There has been an unprecedented wave of assassinations, and assassination attempts, in Idlib, beginning on 26 April and lasting about two days, targeting mainstream, Free Syrian Army-branded rebels, opposition activists, and journalists, as well as Islamist and jihadist insurgents.
A series of clashes broke out on 19 January between al-Qaeda’s rebranded Syrian branch, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), and its heretofore close ally and portal into the Syrian rebellion, Ahrar al-Sham. By 23 January, JFS had expanded its targets, engaging in hostilities with mainstream rebel groups in the “Greater Idlib” area, and specifically trying—and succeeding—in dismantling the positions of Jaysh al-Mujahideen, a moderate group, west of Aleppo. The crisis continued to escalate, forcing many groups to merge with Ahrar al-Sham for protection, until 28 January, when a JFS-led merger was announced under the banner of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), or the Syrian Liberation Committee. HTS announced a ceasefire, and since then individuals and groups—including a significant number from Ahrar—have given allegiance to HTS. This radical reshaping of revolutionary dynamics in northern Syria has undoubtedly created antibodies going forward against al-Qaeda that could be capitalized on by the international community, but the present situation is highly favourable to al-Qaeda. Continue reading
Whatever pretence there was left in Syria’s “cessation of hostilities” (CoH)—which was never more than a reduction in hostilities—enacted at midnight on 26/27 February is now at an end. Russia and the regime of Bashar al-Assad have never ceased attempts to militarily weaken the armed opposition and escalated with a concerted campaign of aerial bombardment against Aleppo City on 22 April. The insurgency fully mobilized in response on 5 May with a major offensive south of the city. The dynamics set in place by Russia’s intervention—the bolstering of the Assad regime and the strengthening of extremist forces in the insurgency—have been in full view with this latest crisis, as has the longer-term trend of the United States moving toward the position of Assad, Russia, and especially Iran in Syria. Continue reading
Article published at NOW Lebanon
Over the last six weeks the regime of Bashar al-Assad—which by this point means in most areas Iranian-run ground forces and Russian air power—have made territorial gains in northern Syria that threaten the existence of the armed opposition in the area. This threat has been compounded by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and allies, which have also drawn on Russian airstrikes to attack the rebellion in the same areas. The U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS) has made the PYD its main proxy inside Syria—the only force that can call in coalition airstrikes. This policy was obviously flawed given the view of the PYD by necessary anti-ISIS allies like Turkey and the demographic realities of ISIS, which require Sunni Arabs to be able to police their area, and ensure that ISIS begins to look like a protector of Sunnis if Kurds occupy Arab areas; the PYD now attacking the crucial anti-ISIS demographic in alliance with the regime underlines that fact. Continue reading
In the last month, the Islamic State (IS) has been waging a concerted campaign to shut down all independent sources of information emanating from its statelet. IS’s focus has been on Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), an activist group that began in April 2014 in IS’s de facto capital in northern Syria. RBSS has published information—including pictures and videos, much of it via Twitter—on the crimes of the “caliphate”. IS has now murdered at least five RBSS journalists and activists, two of them on foreign soil in Turkey, plus the father of one of RBSS’s founders. (The sixth case, also in Turkey, is more murky.) The suppression of independent media by IS is necessary to allow the group to maintain social control of the areas it rules and to sustain the narrative that it is building utopia on earth, which attracts in the foreign fighters that help IS maintain and expand its territory.
A version of this article was published at Middle East Eye.
The Syrian opposition is meeting in Saudi Arabia between December 8 and 10 in an attempt to create a unified structure that can credibly sit across the table from the Bashar al-Assad regime in the internationally-organised peace talks in Vienna, and make a binding commitment on the path forward for Syria. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
An effort is underway, led by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, mediated by Qatar, to unify the largest Syrian Islamist rebel brigades. With these regional powers now seemingly reading from the same script after years of internecine competition that has fractured the Syrian rebellion, there is also talk of a direct Saudi-Turkish intervention in Syria to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. While increased support to the Syrian insurgency from the Gulf and Turkey is already arriving, a direct intervention seems unlikely, though not, in the current context after the Saudi-led coalition went it alone in Yemen, impossible. Continue reading
After an insurgent offensive began on March 24, Idlib City fell on March 29, making it only the second—of Syria’s fourteen—provincial capitals to slip from the control of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the last one being Raqqa City on March 4, 2013. The regime has been on borrowed time in Idlib City since Wadi al-Deif to the south, near Maarat an-Numan, fell in mid-December.
In a scene reminiscent of Raqqa—and indeed the fall of Baghdad—a statue of Hafez al-Assad was destroyed. The insurgents broke open some secret prisons, while finding that in a final act of needless cruelty the regime had murdered other prisoners in the cells before retreating.
An operations room, Jaysh al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), organised this offensive, and is composed of: Faylaq a-Sham (Sham Legion), Liwa al-Haq, Ajnad a-Sham, Jaysh al-Sunna, Ahrar a-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa (JAA), and al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat an-Nusra. Continue reading