In a joint statement released on 5 October, 41 Syrian rebel factions condemned the “Russian military aggression against the Syrian people,” describing it as a “genuine occupation of the land even if some sides claim that it was done on official request from the Assad regime.” The statement added that the Russian airstrikes in Homs province, which left “approximately 50 martyrs from the civilians,” should be considered Russia’s first war crime in Syria. The statement went on to describe “any forces occupying the land of our beloved homeland” as “legitimate targets,” and repeated the standard mantra of commitment to Syria’s territorial unity, opposing any sort of “partition project,” while concluding with a call on “all armed revolutionary factions” to “unite ranks” and put aside differences.
The language of the statement, especially in referring to Syria as watanina al-habib (Arabic for “our beloved homeland”), excludes groups with transnational jihadist agendas. The signatories include familiar mainstream groups whose vision is confined to the national framework, such as Jaish al-Islam (based primarily in Damascus), Ahrar al-Sham (arguably the single most powerful rebel group in Syria), the Saudi-backed quietist Salafi coalition known as the Authenticity and Development Front and the southern FSA Yarmouk Army. But does this statement actually represent greater unity among these factions? Or will the Russian intervention push rebels toward jihadi factions like Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra – as is widely feared?
The answer is that the prospect for real mergers among these signatories is marginal. Whatever impressions of political unity dealings in Turkey and joint online statements might convey, groups on the ground are localized and tend to be divided. The case of Jabhat al-Shamiyya, one of the signatories to the statement, is emblematic of the problem.
Jabhat al-Shamiyya was originally conceived at the end of 2014 as a merger of five major Aleppo rebel coalitions – the Islamic Front in Aleppo, the Fastaqim Kama Umirt grouping, the Authenticity and Development Front, Jaish al-Mujahideen and the Nour al-Din al-Zinki Movement. However, the alliance eventually dissolved. It recently reformed, albeit with none of the original member components remaining whole. The Islamic Front in Aleppo is really just Ahrar al-Sham. Today Jabhat al-Shamiyya is primarily composed of ex-Islamic Front affiliates in the north Aleppo countryside and Aleppo city, and is playing the main role in resisting a push by Islamic State toward the towns of Marea and Azaz on the city’s northern outskirts. All of the aforementioned individual groups are separate signatories to the statement. Indeed, even in the face of other existential threats like ISIS, actual unity has been elusive. Further south, the primary concern of the powerful and authoritarian Jaish al-Islam is to consolidate its influence at the expense of other factions, not to engage in mergers with compromises in power-sharing under a new structure.
In fact, the main mergers that have taken place recently are among jihadi factions, as ostensibly ‘third-way’ groups have increasingly decided to throw in their lot with Jabhat al-Nusra, two cases being Jaish al-Muhajireen wa al-Ansar – once linked to the Caucasus Emirate under the Caucasian leadership of Salah ad-Din al-Shishani, but now a primarily Syrian and Arab group led by a Saudi – and Katibat al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, which is an Uzbek jihadi group that has always had close relations with Jabhat al-Nusra. Even so, it would be sensationalist to presume that amid all the different factions, the jihadists are suddenly going to gain majority support.
Yes, the appeal of the jihadist narrative has been undeniably bolstered of late, particularly with Russian talk of a “holy war” that has given energy to narratives of a new Crusader war on Islam, but instead of actual mergers and large swellings of ranks, one should think of much closer military cooperation between factions the West wants to support and Islamists and jihadists more generally. Already one can see hints of this development in the widespread praise for CIA-backed FSA factions in the north that have used their U.S.-supplied TOW missiles to help push back against the recent ground offensive led by the Assad government and backed by Russian air power to the north of Hama city. This comes as part of new joint operations in the north Hama countryside involving coordination between these factions and jihadists like Jabhat al-Nusra and Jund al-Aqsa. A similar joint operation was announced earlier this month in the rebel enclaves of the northern Homs countryside, another target of Russian airstrikes.
From a Western perspective, the overall trend could be problematic if the goal is to cultivate supported factions as viable separate forces not working with jihadists. Such deepened cooperation could end up further enabling jihadists, similar to the way cooperation between Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra has significantly empowered the latter in Idlib province, especially with the Jaish al-Fatah coalition that helped drive out government forces from all major localities in the province.
Distancing favored factions from those deemed too radical is becoming much harder to justify, and the biggest loser in the current state of play is undoubtedly the West since there seems to be no decisive response to the Russian intervention beyond some pro forma words of condemnation. Western credibility among the wider Syrian opposition will be further eroded, and the Gulf States and Turkey will take matters further into their own hands. Western influence has surely reached an all-time low.