Syrian rebels face fight on at least three fronts

Syrian rebels face fight on at least three fronts
Comment: As the US increases support to Kurds fighting IS, 'de-escalation zones' could be used to obliterate opposition forces who are fighting against both Assad and al-Qaeda-linked fighters.
6 min read
12 May, 2017
Syria's rebels face a lose-lose-lose proposition [Anadolu]

As attention turns to the US coalition's escalating fight against the Islamic State group and increased support to Kurds, many neglect the ongoing rebels' fight against militants that has defined the post-Aleppo battle landscape.

Despite this, the recent Russia-brokered ceasefire deal specifically allows regime forces to continue to target "IS and al-Qaeda" targets inside "de-escalation zones", leading many to speculate that regime allies will continue to use militants as a pretext to continue to attack rebels.

Rebels on the forefront of extremism

The deal focuses on the opposition stronghold areas of Idlib and parts of the surrounding North Aleppo, Latakia and Hama countryside, East Ghouta, and parts of North Homs and Daraa where there is negligable IS presence - and many rebels themselves are now pre-occupied with fighting various manifestations of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the militant group formerly allied with al-Qaeda known as the Nusra Front.  

Syria's mainstream Free Syrian Army, made up of numerous coalitions scattered around Syria, has long been on the forefront against both Nusra and IS, as have other prominant rebel groups who dominate these areas.

Following the fall of Aleppo, the Turkey-backed Ahrar al-Sham has been embroiled in fighting against a Nusra offshoot, rebranded as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, in Idlib.  

Since the fight, smaller rebel groups have been divided between siding with Ahrar al-Sham, or Tahrir al-Sham - with the majority siding with the former.  

Jaysh al-Islam, a fighting force of around 17,000 predominantly backed by Saudi Arabia, was long at the forefront of defending Damascus against IS, and is now most active in east Ghouta, where its fighters have been clashing with former Nusra militants in recent weeks. 
The Southern Front in Daraa has mainly been active against fighting an IS faction going by the name of Khalid ibn-al-Walid since they were ordered to halt attacks against Assad in January 2016

As Bellingcat pointed out, the group has now adopted a more nationalist FSA branding, moving away from its Islamist image.  

The Southern Front in Daraa has mainly been active against fighting an IS faction going by the name of Khalid ibn-al-Walid since they were ordered to halt attacks against Assad in January 2016.

Due to these ongoing battles, opposition groups have attracted criticism that they are preoccupied in fighting jihadists - and are therefore neglecting the struggle against the regime. 

They have faced accusations that they are compromised by their backers, and have betrayed the revolution - notably during the battle of Aleppo, during which Turkish-backed forces were in the city of al-Bab and Jarablus fighting IS.

Such sentiments have reportedly led some to support or join jihadist groups.  

For Syrian opposition forces, this is a lose-lose-lose situation; they are under attack from militant groups, while being under attack from regime and her allies, and in turn losing local and regional popular support for failing to be militant enough.

Russia is not unaware of these turmoils, which, along with attempts to reconcile with Turkey, could be a factor in the Russian Ministry of Defence branding many groups "moderate". Yet this is likely to be little more than a gesture. 

Despite Moscow's brutality and constant violations, Russia still has an interest in maintaining diplomatic relations with the US, as well as with other global powers, and its troops and airforce are under direct control; the new de-escalation plan was likely an attempt to regain control over the Syria crisis through the pretext of compromise following the US strike on a regime airbase last month. 

Early signs suggest this tactic is working, with the US and Russia having already reinstated their airforce coordination.

Iran-backed Shia militias have no such diplomatic considerations; a previous Russian attempt at stability during the Astana agreement was scuppered by militia violations in east Ghouta. And rhetoric from Trump would suggest hostility, with Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif warning the US against military action on the Jordanian border.   

De-escalation or displacement?

The de-escalation zones also reflect the continuing ethnic displacement of Sunni citizens into Idlib - the key opposition stronghold that, at best, could become the next Gaza Strip, complete with massive refugee camps, competing militant factions, bombing and blockades.  

This ethnic cleansing of Sunnis - key to Iran's objectives in Syria - is the real conspiracy behind the carving-up-of-Syria - as oppose to theories involving Qatar and gas, often perpetuated by misguided leftists.  

This "demographic change on a sectarian basis" also fuels recruitment to Syrian Sunni jihadist groups.
The worst case scenario for Idlib is the obliteration of the opposition and a massacre of civilians, again under the pretext of harbouring militants

One might note that this plan also involves the lesser displacement of Shia residents, inconveniently, in Idlib, with Iran recently brokering a deal for injured Nusra fighters from Barza and Yarmouk neighbourhoods to enter Idlib in exchange for citizens from Fuaa and Kefraya to move to Aleppo, as part of the "four cities agreement".

The worst case scenario for Idlib is the obliteration of the opposition and a massacre of civilians, again under the pretext of harbouring militants, many of whom have actually been sent there.

The south of the province in particular could face a terrible onslaught, during which there would be no differentiation between Nusra-allied groups and Ahrar al-Sham. Considering the horrific recent chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun that killed dozens of children we should all be fearful of such a prospect.  

However, East Ghouta, home to around 690,000 civilians, will likely be next to be "depopulated", due to its proximity to Damascus. 

The de-escalation has also served to paralyse opposition forces in the area while the regime attacks neighbouring Qabaloun - left off the "deescalation list". Again, an attack on opposition forces and civilians will be "justified" by the small presence of former Nusra militants who rebels have been tackling.  

Kurdish allies

Long neglecting anti-Assad rebels, the international community's continued chosen allies in the fight against militants is, instead, the Kurds. Yet the PYD's condemnation of the de-escalation plan as "sectarian" may foreshadow potential future conflicts, as it demonstrates their dissatisfaction with their designated region. 

Should the Kurdish-dominated forces succeed in taking Raqqa and gas-rich Deir ez-Zour from IS, will they be content to hand such a huge area to the regime after IS falls? Kurdish forces' refusal to leave Manbij after taking the city from IS would suggest not, with the US preventing Turkish efforts to retake the area.   

While rebel groups tackle extremists within "de-escalation zones", their efforts largely go un-noticed, and it's likely attacks will continue against the opposition and civilians, denouncing them as extremists. Instead, the coalition continues to throw their weight behind Kurds - a move that is likely to further exasperate ethnic tensions, prolong and worsen an awful war. 

Follow Imogen Lamb on Twitter: @InnogenLamb

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.