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A jumble of jihadis in war without end

The town of Gaziantep is located 30km from Turkey’s border with Syria. Over the past five years it has become an epicentre for the unfinished business of the Syrian civil war.

When the history of this most savage of wars is written, there will be a chapter on these dusty border towns and how they came to form way stations for so much of the traffic travelling to or escaping from the killing zones.

I recently visited Gaziantep and the town of Kilis on the border. My purpose was to try to ascertain the current state of the Syrian rebellion against the Assad regime.

Gaziantep in high summer is shimmering in the heat, its many minarets pouring forth the call to prayer. Syrian refugees gather in the evenings to smoke nargileh (hookah) and talk and argue about where things are heading. Deeper down, outside of unaided vision, the complicated politics and logistics of the Syrian war are playing out all around.

Kilis, a short drive south, is the last stop before the war. It feels more Syrian than Turkish. Arabic is spoken everywhere. The apartment blocks with their stone stairs and peeling paint and the tiny shops make it look like a northern Syrian town. The offices of the rebel groups are to be found among them. The shooting begins 5km to the south.

At the beginning of the Syrian war, Gaziantep’s small international airport was one of the main entry points for jihadis from all over the world looking to cross the border to join the fight against Bashar al-Assad. They would arrive in the town, put up in one if its many shabby hotels and await the call from this or that organisation to take the road to Kilis and then across the border. Now the Turkish authorities, pressured by the West, have cracked down on this particular traffic. The airport attack in Istanbul in June cemented the process whereby Islamic State went from tolerated presence in Turkey to deadly enemy.

Islamic State, in invisible form, is in Gaziantep too. Every so often, its presence becomes manifest. In late December, it murdered Naji Jerf, a prominent journalist and critic of the movement, in downtown Gaziantep. Two more people were killed in a suicide bombing in May. “You should be careful here. Its less normal than it feels,” the receptionist tells me with a smile.

Five years since the start of the uprising against the Assad regime, the world’s attention has largely moved on. The war against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has sidelined the fight against Assad. What remains of the rebellion is boxed up, frustrated and exhausted, deployed in northwest and southwest Syria, or waiting in these towns across the border in Turkey.

“Of course, if we thought logically, we’d never have begun the revolution,” Yasser Ibrahim of Nour al-Din al-Zenki, one of the Islamist rebel militias, tells Inquirer. “We went out bare-chested in front of the regime. We lost a lot ‒ but we’re continuing.”

They surely are. The Syrian rebels have in recent days broken a government siege on rebel-controlled eastern Aleppo. The rebellion’s entry into Syria’s second city in late 2012 represented perhaps its single most significant advance. The government strangle­hold on the city threatened to reverse this. It lasted a week. So the rebellion is far from broken and remains, despite it all, a potent force.

Where all this is heading, however, is far less clear.

Tangled lines of support

The first and most immediately noticeable element of the Syrian rebellion in northwest Syria is its bewildering variety. An enormous number of rebel groups, all with ringing and grandiose names in Arabic but varying greatly in size and orientation, are engaged. Unity has remained elusive.

The networks of foreign support for the rebels ‒ from the US, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia ‒ are equally confused and confusing. The US maintains a Military Operations Command centre in southern Turkey through which weaponry is supplied to certain vetted rebel militias. There are about 40 such groups. Representatives of Arab and other western countries are also present in the MOC centre.

In a covert operation headed by the CIA, these vetted groups are the beneficiaries of the BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles that have exacted a heavy toll on regime armour in Latakia, Idlib and Aleppo provinces. There are additional lines of support from Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to the powerful Salafi jihadist forces that Washington does not support. ­Finally, there are groups that receive support from the US as well as one or another of these regional players.

But there is no tidy distinction between US-supported and non-US-supported groups, as one might expect. There is a continuum. The groups have the same hierarchy of enemies (Assad at the top, then Islamic State). And they co-operate at ground level. Weaponry finds its way into the hands of the strongest.

The guns and assistance provided by the US and the regional backers have been sufficient to prevent the rebellion from facing defeat at the hands of Assad. But since the Russian intervention, which began in September last year, an outright rebel military victory appears beyond reach.

In the meantime, people on the ground are dying. “The MOC supports us, but the world isn’t seeing the shelling of the schools and children and public buildings by the Russian planes,” says Ezadin al-Salem of the Jabhat al-Shamiya rebel alliance as we sit in his office in Gaziantep.

The rebels, in all their multifarious and confusing variety, are at present locked into two grinding wars of attrition ‒ against Assad and against Islamic State ‒ with no apparent light at the end of the tunnel.

Inter-connected frontlines

The three battlefronts in which the various north Syrian rebel groups are engaged are: the southern Aleppo province and Idlib front; Aleppo city and the area to its north; and the Azaz-Marea pocket close to the border.

The first two are areas of engagement between the rebels and the Assad regime. The last is a front against Islamic State.

They are different arenas. Consider them in turn:

In the southern Aleppo countryside and Idlib, the dominant alliance is an Islamist bloc called Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest). This alliance is dominated by two Salafi jihadist groups, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Levant Conquest Front, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) and Ahrar al-Sham (Freemen of Syria). A third important component is an Islamist militia called Faylaq al-Sham (Legion of Syria). Al-Nusra was until late last month the official franchise of the al-Qa’ida network in Syria; officially at least, it terminated this relationship when it changed its name.

Jaish al-Fatah does not, as a group, receive support from the US and the West. One of its components, the Muslim Brotherhood-influenced Faylaq al-Sham, however, has been drawing closer to the West in recent months. The group has used TOW missiles (suggesting a degree of Western support or approval), and is active elsewhere in close co-operation with Western-backed forces.

So in the case of Jaish al-Fatah, US support and an al-Qa’ida franchise steer perilously close to one another. And Jaish al-Fatah played the key role in breaking the government siege of Aleppo city.

Within the city, the jihadi groups organised in Jaish al-Fatah are present, but a number of smaller militias also play an important role. The Aleppo city front is separated from the Syrian-Turkish border by a narrow strip of regime-controlled territory.

North of this line of regime-controlled territory, in the small Azaz-Marea enclave, the rebels are engaged in fighting Islamic State. So far, they have enjoyed only limited success.

The rebels in this area again include representatives of the larger Islamist forces further south. But non-Islamist forces are more strongly represented here. The small Mutassim Brigade, a non-Islamist group, has emerged as the favoured partner of the US.

So the rebellion in Syria today consists of three interlocking front lines on which forces ranging from al-Qa’ida types to US-supported militias are co-operating.

Islamist domination

While the Syrian rebellion contains a confusing multitude of armed groups, the dominant and nearly ubiquitous ideology among them all is Sunni political Islam. Under this broad heading, a number of orientations exist. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, as a (former) branch of al-Qa’ida, is committed to the hardline Salafist Islam professed by that global network. Ahrar al-Sham, its partner in Jaish al-Fatah, emerges from similar foundations. Its strategic goals are, indeed, identical, but it maintains a more cautious and Syria-centred approach. This has enabled it to maintain relations with Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

The third significant element in Jaish al-Fatah, Faylaq al-Sham, adheres to a Muslim Brotherhood-type outlook.

While the forensic minutiae of these differences are interesting to analysts and not without value, the important general point to bear in mind is that the Syrian armed uprising emerged from conservative, rural, Sunni Arab Syria. Hence, it is not surprising, and was probably inevitable, that over time it would take on clearly sectarian Sunni Arab colours.

The initial Free Syrian Army brand that rebel groups adopted served to obscure this. But little of this remains. Close to the border, in the Azaz-Marea area, the US is supporting groups that still adhere to this outlook. On June 3, the US carried out its first airdrop of arms to the rebels, supplying the Mutassim Brigade with weaponry and ammunition. But outside of this small area, the hegemony of Sunni political Islam is assured.

In Aleppo and Idlib provinces in recent years, both al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham have made sure no non-Islamist groups have been able to successfully organise. The US-supported Hazm Movement and Syria Revolutionaries Front were destroyed by the Islamists in the course of 2014. Al-Nusra suppressed attempts to organise non-Islamist political demonstrations in Idlib province during the short period of ceasefire following February 27 this year.

In the northwest of Syria, the rebellion today is a Sunni Islamist affair. This makes it easy for the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies to claim to be engaged in combating jihadi terrorism, and so on. The claim is a hollow one, because Assad’s own side in this arena is an amalgam of mainly Islamist militias ‒ albeit, in this case, Shia ones.

Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the Afghan Shia Fatemiyoun Brigade and a number of Iran-aligned Iraqi Shia militias are among the central components of the regime side’s ground forces in this area today. Hezbollah has a track record of engagement in international terrorism that rivals that of al-Qa’ida.

Accusations of human rights ­violations

A horrifying video uploaded to the internet on July 19 showed rebel fighters of the Nour al-Din al-Zenki movement decapitating a child of Palestinian-Syrian origin. The fighters in the video claim the child was a “spy” and a member of a pro-government militia. The leadership of Zenki later condemned this act and referred to it as an “error”. But it seems to reflect a context of wider and extensive human rights violations by rebel groups in northwest Syria. An Amnesty International report issued in May sets out details of this, including allegations of kidnapping and torture by a number of groups.


So where is all this heading? Bassam Haji Mustafa, an ethnic Kurd and a senior member of the Islamist Nour al-Din al-Zenki militia group in Aleppo, in conversation with Inquirer, accurately notes the presence of four “projects” in fragmented Syria today ‒ “the Assad regime and its allies; the (Kurdish-led, US-supported) Syrian Democratic Forces; Islamic State; and the rebellion”.

This acknowledgment of the ­reality on the ground seems to fit poorly with the belief among the rebels, heard constantly, that they will eventually defeat Assad and reunite Syria.
How might this be achievable
given the existing balance
of forces?

I made sure to ask each rebel commander I interviewed what their strategy for success was, given that Russian intervention seemed to make military victory against Assad an impossibility.

I received no clear answer.

All the rebels indignantly rejected any prospect of the Assad regime remaining for any length of time, in any form. All reject any cooperation with or acknowledgment of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces further east.

But behind the ringing declarations there is a bone weariness to all this. The rebels have been fighting for five years. They are very tired.

Perhaps the most honest assessment of the actual situation I received came from stocky, black-bearded Ahmed al-Imam, of the 1st regiment, at the end of our conversation: “The Free army,” he said, abandoning any rhetorical tone, “is surrounded by three enemies (SDF, regime and Islamic State). We are exhausted.

“They have all the energy. We have nothing.”

Al-Imam is a noted and veteran frontline commander. His was a response grounded in the stark realities.

But the ringing reaffirmation of faith in the justice of the rebellion’s cause proffered by Aleppo’s Mustafa was more typical: “The Free army isn’t the whole rebellion ‒ only the military part,” he told me. “There are activists, youth, political parties, artists. The Syrian people are united in seeking freedom. The revolution is continuing.”

This refusal to acknowledge realities, the strange disconnect between tactical pessimism and boundless strategic optimism, derives, I think, from the very great gap between what the rebellion has now become (a single project, broadly representing the country’s Sunni Arabs, in a complex patchwork conflict) and what its leaders continue to imagine themselves (the rightful rulers of Syria in its entirety).

The Syrian rebels are fighting a war of defence and survival. They have significant international backing, a clear determination to continue the fight and manpower and volunteers sufficient to do so. All this is likely to prove sufficient to prevent northwest Syria from falling to the regime anytime soon.

But grinding attrition and continued bloodletting are almost certainly the only prospect that awaits them.

In the meantime, the border towns of Gaziantep and Kilis will continue to maintain their subterranean traffic of deals, weapons and volunteers, punctuated by the occasional explosion.

The rebel leaders in their cramped offices with the peeling paint on the walls will go on planning their operations, and issuing their declarations.

The Syrian refugees will smoke their nargilehs in the cafes till late in the evening, swapping stories of treasured places and landscapes that mostly no longer exist.

And Islamic State and the Turkish intelligence services will continue to move among them, mainly unseen.

This is the Turkish-Syrian border area, and the Syrian rebellion, northern summer, 2016.

Jonathan Spyer is a journalist, author and Middle East analyst. Based in Jerusalem, he is director of the Rubin Centre for Research in International Affairs and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.

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