Apr 30, 2015 | 09:16 GMT

6 mins read

In Syria, Support for Rebel Unity Carries Risks

Fighters from a coalition of Islamist forces walk through the Syrian city of Idlib on March 29.
(ZEIN AL-RIFAI/AFP/Getty Images)

The Syrian rebel offensive in Idlib and Hama has unified a number of disparate factions and yielded success against forces loyal to President Bashar al Assad. As the advantages of cooperation became apparent, rebel forces across the country attempted to replicate this model by setting up joint operations rooms across Syria. Foreign backers have responded as well. Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council are moving to coordinate their support of the Syrian rebels. These two trends toward rebel unity and coordination between foreign backers will yield positive results on the battlefield against Damascus. But the unified rebel fronts are inherently unstable and carry the risk of strengthening Islamist groups.

Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United States were the first foreign powers to see major success with a unified rebel force in February 2014 when they encouraged 58 Free Syrian Army units to coalesce into the Southern Front. This front, based in Quneitra and Daraa provinces, shored up both rebel operations on the ground and foreign backing through a coordination center in Jordan. The Southern Front effort was particularly successful because the Free Syrian Army is uniquely amenable to foreign sponsorship.

With the Southern Front success as a model, rebel backers then sought to deploy similar methods in the north. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and to a lesser extent the United States all participated in these efforts. The composition of rebel forces in the north, however, differed from the south in that it was dominated by Islamists and jihadists including Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. The power and hostility of these groups made unifying non-Islamist and non-jihadist forces difficult. Early U.S. and Saudi attempts to channel support to the Free Syrian Army's Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionary Front units with Turkish help collapsed when Jabhat al-Nusra defeated these groups. Turkish and Qatari initiatives to unify their efforts behind Jabhat al-Shamiya also yielded early success but fell into disarray as varying ideologies fractured the group.

While foreign backers rolled out unification efforts, Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra were moving to root out rival Free Syrian Army factions in Idlib province. These two Islamist groups had already proven their prowess in the December 2014 battle of Wadi al-Daif. Following this high-profile victory, numerous other regional Islamist factions either integrated completely with Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra or followed their leadership. These Islamist groups established the Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) joint operations room and proceeded to take Idlib city from loyalist forces in less than four days in late March 2015. The battle showcased the power of unification efforts once again.

The battle also marked a turning point in the north. Free Syrian Army units across the region, though ideologically at odds with Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, effectively fell under Jaish al-Fatah's overall battlefield strategy during the battle in Idlib and Hama. Jabhat al-Nusra has in turn diverged from the belligerent attitude of the Islamic State by agreeing to work alongside these Free Syrian Army units, overlooking their U.S. sponsorship. At the moment, U.S. and Saudi-backed Free Syrian Army units are fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria's al Qaeda's franchise, prioritizing their mutual opposition to al Assad.

Mixed Results of Foreign Support

Although the Free Syrian Army and other rebels are not entirely beholden or directed by foreign entities, there is no doubt that external support has contributed significantly to their success. Foreign backers, especially the Gulf Cooperation Council, Turkey and the United States, have helped in several ways. They have been able to increase deliveries of anti-tank guided missiles as well as to supply more basic items such as uniforms, rifle ammunition, medical kits and communication gear. Free Syrian Army units are mostly equipped with weapons and supplies seized from loyalist stockpiles. Shipments from abroad, however, have shored up some key rebel deficiencies, particularly as they contend with government forces supported by tanks, artillery and aircraft.

The Southern Front and other rebel factions in the north also receive considerable intelligence support from the Gulf Cooperation Council, Turkey and the United States. This support helps to improve the rebels' situational awareness and enhance battlefield planning. Combined with their growing combat experience and masterful use of terrain, they have managed to successfully outfight the government in crucial battles in Daraa and Idlib, even alongside Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra.

The problem for many foreign sponsors, however, is that the success of their preferred rebel factions is not translating into dominance over the rebel landscape. For example, foreign backers forced the Southern Front to denounce Jabhat al-Nusra. The group complied. Shortly thereafter, though, Southern Front troops fought alongside these Islamist groups during the battles in the Lajat area of Daraa. Jabhat al-Nusra is small, but also a uniquely powerful force in Daraa and Quneitra that cannot be ignored.

This conundrum has been troublesome for the United States, Jordan and particularly Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has opted to prioritize the battle against al Assad despite the risks of strengthening Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. The first evidence of this decision emerged when Saudi King Salman ascended to the throne and Saudi Arabia subsequently moved to improve coordination with Qatar and Turkey.

Both Qatar and Turkey have close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and affiliated outfits such as Syria's Tawhid Brigade, which Saudi Arabia opposes ideologically. But according to reports, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have begun to maximize their coordination to support northern rebels. For its part, Saudi Arabia will not oppose continued Turkish and Qatari support for Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated units and other rebel outfits it opposes. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey also will not stand in the way of rebel collaboration with Jabhat al-Nusra, even by the rebels they have backed. This development has already occurred in the battles in Idlib and Hama.

In return for Saudi Arabia's change in stance, Turkey and Qatar will likely join in bolstering Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam), a powerful Islamist group in and around Damascus with close links to Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Zahran Alloush, leader of Jaish al-Islam, recently met with Saudi and Turkish officials in Turkey.

Diminishing Returns

A collaborative effort by foreign sponsors to support rebels will lead to greater rebel success. It may even help reduce rebel infighting in the short run by encouraging more rebel mergers. This tactic, however, is not sustainable in the long run. At the moment the rebel factions have a common enemy in Damascus and the Islamic State, incentivizing them to collaborate closely on the battlefield. If the government collapses, if not before then, the ideological and systemic differences between the rebel factions would upend any alliances of convenience. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are undoubtedly aware of this fact.

Rebel disunity, however, is not the greatest risk. Foreign backers hope that rebel collaboration will strengthen the Free Syrian Army and the less extreme Islamist factions in order to counterbalance Jabhat al-Nusra. There have even calls for Jabhat al-Nusra to abandon its links with al Qaeda. Jabhat al-Nusra has not shown any indication that it will comply, especially as it continues to grow in power on the battlefield. The best chance to moderate Jabhat al-Nusra is through its close ally Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist faction also opposed to a democratic system in Syria. Even then such a prospect is far from certain.

The rebels have drastically increased their effectiveness by temporarily setting aside their differences and presenting a unified front. So have their backers in the Gulf Cooperation Council and Turkey, who have sought to combine their efforts in support of the rebels. These two parallel trends will continue to pay dividends on the battlefield against loyalist forces. But there are risks. Success could give free reign to Jabhat al-Nusra. Moreover, cooperation is unlikely to last, for both the rebels and their foreign backers, because of inherently different ideologies and interests.

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