Syria's rebels won't abandon former al-Qaeda allies

Syria's rebels won't abandon former al-Qaeda allies
5 min read
21 Sep, 2016
Comment: John Kerry's belief that 'moderate' rebels would disentangle themselves from groups deemed to be 'terrorists' shows how little Washington understands the Syrian war, writes Mona Alami.
The US has misunderstood the major role played by JFS within the rebellion [AFP]

When US Secretary of State John Kerry last week brokered a delicate truce agreement on Syria with Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov, he was betting Syrian rebels would dissociate themselves from the powerful Jabhat Fateh Sham - formerly known as the Nusra Front - that would become a target of coordinated attacks by the two countries.

Whether the US-Russian deal was to be successful or not, Kerry's gamble was doomed to fail in both the short and medium term, due to rebel calculations.

In the words of US State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner, Washington was hoping the deal would force the more "moderate" rebels to separate from the formerly al-Qaeda-linked JFS.

Yet, once again, the United States appears to have misunderstood Syrian dynamics, namely the credibility deficit plaguing the current US administration there, the positive impact of the rebranding of the Nusra Front into JFS, and the major role played by JFS within the rebellion.

Repeated failings on the part of the Obama administration only aggravate Syrian opposition mistrust towards the US

As of the seventh day of the ceasefire, the brief lull in violence had been broken more than 200 times. On the eighth day, more than 50 people had been killed and a much-touted humanitarian aid convoy scheduled to arrive in Aleppo had been targeted by pro-regime forces.

At least 15 Red Crescent volunteers had been killed in the strike, as the convoy was set ablaze. The same week, a Washington post article revealed the White House had blocked a bi-partisan deal to sanction the Assad regime for war crimes.

These repeated failings on the part of the Obama administration only aggravate Syrian opposition mistrust towards the US, making it unlikely to comply with any of its recommendations - particularly in regard to dissociating from a powerful player such as JFS.

In a press communiqué, major rebel groups rejected the targeting of JFS. The statement was signed by Army of Islam, the 13 Brigade, Faylak Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh Nasr, Jabha Shamiya, Nur al-Din Al-Zanki, the North Division, and Sukur Jabal.

Read more: Syrian rebel groups reject ceasefire with regime

"The US administration seems also to misunderstand the credit earned by the Nusra front for breaking ties with al-Qaeda," says Sheikh Hassan Dghaim, a cleric for many of Syrian rebel groups.

"It is not a mere change of name as argued by the West, as it resulted in the defection of important hardliners within the organisation, some of whom ended up joining [the Islamic State group]."

Jordanian jihadist Eyad Tobasi, one of the leaders of the Nusra front was among the defectors.

JFS' successful repositioning is starting to resonate within the ranks of Syrian rebels and the wider civilian population, as well as Gulf countries, which may be more inclined to aid the militants now distanced from al-Qaeda.

Another obstacle to the US plan is the successful embedding and enmeshing of JFS within the Syrian rebellion.

JFS is playing the long game in Syria, where it has successfully positioned itself at the vanguard of the people. In the Aleppo battle, JFS fought alongside other rebel groups - spanning from mainstream militias to Islamist rebels, including the Free Syrian army and Ahrar Sham.

The US cannot expect the Syrian opposition to easily divest itself of what has become an effective tool in the fight against the Assad regime

JFS has also built an extensive social service-oriented daawa charity arm in Syria that ensures it widespread support. Besides its charitable actions, JFS is a military force to reckon with - boasting a large and successful fighting force of about 7,000, a force that the Syrian opposition is unlikely to forgo easily in the current military context, in which the Assad regime already has the upper hand.

In addition, JFS militants - unlike IS fighters - are, to a greater extent, comprised of Syrians who are part of the social fabric of cities such as Homs, Hama and Aleppo.

"They are locals who are defending their areas and fighting the occupation of their cities," argues Sheikh Dgheim - who adds that up to 90 percent of JFS is now comprised of Syrians.

These factors make the dissociation of other rebels from JFS unlikely. The US cannot expect the Syrian opposition to easily divest itself of what has become an effective tool in the fight against the Assad regime - despite Kerry's firmer stance.

The US secretary of state said on Wednesday that the ceasefire was not dead, and called for all aircraft over key humanitarian routes in northern Syria to be grounded in order to facilitate aid deliveries - days after the 31-truck relief convoy was hit in an airstrike.

US President Barack Obama's track record has been more than poor when it comes to Syria, and rebels will require solid guarantees from the next administration before they distance themselves from the former Nusra organisation.

Conversely, the opposition's accommodation with JFS will not lead in the near future to any greater consolidation between rebels and the jihadi group.

The much touted indimaj, a complicated task for the diverse rebellion divided along ideological and geographical lines, is even more complicated in the case of the former Nusra Front.

Mona Alami a non-resident fellow with the Atlantic council covering Middle East politics with a special interest in radical organizations. Follow her on Twitter: @monaalami

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