August 19, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Syria: Moderate Opposition and the Imperiled FSA

• The ‘Islamic State’ will look to advance elsewhere to offset its retreats around Mosul

• It is already making gains against rebel-held positions in Syria around Aleppo

• The Free Syrian Army is in danger of losing its last footholds in Syria

• If this means the collapse of the ‘moderate’ opposition, it will be bad for everyone, the Assad regime included.

As the world watches Iraq, there are also critical developments in Syria; and once more the so-called Islamic State (IS) is at the heart of the action. Although there is no similar cause and effect, the terrorists of IS are rather like a balloon that expands in one area as it contracts in another. In order to claim that it is advancing more than retreating, the State will try to balance the loss of the Mosul Dam and territory around it with significant gains elsewhere. It is likely to increase its activity in both southern Iraq and northwestern Syria.

In the latter case, if IS is successful, the consequences for the Syrian opposition and the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad in general will be severe. At present, the groups that still make up the Free Syrian Army (FSA) preserve a toehold to the north and west of Aleppo and inside Aleppo itself. In Aleppo they face crushing bombardment by regime barrel bombs designed to divide their area in the east of the city into small sections, which can then be overrun by ground forces that are already pressing in towards them. There is little that the opposition can do except slow the Assad regime's advance while they hope for divine or US intervention, neither of which is likely.

Outside the city, the FSA and aligned groups face the steady approach of IS on their major stronghold of Marea, a town to the north of Aleppo, and Azaz, which is close to a crossing point into Turkey and thus an important supply point. Already IS has captured several small rebel-held villages in the border area. Its advance appears inexorable and nationalist rebel defeat just a matter of time.

But what happens next? Certainly, IS may turn its attention to the Syrian regime and try to prevent the fall of Eastern Aleppo, or even attempt to recapture other parts of the city. But that is not the same as the FSA holding on. The loss of Aleppo—to either enemy—would be of huge strategic and symbolic significance. Its capture has been the signal achievement of the rebels to date, giving hope to their supporters both inside and outside the country that they could achieve the critical mass and momentum necessary to force out the Assad regime.

Those days now seem far off. And if the rebels essentially control no territory within Syria, there is even less reason for the regime to consider their demands. Bashar al-Assad will then only have the Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the self-styled Islamic State as his enemies, making it hard for anyone to contradict his argument that the opposition is run by terrorists. Those members of the international community that have supported the rebels will be left with no one to back except for the small units currently receiving training and arms, which are not politically credible as representatives of the Syrian people who oppose al-Assad, nor militarily credible as a threat to his hold on power. Similarly, the new United Nations special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, will find it hard to pursue his peace mission if the regime is the sole Syrian representative at the negotiating table.

Syria needs a coherent, credible, and representative opposition to help steer it towards a future that might give it some chance of recovery from three years of civil war, the displacement of some 10 million of its 22 million citizens, and the destruction of much of its infrastructure. Without that, the war will carry on—both sides of the border—and the Middle East will remain victim to the many strains and stresses that are slowly but surely pulling it apart.

Neither the Syrian government nor the Iraqi government is likely to destroy IS without a great deal of regional and international cooperation, and even then the outcome would not be a restoration of the status quo ante. But in any case, there are too many barriers in the way of everyone lining up against the extremists. It is no more likely that the Gulf countries that have been so opposed to al-Assad would support IS against him, than that the Western States that currently express so much concern about IS would support al-Assad.

The lack of an opposition is also a problem for al-Assad. He needs a negotiating partner with whom he can isolate IS from the debate about the future of the country. The Islamic State is not part of the civil war; it is taking advantage of the chaos to pursue its own agenda. But just as most Syrians may despise IS, there are also a great number that equally despise al-Assad. If it is just left to a slugfest between them, a lot more will die and nothing positive will emerge.


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