A version of this article was published at NOW Lebanon.
In early November, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee released a report challenging the British government’s proposal to extend airstrikes from Iraq into Syria against the Islamic State (IS). Among other things, the report asked for a proposed political path to ending the Syrian civil war, a necessary prerequisite to defeating IS. On Thursday, Prime Minister David Cameron released a response, part of which said:
Military action against ISIL will also relieve the pressure on the moderate opposition, whose survival is crucial for a successful transition to a more inclusive Syrian government. Syria has not been, and should not be, reduced to a choice between Assad or ISIL. Although the situation on the ground is complex, our assessment is that there are about 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters on the ground who do not belong to extremist groups.
This number has blown up into a major political row, with many Members of Parliament and pundits taking their personal unfamiliarity with Syria’s military landscape as evidence that it cannot be so. The Labour Opposition has made the number of non-extremist rebels a focal point of their challenge to the Prime Minister’s proposal for moving forward in Syria, and one of Cameron’s own Conservative MPs referred to the number as “magical”. The challenge to the number is part of a longer-term trend, where a narrative has become prevalent that there are no moderate opposition forces left in Syria. The corollary of this view is usually the argument that the West should side with the “secular” Assad regime as the “lesser evil” to put down a radical Islamist insurrection.
Sidestepping the ignorance that goes into believing a blatantly sectarian regime propped up by an international brigade of Shi’a jihadists is secular: What of this claim that there are no moderate rebels left? It isn’t true, as I recently made clear in a paper for The Henry Jackson Society.
There are many deeply-rooted, powerful rebel brigades of nationalist and moderate outlook, quite a number of them already vetted by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and in receipt of weapons and money from the United States and other Allied intelligence services through the operations rooms in Turkey (MOM) and Jordan (MOC). The entire rebellion is in an active state of warfare with IS. The concern is that many rebels fight alongside Jabhat an-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, which has tried to wind itself into the insurgency to protect its long-term goal of securing a launching pad for global jihad. Most of the rebel groups in tacit alliance with Nusra, however, could be broken away if they had an alternative, reliable supply of resources.
The insurgent scene is indeed complicated. “The consistent failure of initiatives aimed at uniting the moderate insurgency inside Syria encouraged the proliferation of factions such that by … late-2015, as many as 1,500 operationally distinct insurgent groups were operating across Syria,” writes Charles Lister in his new book, The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Evolution of an Insurgency. But not all insurgent groups are created equal.
A recent granular report from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) identified fourteen groups as powerbrokers, which is to say “a group that disproportionately determines the success of military operations against either the Syrian regime or ISIS; is strategically located; and/or plays a leading role in governance.” Another twelve groups were identified as potential powerbrokers: “group[s] that could achieve significant battlefield effects” against Nusra and/or IS “upon receipt of increased outside support”. The report also categorized the rebel groups as either ideologically allied with Nusra, tactically allied with (i.e. separable from) Nusra, or independent of Nusra. Nusra is itself a powerbroker in all provinces except Latakia; three powerbrokers and no potential powerbrokers are ideologically aligned with Nusra.
Broadly conceived, the insurgency has six major groupings:
- Jaysh al-Fatah (Aleppo-Idlib-Hama area, with smaller franchises in Qalamoun and the south)
- Jaysh an-Nasr (Hama)
- Ansar al-Shari’a Operations Room (Aleppo)
- Fatah Halab or Aleppo Conquest (Aleppo)
- Unified Military Command of Eastern Ghouta (Eastern Damascus)
- Southern Front (Quneitra, Deraa, Damascus)
Each of the coalitions are, as collectives, powerbrokers, except Jaysh an-Nasr, which is a potential powerbroker.
Nusra is part of Jaysh al-Fatah and Ansar al-Shari’a. A recent Australian intelligence assessment said that Nusra had between 6,000 and 10,000 fighters, but no good numbers are available.
Two of the powerbrokers allied to Nusra are Ahrar a-Sham, a powerbroker in Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, and Homs (though notably not in Qalamoun, nor East Ghouta and the wider Damascus area, nor Deraa)*, and Jund al-Aqsa, a powerbroker in Idlib with weaker satellite branches in other northern provinces. Ahrar, Jund al-Aqsa, and Nusra lead Jaysh al-Fatah.
Ahrar is the largest Syrian rebel group, with about 15,000 men, according to an estimate by Lister. Ahrar is part of four of the operations rooms—it is not in Jaysh an-Nasr or the Southern Front. Ahrar is a very complicated group, but it is not moderate. Ahrar officially confines its ambitions to within Syria’s borders, but its outlook is too similar to the globalist jihadi-Salafism of al-Qaeda to be actually supported by the West. Ahrar is so large, however, that it will be a part of Syria’s future and has conducted outreach to the West that could be reciprocated, as an end in itself to demonstrate engagement with the broader opposition, or at its most cynical for intelligence purposes.
Jund al-Aqsa, which began as an al-Qaeda front group, is much smaller with little more than 1,000 fighters. Jund al-Aqsa is openly jihadi, and recently withdrew from Jaysh al-Fatah because the coalition is expanding into an area where it might have to confront IS, and Jund al-Aqsa objected to Ahrar making it obligatory to fight IS upon encounter.
The only other insurgent groups of note that are ideologically attached to Nusra are Jabhat Ansar ad-Deen, which operates in Idlib and is made up of most of the ostensibly non-aligned jihadi-Salafists, and Jund a-Sham, a Chechen al-Qaeda group in Latakia. Jabhat Ansar ad-Deen is part of Jaysh al-Fatah, but it is neither a powerbroker nor a potential powerbroker. Jund a-Sham is a powerbroker in Latakia.
All other insurgents of note are either already independent of Nusra, or are separable.
The one wholly independent powerbroker is Kataib Nooradeen az-Zangi, a member of Aleppo Conquest and already in receipt of MOM support. Zangi has 1,500 fighters, according to Lister’s estimate (henceforth all figures are Lister’s unless otherwise specified).
Jaysh al-Fatah contains seven members, and while three—Nusra, Ahrar, and Jund al-Aqsa—are unsupportable, the other four are separable from Nusra, and there are two potential powerbrokers: Ajnad a-Sham (Soldiers of Sham) and Faylaq a-Sham (Sham Legion), the latter having about 4,000 fighters on its own. Jaysh an-Nasr is the weakest coalition but its six constituent groups are all independent of Nusra, two of them—Tajamu Suqour al-Ghab and Liwa Suqour al-Jabal—are potential powerbrokers in their own right, and four of them are already supported by the MOM. An increase in support to Jaysh an-Nasr, and support to the separable groups within Jaysh al-Fatah on condition they sever ties with Nusra could bring together a unified coalition of moderate groups to balance against Nusra in the Idlib-Hama area.
In Aleppo, while Ansar al-Shari’a contains Nusra, Ahrar, and Jabhat Ansar ad-Deen, the other eight members are separable, including Liwa al-Sultan Murad, a Turkomen insurgent group that receives MOM support and is a potential powerbroker. Even more powerful is the separable powerbroker, al-Fawj al-Awal (The First Regiment). Both groups are also part of Aleppo Conquest, as are further separable powerbrokers Jaysh al-Mujahideen (brought together in January 2014 to lead the rebel offensive against IS), the Levant Front (which has 2,500 men even after al-Fawj al-Awal broke away), and Faylaq a-Sham. Aleppo Conquest also contains Division Thirteen, an independent potential powerbroker, and the smaller, independent unit, Kataib Thuwar a-Sham, which has about 1,000 men. Of the thirty-five factions in Aleppo Conquest, only three are ideologically tied to Nusra and only Ahrar has any military significance. The possibility of enforcing a distinction between the jihadi-Salafists and the nationalist and moderate forces in Aleppo is there if policymakers so choose.
Throughout northern Syria, there are also fourteen Free Syrian Army (FSA)-branded groups that “the Islamist-averse United States’ CIA has already ‘vetted’ and assessed as ‘moderate’ enough to receive lethal assistance,” Lister writes. These groups amount to 20,000 fighters. (See the work of Hasan Mustafa for the full list of CIA-vetted opposition groups.) A serious rebel unification effort for the Northern Front, therefore, has a lot to work with.
While much focus has been given to the failed Department of Defence-run overt program, that program never included more than a few hundred people, and failed because it was only intended against IS. The CIA-run program, encompassing more than 40,000 vetted fighters, who are able to use their weapons against both IS and the regime, has been bizarrely absent from the public debate. This lacuna has allowed ill-informed and self-contradictory talking points—that (a) we don’t know who the rebels are and (b) they’re all extremists—to flourish.
The best-known rebel group in Eastern Ghouta is Jaysh al-Islam (JAI), and it is the second largest rebel group in all of Syria, having about 12,500 men. JAI’s forces also operate in the west of Damascus around Qalamoun and in Aleppo, Idlib, and Latakia. Closely connected to Saudi Arabia, JAI is Salafist but not jihadi-Salafist, and its leader, Zahran Alloush, has alternated between viciously sectarian appeals and outreach to the West depending on whether extremism was on the ascendancy. A powerbroker, of course, JAI has weak links to Nusra that are eminently severable—JAI has called on Nusra to disband its infrastructure in Ghouta before now—and JAI has in the meanwhile proven one of the most ferociously anti-IS forces on the ground.
Less public than JAI in East Ghouta is Faylaq ar-Rahman, a separable powerbroker, led by Captain Abdel Nasr Shmeir (a.k.a. Abu Nasr), who has about 3,000 men under his command. Despite being a military defector, Shmeir has tried to de-militarize the governance of East Ghouta.
With Alloush’s history and Ahrar also in the Unified Military Command of Eastern Ghouta, supporting the Command as a whole is problematic. But Faylaq ar-Rahman and the Command’s other member, al-Ittihad al-Islami li-Ajnad a-Sham, which has around 3,000 men throughout Damascus, might be acceptable interlocutors.
The Southern Front remains the most hopeful experiment in what post-Assad governance might look like. Containing fifty-eight groups, including Alwiyat Saif al-Sham (Sword of Syria Brigade), an independent potential powerbroker, and three separable potential powerbrokers, no Southern Front elements are ideologically sympathetic to Nusra and tactical coordination with Nusra is relatively minimal. Southern Front is tightly overseen by the MOC, Jordanian intelligence specifically. Fielding about 25,000 men, all maintaining the FSA branding, the Southern Front has engaged with issues such as civil-military governance and has shown itself willing and able to defeat both Iran’s Shi’ite jihadists and IS infiltrators.
Al-Jabhat al-Asala wal-Tanmiya (The Authenticity and Development Front), which has deep links to the Gulf, fields about 5,000 men throughout Syria, which though concentrated in the Qalamoun-Homs and Aleppo areas are spread too thinly to make it a potential powerbroker in any one of those areas. That said, Asala has proven an important funding route and bulwark against extremism. There are then another two-dozen-plus smaller nationalist and moderate rebel units that have strategic holdings, which account for approximately 10,000 further fighters.
In sum, of the fourteen most powerful insurgent groups in Syria, three are al-Qaeda-affiliated and amount to 15,000 men at the most. Given their power, deciding how to deal with Ahrar a-Sham (15,000) and Jaysh al-Islam (12,500) is something that will have to be worked out by Western governments, but to simplify matters they can be removed from the picture and there are still around 75,000 insurgents in operation who could be coordinated with to defeat the Islamic State. In southern Syria, there are more than 30,000 fighters between the Southern Front, al-Ittihad al-Islami li-Ajnad a-Sham, and Faylaq ar-Rahman. And in western/northern Syria the vetted FSA-branded groups, Asala, The Levant Front, Zangi, and the other, largely Aleppine units add up to another 35,000. The other 10,000 fighters are in these smaller groups of strategic value.
A popular counter-point to this is that the U.S.-led Coalition can rely on the Kurds to defeat IS. A month ago, I pointed out that the West’s near-total reliance for its anti-IS ground force inside Syria on the Democratic Union Party (PYD)-controlled Kurdish armed units inside Syria was a mistake. There are disreputable things about the PYD on its own terms, and the detectable Russia connection that now seems to have made itself evident should have made the Coalition more wary. But more than that is simple demographics: to send Kurds to liberate Arab areas risked a sectarian backlash that redounded to IS’s benefit. The need for forces with local legitimacy to sustainably defeat IS can be seen in the Kurds having cleared IS from less than a province despite a year of trying, backed by Coalition airstrikes, whereas IS still hasn’t returned to the whole of Idlib and Latakia and large parts of Aleppo after the rebels expelled IS (without Coalition air support) in a few weeks at the beginning of 2014.
The rebels, and the Sunni tribes that are the backbone of some rebel units, are the only force capable of sustainably uprooting both IS and al-Qaeda in Syria; to enlist them in that fight the West has to support the rebels in their fight—against Assad. The rebels can be counted on, with the right assurances, to fight IS. The longer-term danger might prove to be al-Qaeda. “Time is short,” Jennifer Cafarella of ISW wrote in December 2014. “While a moderate opposition exists within Syria, its continued reliance on [Nusra] as a partner against Assad will degrade the possible mechanisms whereby those rebels can reject [Nusra’s] influence in the long-term.” For Western policy-makers there are serious legal, as well as political, risks in supporting factions of the Syrian rebellion after al-Qaeda has been allowed this long to embed itself within the insurgency. Delay is not going to make this easier, however. There are rebels already independent of Nusra and many more can be drawn away, but that number is shrinking all the time. Without a clear commitment to Assad’s ouster and meaningfully bolstering the moderate elements of the insurgency, al-Qaeda is marching toward erecting a base of operations that is wholly integrated into the local terrain in Syria from which to wage its global holy war.
[*] Correction: Article initially stated that Ahrar a-Sham was a powerbroker “nationwide”. This is not so.