Syrian rebel groups await formation of a Saudi-Turkish alliance

Syrian rebel groups await formation of a Saudi-Turkish alliance
Analysis: Reports that an announcement of a Saudi-Turkish agreement on Syria was imminent have set in motion a number of significant developments on the battleground.
4 min read
21 April, 2015
Zahran Alloush, leader of Jaysh al-Islam, arrives in Istanbul for talks (Anadolu)
The leader of the most powerful rebel group operating around Damascus, Zahran Alloush, has arrived in Istanbul as regional efforts to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad intensify.

“[Alloush] will hold meetings with rebels and other personalities, and their goal is to lift the siege on civilians in the Ghouta and southern Damascus,” Jaysh al-Islam spokesperson Islam Alloush told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

However, Alloush's trip cannot be isolated from a potential Saudi-Turkish alliance that is expected to shift the balance of power in Syria in favour of the rebels.

Alloush is not alone in the attempt to reap the fruits of a regional anti-Assad momentum.

Along with Alloush, rebels in Syria have been revived by the news of a long-sought Saudi-Turkish alliance that will seek to unify anti-Assad efforts.

Each rebel group is seeking tangible victories to back its plea for the purported regional alliance's support. In that pursuit, coalitions are being dissolved and rivalries among rebels are intensifying. 

Jabha al-Shamiya dissolves itself

Championed by the West as the "moderate" faction of the rebels, Hazm movement was exclusively supplied with American TOW anti-tank missiles and given special training.

But major disputes and kidnappings between the US-sponsored Hazm and al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra led to clashes between the two.

On March 1 2015, Jabha al-Shamiya in Aleppo (the Levant Front), which is a major rebel coalition that Hazm was part of, stood neutral as al-Nusra took over Hazm's headquarters in Aleppo, leading to Hazm's official dissolution.

Supported by the spoils of war with Hazm, Al-Nusra has had an upper hand in the battle against Assad regime and his allies, securing Aleppo and reclaiming Qalamoun.

But as news of a Saudi-Turkish alliance emerged, Jabha al-Shamiya announced its dissolution.

In the statement, the northern rebel's coalition stated that it is no longer a single faction, but military cooperation between the separate groups will persist until further notice.

The coalition claims that the reasons behind dissolution are longstanding issues regarding management of their areas of control, as well as financial difficulties.

This reflects the rebels' concern that a Saudi-led support would favour groups that are not directly allied with al-Qaeda affiliates.

Concerns are not merely drived by rebels' interests, but also by civilian worries on the possibility of al-Nusra Front taking control of Dara'a.

Under that pretence, Ahrar al-Sham leader Abu Jaber said in an interview on al-Jazeera last week that al-Nusra Front relationship with al-Qaeda "endangers Syrian people". 

Rivalries among rebels

For the battle of Idlib, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) announced last month a new coalition with al-Nusra Front and others under the name of Jaish al-Fath.

But the rebels feared a repetition of Raqqa's scenario in Idlib, this time orchestrated by al-Nusra rather than IS. The concern was that al-Nusra overrides the rest of the rebels and announces Idlib as an emirate facing Raqqa's caliphate.

In a tense environment, a commander of Ahrar al-Sham group operating in Idlib, Hossam Abu Baker, survived an assassination attempt last week.

In the same week, commanders Abu Abd al-Rahman, Abd al-Wahed Joma'a, and Raed al-Abdo were killed in Aleppo.

Rebel groups accused each other of the killings, each fearing that the other is trying to kill the credible leaders that can bring regional support to the group.

Tiny victories, big money

Before the awaited regional alliance is formed and distribution of support is decided upon, rebels are trying to show their ability in fighting IS on one hand and pro-Assad forces on the other.

Rebels in Aleppo have been trying to use the momentum gained in Idlib to advance into the old city and corner the regime in Aleppo International Airport and Sheikh Najjar industrial city in the northeast.

However, divisions and dissolutions in the northern front among rebel groups allowed regime forces to stand firm and engage in an exhaustive exchange of shelling that drained the rebels.

This is accompanied with arbitrary airstrikes by the Syrian regime on the residents of rebel-held areas in Aleppo and Idlib, pressuring rebels to react to humanitarian crisis.

In the south, the FSA announced earlier this month its dissasociation from al-Nusra, claiming exclusive representation of the Syrian revolution.

This week, the regime launched an unpredictable attack on Busr al-Harir, when rebels were tentatively expecting the attack to be carried out from the outskirts of Quneitra in the southwest.

The attack followed hundreds of artillery shells on Busr al-Harir and the rest of the northeast of Dara'a. The sudden attack forced the FSA and Ahrar al-Sham to call on al-Nusra for urgent support.

Through al-Nusra reinforcement, the rebels have been able to resist the offensive in the south, with minor regime advancement that can lead to cutting the rebels' supply route between Dara'a and Suweida.

Rebels are also inclined to show their ability to push IS back before Riyadh and Ankara draw their opposition support strategy.

In that pursuit, Jaysh al-Islam preceded their leader's visit to Turkey by storming IS headquarters in Qaboun and Barzeh, east of Damascus, with the support of Ousood al-Sharqiyya brigade from the FSA.

The Syrian people bear the brunt
Prominent activists such as Razan Zeitouni, Wael and Nazem Hmede are allegedely detained by Alloush's Jaysh al-Islam. Several Syrian activists are calling on Ankara to pressure Alloush to release them.

The civil society in Syria, especially in rebel-held areas, are dragged into a counter-revolutionary power contest among rebels themselves.

This comes as the civilian toll rises as battles intensify and Assad, unencumbered, continue to bomb residential areas out of his control.