Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Fresh questions emerge as Syrian rebels fight Al Qaeda

Within a matter of days, the situation appears to have greatly changed for the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil) in the two countries where it operates. After it recently took over the Iraqi city of Fallujah and large parts of Ramadi, Isil, separately, faced an offensive by rebel groups in Syria. The group was pushed out of positions in Aleppo, Idlib and Raqqa.

The news comes not a moment too soon for the Syrian rebels and the countries backing them. Many will have noticed that the Saudi-backed Islamic Front, a coalition of predominantly-Salafi Syrian rebel groups, has led the fight against Isil, whose progress in Iraq’s Anbar province alarmed Riyadh. The Saudis regard an Al Qaeda-controlled territory on their northern border as a threat.

The Syrian rebels, with their Arab supporters, have finally realised that unless Isil is eliminated from Syria, the uprising against President Bashar Al Assad’s regime will be doomed. Already, many in the West largely associate the rebellion with jihadists.

The Saudis in particular, who supported the Islamic Front as a core around which the fragmented rebel groups could unify, saw that everything for which they had worked in the past two years was collapsing. Mr Al Assad is winning the narrative of the Syrian conflict, successfully depicting his enemies as a menace not only for his regime, but also for Arab and western security in general.

Few bothered to notice that Mr Al Assad’s strategy was to give a wide berth to Isil and another Al Qaeda group, the Nusra Front, and release their militants from prison so that they would divide rebel ranks and confirm what the regime had been saying since 2011: that it was at war against an insurgency led by Islamist terrorists.

The progression of Isil in recent months posed other problems for the rebels. It put the United States, the Iraqi government, the Syrian government, Russia, Iran, and Hizbollah on the same page against Al Qaeda, while Saudi Arabia was increasingly isolated in its defence of a rebel effort seen as having lost its direction.

In recent days, the Obama administration has promised to assist the Iraqi government against Isil, and has urged Sunni tribes to do the same. Hizbollah has publicly portrayed itself as a bulwark against extremism, conveniently evading how its participation in the Syrian war has helped attract Sunni jihadists to Syria and Lebanon.

In Lebanon, Isil claimed responsibility for the car-bomb attack in Beirut’s southern suburbs last week. Arab regimes have no sympathy for Hizbollah, but no one wants Lebanon to descend into sectarian violence that may spread. Sectarianism, even though exacerbated by all sides, may have dramatic repercussions for Arab states, especially those in the Gulf with mixed populations of Sunnis and Shia.

In this context, it is difficult to see how the Geneva conference on Syria scheduled for January 22 can be successful. One of the moderate opposition groups, the Syrian National Council, has already announced that it would not attend, casting doubt on the attendance of the larger body to which it belongs, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

While the National Coalition is hardly dominant, it is the most acceptable face of the Syrian opposition as far as the West is concerned. Meanwhile, rebel units on the ground have rejected Geneva and profoundly mistrust the notion of negotiating with the Assad regime. If they manage to rout Isil, their credibility will rise and their ability to shape or alternatively block any peace plan will be that much greater.

These dynamics must provoke a paradoxical reaction, particularly in the West. All governments would applaud the military defeat of Isil; but if this strengthens Mr Al Assad’s adversaries – therefore making fewer of them less likely to endorse a negotiated solution in the coming months – it would only mean the war continues unabated.

That may be somewhat welcome for the rebels’ Arab backers, who likely fear that American, Russian and Iranian cooperation over Syria will subvert the opposition there. Mr Al Assad’s Arab enemies probably believe that the rebels must regain territory before talking, in order to better impose their conditions on the Syrian regime.

Many observers regard the Geneva meeting as a vital moment for Syria. However, if the balance of power shifts in the coming months, a more important deadline may be the end of Mr Al Assad’s presidential term in the summer. If the rebels make gains before then, this could force a transitional solution that leads to the Syrian president’s departure, despite his evident intention to run as president for a third time.

There are many “ifs” involved. For starters, Isil has been damaged, but nothing yet suggests that it has been decisively defeated. Nor can the Nusra Front be reassured about its own future, which may lead to friction with rebel groups down the road. Then, the rebels must ensure they don’t lose more valuable ground to the Assad regime because of their conflict with Isil. And finally, they must prevail against a combined force of the Syrian army and Hizbollah.

Negotiations may begin this month and continue in parallel with the fighting. Rather like a Russian doll, Syria is now characterised by battles within battles, as all sides strive to consolidate their position before any serious talking begins. But so much remains unclear today that expectations of a solution anytime soon seem illusory.

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