In northern Syria, in Idlib and western Aleppo province, there is a new movement for unification within the rebel fighters. This new development has political logic: on the one hand, there are those who have participated directly or indirectly in the political process, in Geneva, and more recently in the Kazak capital Astana. Among them are groups that receive financial and military aid from foreign countries, including the US and Turkey, and take part in Turkish armies’ “Operation Euphrates Shield” inside Syria. The biggest formation here is “Ahrar ul-Sham al-Islamiya” (The Islamic Freedom Fighters of Levant), to which many smaller groups joined, including: Suqur al-Sham, Tajamu’ Fastaqim, Syrian Revolutionaries Battalion, Islam Army (in Idlib), and few other smaller Free Syrian Army (FSA) formations.
This later unification is the result of fighting that erupted in Idlib, on January 20, when the Jabhat Fath ul-Sham (JFS, ex-al-Qaeda) fighters attacked several positions of the Ahrar. Fighting spread further when Nureddin al-Zinki fighters joined JFS attacked the Army of Mujahedeen, as well as Suqur al-Sham. A week after the fighting started, on January 28 a new formation was announced, this time labelled Levant Liberation Organization (LLO, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham), including JFS, Nureddin al-Zinki, Liwa ul-Haq, al-Sunna army, and a dozen of other hard-line formation.
The recent fighting is not surprising: a large number of armed groups with contradictory interests and ideological subtleties cannot coexist long time on the same territory. What is unprecedented is the fact that the Syrian uprising of 2011 produced so many diverse armed groups, that continue to be splintered now over five years later; according to one estimate there were 1’500 distinct rebel groups in 2015. This multitude of armed groups cannot be explained by the will of foreign sponsors: eventually, they are a handful between Turkey, Gulf countries and the West. Rather, the explanation is in the nature of the armed rebellion itself: it is largely composed of local, village youth who took up arms for self-defence, plus the notorious jihadi groups mentioned above, ISIS and al-Qaeda. In other words, the Syrian armed rebellion is not fighting for a new and different Syria; rather, it is on the one hand local self-defence, and on the other ill-defined yet global jihad.
The January fighting is the continuation of long list of clashes between various rebel groups. In October last year violent clashes erupted between Ahrar and Jund al-Aqsa, a jihadi group. The contradictions were later evident in November and December inside the besieged areas of Aleppo, when infighting between various groups accelerated their defeat. More recently, on January 19, US bombers hit a training camp used by JFS and al-Zinki group, killing over one hundred militants. JFS accused rival rebel factions of having passed details of the training camp to the US military.
The political context is equally important. The recent polarization is taking place on the ground while diplomatic efforts are accelerating, this time as a result of Russian-Turkish understanding. Although the Astana meeting did not give any concrete results, yet it has put the fighting battalions in front of a choice: to support the negotiations or reject them. JFS considers the negotiators as “traitors” giving up the “revolution” and surrendering to the Syrian regime.
More important is the shift of the Turkish position; with its shift in 2016 and agreement with Russia, it has weakened the coherence of the Syrian rebel groups, decreased their political platform form overthrowing Bashar al-Asad administration to at best becoming its junior partner, and using them as auxiliary forces for its zone of influence in northern Syria against ISIS and Kurdish guerrillas.
Curiously, the Russian demand during the Lavrov-Kerry negotiations, to separate the “moderate” rebel fighters from al-Qaeda, is now taking place on the ground.
The questions posing now:
1- Will the polarization into two major blocks, one centred around al-Qaeda, the other around Ahrar, become permanent? In Syria, rebel formations “united” on paper so many times before, yet each time falling apart soon after.
2- Will the in-fighting between the two blocks continue, leading to further advances of the Syrian Army and its allies, as it happened in Aleppo, and more recently in Barada Valley west of Damascus?
3- What will be the future relations between al-Qaeda and ISIS, who fought a fraternal war in 2013-15? Will the two major jihadi organizations, one dominant in eastern Syria, the other in the north-west, cooperate once again?
Curiously, al-Zinki, one of the groups that joined the ex-al-Qaeda, once was “vetted” by the CIA and received money from them, as well as TOW guided anti-tank missiles, sent by Saudi Arabia. Yet, it was put out of the programme for its abuses of kidnappings and beheadings, most notoriously of a 12 year old Palestinian boy taken prisoner in 2016. While the bulk of al-Zinki was joining al-Qaeda, another part of the group that was participating in the operations with the Turkish army decided to join Ahrar al-Sham.
In a word, the fight taking place is not about ideology, nor about politics. “A la guerre, comme à la guerre” the French saying goes.