Turkey’s Next Move

Jerusalem Post, 2/9

The Turkish incursion into the north Syrian town of Jarabulus and its environs, which began on August 24, is the latest dramatic re-shuffling of the deck in a long and agonizing conflict. But what is its deeper significance? Does it represent a decisive Turkish entry into the broader effort to destroy the self-proclaimed Islamic State? Or is it, rather, the opening shot in a broader effort by Ankara to destroy the extensive gains made by Syria’s Kurds and the putative federal entity they have established in the country’s north east? And what will it mean for US relations with both the Turks and the Syrian Kurds?

As it currently appears, Turkey’s intervention resembles previous foreign interventions into the Syrian war in the following way: It appears to have been more of an effort to stem an imminent unwanted outcome than an expression of a broader strategic plan.

Much as Turkey might like to, it does not currently have either the diplomatic or military ground prepared to embark on a wholesale campaign of destruction against the Syrian Kurds. It does, however, have the power to prevent further Kurdish expansion. It appears that it has just exercised this power. What will follow will depend on whether Ankara can content itself with this limited achievement.

Observe: The Turkish incursion came following the taking by the Kurdish-led, US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) of the strategic town of Manbij. Manbij is of significance in the fight against Islamic State because it was the last exit the jihadists controlled into Turkey. Its loss is therefore an important step in securing the isolation of ISIS territory from the outside world and hence from sources of revenue and supply.

Turkey, however, is less concerned about the pace of the war against ISIS. From Ankara’s point of view, the taking of Manbij represented not a significant step in the war against ISIS, but rather a further advance by the Syrian Kurds, in the direction of uniting their cantons of Cezire, and Afrin along the Syrian-Turkish border, and thus achieving control of the entire long border between the two countries.

Turkey is currently facing a renewed insurgency by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the southeast of the country. The Syrian Kurdish YPG is closely associated with the PKK. A further advance by the SDF would mean the entirety of an international border falling into the hands of a hostile insurgent organization from a Turkish point of view.

Turkey had hitherto been deterred from taking any such determined action against the Kurds because of the real possibility of Russian action against a Turkish incursion. Relations between the two countries were at a nadir, following the Turkish downing of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 bomber on November 24, 2015. Rapprochement of some kind with Moscow was thus a necessary prelude to any incursion. And rapprochement came with the meeting between Presidents Erdogan and Putin on August 9.

The details and dimensions of any agreement reached between Moscow and Ankara remain unclear. The Russian media has been critical of the scale of the Turkish incursion into Jarabulus. But clearly the rebuilding of relations opened up enough diplomatic space for the Turks to dare to attempt the operation.

Nevertheless, any expectation that Turkish-Russian rapprochement must involve a Turkish abandonment of the Sunni Arab rebels of northern Syria appears at least for now to have been incorrect. On the contrary, the rebels formed the main ground component in the Turkish push into Jarabulus.

The US stance toward the Turkish move is perhaps most interesting of all. The Americans were apprised of an upcoming Turkish incursion. But the entry into Syria was earlier and on a larger scale than had been expected. The Americans, having supported the SDF’s difficult fight for Manbij, appeared to change direction – calling for the withdrawal of Kurdish fighters to east of the Euphrates River and conditioning further US support on this action. The US supplied close air support to the Turks in the first two days of the operation. This was withdrawn once the Turks began to capture ground and villages south of Jarabulus.

The subsequent clashes between Turkish supported rebels and the SDF constituted an indisputable case of fighting between two US client groups. The SDF is the main component in the US war against ISIS (it constitutes a “Kurdish-American juggernaut,” in the words of one American analyst of Syria).

The rebels used in the Jarabulus operation, meanwhile, consisted specifically of groups vetted by the CIA and receiving American support via the Military Operations Center in southern Turkey.

Were the fighting to spread, therefore, this would represent a disastrous situation in which two US proxies would be firing US supplied ammunition at one another.

To prevent this, the US appears to have put pressure on both sides. The Kurds, first, were clearly told that they would be left to face Turkish armor and artillery without US support if they continued to push west.

But US Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Monday noted that Washington also called on Turkey to “stay focused on the fight against ISIL and not engage Syrian Defense Forces.”

Carter called on the Turks to keep their forces north and west of Jarabulus.

As of now, a tentative cease fire has been announced by the US between the Turks and the SDF-supported Jarabulus Military Council.  It is not clear if this will hold, or indeed even if it exists. Turkish officials denied that any such truce has been agreed.

Much now depends on Turkish intentions.

The Kurds and their allies expended much blood and effort in taking Manbij from Islamic State. It is beyond doubt that they will fight to defend it should the Turks and their Syrian rebel allies seek to conquer it. At the same time, if the Turkish intention is merely to prevent Kurdish efforts to push further west, toward Jarabulus and al-Bab and thence toward uniting the cantons, it is likely that for now at least a further deterioration can be avoided.

US inconsistency left many Kurds furious. But the SDF is too successful an alliance to be entirely abandoned. Turkey would undoubtedly prefer a situation in which the rebel fighters under its sponsorship were chosen by the US as a replacement in the war against ISIS. This appears unlikely, however. The forces aligned with Turkey consist mainly of Islamist organizations, including hard-line Salafi jihadist groups ideologically close to al-Qaida.

Gen. Joseph Votel, head of US Central Command on Wednesday confirmed continued US support for the SDF.

It is now Turkey’s decision whether to declare Operation Euphrates Shield a success or to continue to seek to destroy the SDF, even in the face of US opposition, and with the presence of 300 US special forces personnel deployed with the SDF. Perhaps the Turks will conclude that the Obama administration’s record in defending its allies so far suggests that its objections can be brushed aside. This would not be an entirely groundless assumption. But if Turkey acts on it, it will open a new and very costly front in its war against the Kurds. As of now, Ankara looks most likely to follow a more cautious path.

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Who Should Rule Syria? Nobody.

The Spectator, 19/8

The long civil war in Syria is still far from conclusion. Any real possibility of rebel victory ended with the entry of Russian forces last autumn — but while the initiative is now with the Assad regime, the government’s forces are also far from a decisive breakthrough. So who, if anyone, should the UK be backing in the Syrian slaughterhouse, and what might constitute progress in this broken and burning land?

It ought to be fairly obvious why a victory for the Assad regime would be a disaster for the West. Assad, an enthusiastic user of chemical weapons against his own people, is aligned with the most powerful anti–western coalition in the Middle East. This is the alliance dominated by the Islamic Republic of Iran. It includes Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Shia militias of Iraq, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. If Assad won, the Iranian alliance would consolidate its domination of the entire land area between the Iraq-Iran border and the Mediterranean Sea — a major step towards regional hegemony for Iran. So an Assad victory would be good for Islamism — at least of the Shia variety — and bad for world peace. It should be prevented.

The controversy begins when one starts to look at the alternative to an Assad victory.

In November last year, David Cameron claimed to have identified 70,000 ‘moderate’ rebels ready to challenge Islamic State in the east of Syria. That figure was a myth. Yours truly was among the very first western journalists to spend time in Syria with the rebels. I recently returned from a trip to southern Turkey, where I interviewed fighters and commanders of the main rebel coalitions. With no particular joy but a good deal of confidence, I can report that the Syrian rebellion today is dominated in its entirety by Sunni Islamist forces. And the most powerful of these are the most radical.

The most potent rebel coalition in Syria today is called Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest). It has three main component parts: Ahrar al-Sham (Free Men of the Levant), a Salafist jihadi group; Jabhat al-Nusra, until recently the official franchise of al–Qaeda in Syria, now renamed Jabhat Fatah al-Sham; and Faylaq al-Sham (Legion of the Levant), whose ideology derives from the Muslim Brotherhood branch of Sunni political Islam.

Jaish al-Fatah dominates the main rebel-controlled area in Aleppo, Idleb, Latakia and northern Hama. Its various components seek the establishment of a state dominated by Islamic sharia law. There is no reason to suppose that Nusra’s recent renunciation of its al-Qaeda affiliation was anything more than tactical. When one speaks of the Syrian rebellion today, one is speaking of Jaish al-Fatah. The small ‘Free Syrian Army’ groups that still exist do so only with Jaish al-Fatah’s permission, and only for as long as they serve some useful purpose for it. In the now extremely unlikely event of the Islamist rebels defeating the Assad regime and reuniting Syria under their rule, the country would become a Sunni Islamist dictatorship.

So if there is no British or western interest in a victory for either the regime or the rebels, what should be done with regard to Syria?

First of all, it is important to understand that ‘Syria’ as a unitary state no longer exists. A rebel commander whom I interviewed in the border town of Kilis in June told me: ‘Syria today is divided into four projects, none of which is strong enough to defeat all the others. These are the Assad regime, the rebellion, the Kurds and the Islamic State.’ This is accurate.

So the beginning of a coherent Syria policy requires understanding that the country has fragmented into enclaves, and is not going to be reunited in the near future, if at all.

Various external powers have elected to back one or another element in this landscape. The Russians and Iranians are backing the regime. Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are supporting the Islamist rebels.

 

The West, too, has established a successful and effective patron-client relationship — with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Dominated by the Kurdish YPG, but including also Arab tribal forces such as the Sanadid militia, this is the force which is reducing the dominions of the Islamic State in eastern Syria, in partnership with western air power and special forces.

In contrast to the sometimes farcical attempts to identify partners among the Syrian Sunni rebels, the partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces works. Weaponry does not get passed on to or taken by radical jihadi groups, because the SDF is at war with such groups. Training and assistance produces a united force with a single chain of command. And this force captures ground and frees Syrians living under the vicious rule of Isis.

On the commonsense principle that success should be built on, it is clear that the alliance with the SDF ought to be strengthened and grown. The West is committed, correctly, to the destruction of the Islamic State. The pace of the war against Isis needs to be stepped up. As witnessed in Nice, Würz-burg, Normandy and elsewhere in recent weeks, Isis is an entity that will make war on the West until it is destroyed.

The destruction of the Islamic State by a strengthened SDF would lead to control of Syria east of the Euphrates by a western client of proven anti-terrorist credentials. Further west, the truncated enclaves of Assad and of the Sunni Arab rebels would remain. It is possible that, over time, the fragmentation of Syria would be formalised. But it’s equally likely that the various component parts would remain in de facto existence for the foreseeable future.

What matters is that three outcomes be avoided: the Assad regime should not be permitted to reunite Syria under its rule, the Islamist rebels should similarly not be allowed to establish a jihadi state in the country, and the Islamic State should not be permitted to remain in existence. By strengthening the alliance with the SDF, utilising it and its allies to take Raqqa and destroy Isis in the east, and then allowing its component parts to establish their rule in eastern and northern Syria, these objectives can be attained. For a change, the US and its allies have found an unambiguously anti-Islamist and anti-jihadi force in the Middle East which has a habit of winning its battles. This is a success which should be reinforced.

 

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Re-Facebooked

As of 16/8, my Facebook account has been reinstated.  The power of positive thinking evidently works wonders.  Much thanks to all.

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Israel’s Virtual Security Zone

Jerusalem Post, 12/08

Cautious and prudent Israeli policy has largely succeeded over the last five years in sealing off the Syrian civil war from Israel’s territory.  This has been achieved through the careful cultivation of a working relationship with rebel militias on the other side of the border, along with a readiness to act on occasion decisively to neutralize emergent dangers.

The success of such a policy is by definition fragile, as is the calm it produces. A single mishap could transform the situation.  In recent weeks, there has been a notable uptick in the volume of incidents on the border, though a general deterioration still seems distant.

Reserve soldiers serving along the borderline describe a reality in which both regime and rebels are engaged in constantly testing the alertness of Israeli forces, looking to take advantage of any momentary lapse of attention.

Israel responds to all incidences of fire into Israeli territory, including when these appear to be inadvertent rather than deliberate.  The intention is to keep the war away from the border.

One of the unplanned results of this policy is the emergence of small tent emplacements close to the line of division. Refugees have made their way to the border area, assuming that the Syrian government army will tend to avoid it.

July was a busy month. On July 4th, the technical fence was damaged by Syrian army fire.  Israel responded by striking at two regime targets.

Then on the 18th, a drone was despatched across the border to Israel.  Israeli attempts to down it were unsuccessful.

A week later, Israel responded to stray Syrian mortar rounds which came across the border.  An Israeli drone destroyed the mortar emplacement.

July witnessed an unexpected visit to the Quneitra area by General Mohamed Reza Naqdi, commander of the Basij paramilitary forces in Iran.

There were also reports of Israeli bulldozers operating in the Demilitarized Zone east of the technical fence, in the area between Ein Zivan and Quneitra.  This reporter witnessed evidence of this work, on a recent trip to the Golan.

Thus far with regard to the Assad regime and its allies.  But of course the regime only controls a few points along the border.  Most of it is held by rebel forces, described as a mix of Jabhat al Nusra and other free army groups by IDF soldiers stationed at one of the border posts.

The IDF is in communication with representatives of these forces, though relations are less than ideal.  The southern part of the border, however, is the area of greatest concern.  This is held by the Khaled Ibn al-Walid Brigade, a franchise of the Islamic State, formerly known as the Shuhada al-Yarmouk Brigades.  The Israeli assumption is that at a certain point this organization will almost certainly turn its guns against Israel. In the meantime, the two sides watch each other closely.

The entry of rebel and civilian wounded via the border fence is a regular occurrence, as is the transfer of humanitarian aid.  The UN is the body which facilitates this process.

It all seems to be working smoothly.

The sound of gunfire punctuates the days and the nights on the Golan.  Sometimes it is the distant, ominous boom of heavy artillery, perhaps from the area south of Damascus.  The Syrian capital is only 70 km away.  At other times the rattle of small arms fire can be heard.  This is closer, perhaps evidence of a skirmish between the rebels and the jihadis of the Khalid Ibn al-Walid.  But on the Israeli side of the border the wine is good, the restaurants are open, the summer days seemingly endless.

So how will all this end?  Will the division of Syria hold, making the militia arrangements across the border and the relationships created permanent?  Perhaps.  But in judging the likely future direction of events, it is necessary to widen the lens, and observe events further north.

One of the key battles of the Syrian civil war is currently under way in Aleppo province, far to the north.  The regime sealed rebel controlled eastern Aleppo in early August. The rebels now appear to have broken the siege. But the outcome is not yet decided.

If the regime succeeds in taking Aleppo city back in its entirety, this will mark a decisive setback for the rebellion.  It will open the way for a regime campaign to retake the  rural north. If this too succeeds, it will then be the turn of the southern border area. Such a turn of events is not inevitable, and may not transpire.  But if it does, it will mean that the tense but stable arrangements that Israel has built up over the previous half decade will come to an end.  It is possible that the preparations on the border fence are in anticipation of this eventuality.  Should it come, the virtual security zone established by Israel across the borderline will prove to have been just one of the transient, if among the most fascinating, episodes of the Syrian civil war.

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Un-Facebooked

 

Recently my Facebook profile, on which I was connected to around 5000 people, was closed down by Facebook. This has had some impact on my ability to do my job as a researcher and journalist, tho I have since managed to repair much of the damage. However, the process by which the profile was destroyed is interesting and may be informative regarding the practices of Facebook with regard to the issue of freedom of expression on the site.

 

The last posting which I made on my profile related to recent events in Europe.  I wrote that I considered the wave of terror attacks in Germany and France to indicate that a ‘low level Islamist insurgency’ was now taking place in those countries. A few hours after placing this posting, my account was ‘disabled.’

 

I wrote to the appropriate Facebook address asking for clarification on this. A few days later, on July 29, I received an email from someone called ‘Justin’ saying:

 

’We have reviewed your account, and have determined that it is contrary to the Declaration of Rights and Responsibilities of Facebook. Due to the violation of these terms, we have permanently deleted your account.

One of the main priorities of Facebook is the safety of Facebook users. Credible threats to harm others, support for violent organizations or extreme graphic content are not allowed on Facebook.’

 

I am placing this post here so that readers will be aware of the apparent parameters of free speech at Facebook.

 

I have never expressed support for ‘violent organizations’ on my page, other than support for the armed forces of the state of which I am a citizen, Israel, and perhaps also a general support for the Kurdish-led, western-backed forces fighting the Sunni jihadis of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

 

Facebook apparently considers that support for either of these, or expressing the view that a still relatively small-scale Islamist insurgency is taking place in Europe, constitutes a threat to the ‘safety of Facebook users.’ This is, I think, a point of some significance.

 

In any case, I want also to hereby apologize to any contacts who thought I had for some reason or another removed or blocked them. This was not the case and I invite them to connect to my re-constituted page. Regarding the broader implications of all this, it as a matter of grave concern that a private company that to a great extent now controls the ‘means of representation’ on the Internet is apparently practicing a form of censorship, ensuring that certain views cannot be expressed in what has become a vital forum for the public conversation.

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Syrian Insurgency Persists Despite Divisions

 

My article at Janes Intelligence Review on the rebellion in North west Syria can be accessed here:  http://www.janes.com/article/62756/syrian-insurgency-persists-despite-divisions

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The Syrian Rebellion in its Sixth Year

Jerusalem Report, 4/8

 

In June, 2016, I travelled to the border area between Turkey and Syria, in order to interview rebel fighters and leaders.  I was among the first foreign journalists to meet the rebels and visit their first areas of control, all the way back in February 2012.  I wanted to see what had changed and what remained the same.  And in so doing, perhaps also to get a sense of the current balance of power in the Middle East, as seen through the lens of its most bloody and intractable war.

 

The towns of Gaziantep and Kilis, where I visited, have become centers of  the Syrian refugee population.  The various rebel groups have hunkered down here, making their offices in the echoing apartment blocks of the poorer parts of these cities.  There, they spend their days waiting. With much time on their hands.

 

The most immediately obvious change is in  the border itself.  In the first couple of years of the war, the Syrian-Turkish border was basically open (except for in the areas facing Syria’s Kurdish population.)   Turkey was a strong supporter of the rebellion.  Its imminent victory was expected.  Ankara in essence turned the border over to the rebels against Assad in the first years.

 

In those days, the rebels and the many journalists who wanted to write about them crossed over more or less freely.

 

The border fence was an old and flimsy affair. There were many obliging smugglers’ rings, willing to trace a path through the minefields for a fee.  The Turkish army itself was cheerfully amenable to bribery.

 

All that is over now.  The journalists for the most part no longer come.  In the course of 2013, the Salafi jihadis entered the picture, bringing with them their hatred of the ‘kuffar’ , the infidel. The kidnappings of journalists soon followed.

 

In any case, since the emergence of the Islamic State in Syria, interest in the destruction of the Assad regime has waned in the west.  The rebellion itself is dominated by Sunni Islamists. Any notion of it representing the doorway to some better or more representative future for the region has long since departed.

 

Furthermore, IS and its activities have forced the Turks to recalibrate their position.  From Erdogan’s point of view, IS wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.  The jihadis were keen to challenge the Kurdish nationalists of the PKK and its Syrian franchise.  These were the forces that Ankara was really worried about. But with the commencement of IS’s war against the west, a policy of benign indifference toward the jihadis was no longer possible.  Turkey began to act against the IS presence in the country.  IS hit back – both by shelling the town of Kilis and by activating its cells within Turkey itself, and carrying out the bombing at Ataturk airport in Istanbul on.

 

As a consequence, the border fence has been revamped, and replaced with a wall along some sections of the frontier.  And the army no longer take bribes.  Anyone seeking to make a run to or from Syria now faces a good chance of being shot dead (back in 2012, the soldiers used to just fire in the air).

 

Fragmented revolt

 

But the nature of the conflict itself has also changed.  There was a moment, in the early days of the rebellion, when it genuinely looked like a popular uprising. This was always perhaps misleading. Today it seems very distant.  There is no longer a single war taking place in Syria.  Rather, the country has fragmented into a variety of interlocking ‘projects’ and conflicts.

 

As Basam Haji Mustafa of the Islamist Nour al Din al Zenki group put it to me, ‘There are four projects in Syria today: ‘the Assad regime and its allies, the (Kurdish-led, US-supported) Syrian Democratic Forces,  the Islamic State, and the rebellion.’

 

We were speaking to  Haji Mustafa via Skype, from Gaziantep into besieged Aleppo.  It was just a few days before the regime closed the final exit from the eastern part of the city, the Castello Road.  Yet the Zenki commander remained withering in his contempt for the dictator’s forces.  ‘The regime is no longer an organized force. It is a mixture of many components – Iranians, Lebanese, Iraqis.’

 

This is a fair appraisal.  As of today, the regime controlled south and west of Syria, the rebel controlled north west, Kurdish controlled north East and Islamic State controlled east all seem fairly secure.  Perhaps only the latter will yet fall, because of western determination that the Islamic state be destroyed.

 

But the rebels too, even in their own Sunni Arab enclave, are badly divided.

 

North west Syria today constitutes the last area firmly in the rebellion’s hands.  But the area is sub-divided into three separate areas of operation: these are, the South Aleppo countryside and Idleb Province, the area of eastern Aleppo city, and the small Azaz-Marea pocket, in which the rebels are sandwiched between an Islamic State area and the Kurdish Afrin enclave.

 

The South Aleppo and Idleb area is by far the largest.  Islamic State is not in this area and the war is fought between the regime and the rebels only.  In this area, the Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) rebel coalition is dominant.  This coalition is dominated by two Salafi jihadi groups, Jabhat al Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, and one Muslim Brotherhood inspired militia, Faylaq al Sham (Legion of the Levant).

 

In Aleppo city, the jihadi groups organized 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 IS.  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 favored partner of the US.

 

So the rebellion in Syria today consists of three interlocking frontlines in which organizations ranging from al-Qaeda’s (now departed) local franchise to US-supported militias are cooperating.

 

But while a myriad of organizations exist, it is clear that Sunni political Islam of one kind or another is the dominant force.  This should surprise no-one.  The armed rebellion emerged from conservative, Sunni, rural, pious north west Syria.  That it should take on this hue is entirely natural, and predictable.

 

 

 

 

No strategy for victory

 

I asked every rebel leader and representative I spoke to if they could conceive some role for Bashar Assad in a transitory phase that would lead to a new Syria.  The reaction was unanimous and predictable.  Assad had to go, as soon as possible.  Yet as Ahmed al Imam, a military commander of the 1st Regiment from Aleppo city told me, ‘We have no clear strategic plan.  The regime is supported by powerful countries, and the allies of the free army are weak.’

 

The gap between the aspirations of the rebels and their abilities to achieve them are huge, and growing.

 

Yet at the same time, they do not appear close to defeat.  The Müşterek Operasyon Merkezi (Military Operations Center) is continuing to operate, supplying US weapons to certain, vetted and selected rebel groups.  Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, meanwhile, maintain their own direct lines of support to Islamist groups not supported by the ‘MOM.’  So weaponry is not about to run out.  The loss of eastern Aleppo in its entirety would represent a disaster for the rebels.

 

But even then, should Assad seek to retake the entirety of Aleppo and Idleb provinces, he would be faced with the same dilemma which forced him to abandon them in mid-2012 – namely, his absence of sufficient manpower with which to effectively police and hold these areas. These provinces are still inhabited by a Sunni Arab population which completely rejects the dictator.

 

Also, as al-Imam pointed out, the rebels have no way back.  ‘To be or not to be. We have no choice but to continue.’

 

On a moral or ethical level, there is nothing particularly to celebrate regarding the Syrian rebels, or their opponents.  A horrifying video uploaded to the internet on July 19h showed rebel fighters of the Nour al-Din al-Zinki movement  decapitating a young child of Palestinian-Syrian origin. The fighters in the video claim that the child was a ‘spy’ and a member of a pro-government militia.

 

The leadership of Zinki 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 north west Syria. An Amnesty International report issued in May sets out details of this, including allegations of kidnapping and torture by a number of  groups.

 

Of course,  such actions notwithstanding, the Assad regime’s attempts to portray itself as an anti-terrorist force remain ludicrous.  As the conflict has progressed, the dictator has become increasingly reliant on Iran-linked militia forces to plug the gaps in manpower.  The Assad regime has anyway, throughout its history, made energetic use of terrorist clients of Sunni, Shia and other loyalties.  What is happening in Syria today with regard to the regime and the rebellion is that two rival forces of sectarian gunmen are clashing.   Yet the Assad regime has been responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths in Syria over the last five years.

 

What lies ahead?

 

So is the Syrian rebellion doomed?  The answer is – probably not.  For all its fragmented nature, it retains lines of support from powerful countries.  There is the ‘MOM’ of course, in Turkey, and its equivalent in Jordan.  But there are also the separate channels of support from Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to the powerful jihadi and Islamist militias in the north.  It is also notable that large numbers of Sunni Arab Syrians appear to remain willing to volunteer in its ranks and risk their lives in its cause.  This mass of active support has been the rebels’ main advantage throughout the war.  It derives from their hailing from Syria’s single largest community.  It does not appear to have yet been exhausted.

 

So the rebels can neither win their war, nor can they be completely defeated.  What might this mean for Syria?

 

With Aleppo surrounded, the rebels may lose their main symbolic territorial asset in the months ahead.  The rebellion’s entry into Aleppo in the summer of 2012 represents its single greatest achievement.  But even if it is lost, the rebels will still hold a large swathe of territory in Aleppo, Idleb, Latakia and northern Hama provinces, where they are still scoring tactical victories against the regime.

 

Jabhat al-Nusra’s decision in late July to part from the core al-Qaeda network was almost certainly tactical in nature, rather than representing some profound shift in the outlook of this group.  But Nusra has been characterized by a tactical flexibility (in stark contrast to the rival jihadis of Islamic State) since its outset.  The move may well be sufficient to prevent a joint Russian and American counter-terror campaign against the group, which had seemed like an emergent possibility.

 

What this means is that five years on, the conflict in Syria appears nowhere close to conclusion.  The rebellion – now an entirely Sunni Islamist affair – appears to be set to continue the fight even in the absence of any strategy or even any serious hope of eventual victory.  As Ahmed al-Imam of the 1st Regiment put it to me, ‘the Free Army is surrounded by three enemies (the regime, IS and the Kurds), and we are exhausted.   They have all the energy, we have nothing. ‘

 

But al-Imam expressed this gloomy prospect before inviting me to join his fighters for a reporting trip into northern Syria (I declined).  The rebellion still holds ground and appears in no immediate prospect of eclipse.

 

What might be learned regarding the region from this situation?

 

Firstly, that in the sunni-shia proxy war currently under way, no side has a clear and obvious advantage.  Rather, in Syria, as in Yemen and Iraq, the proxies of the Saudis and other sunni powers  and those of the Iranians appear capable of surviving each other’s assaults, but not of achieving comprehensive victory.

 

Secondly, that this, combined with the fragmented ethnic and sectarian nature of the countries in question, means that ongoing war of attrition and ongoing division across a large, ruined swathe of the Middle East looks set to remain.

 

 

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