Michael Young

All against all in Syria

Liwa al-Tawhid, an al-Qaeda affiliate.

Like a raft in a rough sea, the Geneva II conference on Syria is still sought out as a means of salvation by many states. Even though there is no agreement over what the conference should address, the idea continues to make headway while the situation in Syria deteriorates.   


The latest blow to a potentially successful conference was the decision last week of 11 of the most powerful rebel groups in Syria to issue a statement saying the opposition could only be represented by those who have “lived their troubles and shared in what they sacrificed.” Effectively, this was a repudiation of the opposition in exile, which would have spoken in the rebels’ name in Geneva.


If the opposition groups abroad, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, cannot deliver on commitments made in Geneva, then the entire premise of the conference collapses. Nor are Western relations with the moderate Supreme Military Council under Salim Idriss a panacea: three groups aligned with the council signed on to the statement.


Those endorsing the statement also made it clear they had an ideological agenda in Syria. As an activist close to the Liwa al-Tawhid brigade told the New York Times, “We found it was time to announce publicly and clearly what we are after, which is Shariah law for the country and to convey a message to the opposition coalition that it has been three years and they have never done any good for the Syrian uprising and the people suffering inside.” This echoed the statement’s call for all groups in Syria to “unify in a clear Islamic framework.”


The statement coincided with an expansion of the jihadists’ efforts to consolidate and expand the territory under their control. Alarmingly, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which was not a signatory to the statement, last week took over the strategic northern towns of Azaz and al-Bab, which sit on the lines of communication between Turkey and Aleppo. Control over the towns will give ISIS considerable leverage over other rebel groups in the Aleppo area, as well as funding from the traffic of goods to and from Turkey.


The strategy of ISIS and another al-Qaeda-affiliated group, Jabhat al-Nusra (with whom ISIS has been in competition and occasional conflict), has been far less about fighting the Assad regime than about tightening control over a swathe of territory stretching from western Iraq to northern Syria. Clashes between rebels of the Free Syrian Army and the al-Qaeda groups have escalated, a situation that the Assad regime has welcomed and indirectly encouraged.


That’s because, as many observers have pointed out, the Syrian regime has generally avoided attacking the al-Qaeda groups, and has even collaborated with them in certain districts. This has allowed the jihadists to gain ground and in that way confirm the regime’s narrative that it is the last line of defense against extremism.


A similar strategy was successfully adopted by the former Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh. He permitted al-Qaeda to expand in Yemen because this allowed him to go to the United States and request more military and financial aid. In turn he used that aid to strengthen himself and prevent what he considered the greater threat to his rule: the breakup of Yemen between North and South.


The problem for the opposition is that Assad is effectively using the al-Qaeda affiliated groups against the Free Syrian Army in places where his army does not have the ability to fight. Infighting among Assad’s enemies is precisely what the regime needs, and if ISIS and al-Nusra begin making serious headway, it would not be long before states, even enemies of the Syrian regime, begin seeing the Syrian army as the only force that can ultimately defeat the jihadists.


This cynical game was obvious from the beginning of the uprising in Syria in 2011, and it is astonishing how easily Assad managed to put it in place, and how easily he pulled the wool over the eyes of the Obama administration and many others. The United States, rather than read the signals early on and arm the Syrian opposition when it was making substantial gains, allowed a vacuum to form and then fretted when that vacuum was filled by jihadists. 


Now its policy of bringing “moderates” to the table and asking them to negotiate a settlement for a peaceful transition away from the Assad regime is in shambles. The absurdity of American policy is evident in that the CIA is training friendly rebels militarily – so they will not lose the Syrian conflict, even as it does not want them to win. Assad’s continued presence will only keep the rebellion alive; but today none of his enemies can realistically base Geneva II on the principle of Assad’s exit from office when the opposition is in such disarray.


There has been discussion of an “awakening” among Syrians, as in Iraq, that would sweep al-Qaeda away. The intolerant ideology of such groups jars with the tradition in Syria for a more compromising version of Islam, one that accepts communal coexistence. However, it is not clear who would sponsor and help organize such an effort.


As Martin Chulov wrote in The Guardian, among those who broke away from the National Coalition are groups justifying the move by saying it would isolate ISIS. “This is still a Syrian revolution. We will not let it become a toy for them,” a leader of Ahrar al-Sham noted. Nor is al-Nusra well disposed to ISIS, having been greatly weakened in northern Syria by the emergence of its fellow al-Qaeda affiliate.


These fault lines can yet be exploited by those who fear that the Syrian uprising has been hijacked and will ultimately be undermined by the extremists in the rebels’ ranks. But for now the chaos benefits only Assad, while Geneva II seems a pipe dream. And Barack Obama, America’s Hamlet, will do everything to avoid doing anything, for like the prince of Denmark he is pigeon-livered and lacks gall.


Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.

Liwa al-Tawhid members in Deir Ezzor, Syria earlier this year. (AFP photo/ Zac Baillie)

"As many observers have pointed out, the Syrian regime has generally avoided attacking the al-Qaeda groups, and has even collaborated with them in certain districts."