Syria, this would be a development with significant consequences. The opening up of a front against ISIS in early January 2014 has in many areas of Syria (except the northeast and east) provided Jabhat al-Nusra with the space to grow further. Its seemingly reliable sources of funding continues to see it gain recruits from other more moderate groupings whose lack of money means they cannot afford to pay regular and sufficient salaries. Moreover, its reputation as being the most professionally capable force on the ground, with the most weaponry and ammunition, has further contributed towards this moderate-to-extremist cross recruitment. This has been particularly clear in southern Syria over the past six months and arguably led to Jabhat al-Nusra having the sufficient confidence to capture the head of Deraa’s Military Council, Ahmed Nahmeh, on 3 May 2014, who it accused of conspiring with foreign powers to facilitate opposition defeats, particularly in the southern town of Khirbet al-Ghazaleh in May 2013 (an accusation also widely shared within FSA circles).
On a local level, Jabhat al-Nusra commanders have invested heavily in establishing healthy relationships with moderate insurgent leaders, which has meant the group has engendered little opposition on the ground. Within the currently prevailing dynamics, in which moderate insurgent forces remain comparatively weak man-for-man, it could be argued that it is too soon for Friends of Syria states to encourage moderates to actively oppose Jabhat al-Nusra on the ground. In the immediate term, doing so would also pose a significant risk to the prospects of ongoing battles with the government. Like it or not, FSA-branded groups are coordinating dozens of ongoing operations with Jabhat al-Nusra across the country. The unrivalled ability of Jabhat al-Nusra suicide operatives to break through established military defenses makes it a force that the insurgency as a whole would struggle to live without, for now. After all, the recent gains in Idlib between 23-26 May were only made possible by at least six large suicide vehicle bombings, all by Jabhat al-Nusra fighters (including an American national, “Abu Hurayrah al-Amriki”). Without more sophisticated heavy weaponry, moderate insurgent forces have simply proven incapable of exerting anything matching equal force.
This may be a controversial thing to admit, but without doing so, one risks further jeopardizing the prospects of the military opposition to one day attain at least a favorable political solution. The West’s sustained failure to sufficiently support the moderate Syrian opposition means we are now faced with dynamics that cannot be overturned at the click of a finger. Instead, a measured and gradual process is required, which focuses continually on balancing complexity on the ground with short- and long-term regional and international interests.
For now, Western and allied policy would be best served by continuing the apparent new strategy of gradually bolstering reliable and proven moderate forces, with the dual-track objective of maintaining an effective fight against the government and slowly beginning to compete with extremists’ ability to co-opt moderate fighters into their better-funded and resourced organizations. Recent coverage regarding President Obama’s purported decision to establish a military program for training moderate insurgent forces is a much-needed first step on this road ahead. But make no mistake, much more will ne necessary to turn the tide of the conflict. Patience is wearing thin within moderate insurgent circles and without a genuine qualitative and quantitative enhancement in military support, it is only a matter of time before the West loses any of its remaining leverage over internal conflict dynamics.
This post originally appeared in Huffington Post