As Syria continues to fragment along sectarian lines, groups competing for political influence will proliferate. Although numerous political and militant groups are administering areas no longer under regime control, the group that is able to control and secure supply lines in order to provide basic goods and services will hold considerable influence after Syrian President Bashar al Assad leaves power. Thus far, the Salafist-jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra appears to be one of the most successful in doing so.
Jabhat al-Nusra has proved to be successful and dominant on the Syrian battlefield, evidence of its military influence and expertise, qualities required to control and secure important state infrastructure such as hydroelectric dams, grain factories and oil fields. This capability has equipped al-Nusra to be the most adept group in providing basic goods and services. And as one of the most successful opposition outfits, Jabhat al-Nusra also has sufficient manpower to sustain such operations. In addition to its military expertise, al-Nusra is providing protection to cities and governing various towns across the country. Although there have been reports of al-Nusra attempting to impose elements of Sharia in some areas, the group more commonly assumes the role of guarantor of key staples such as fuel, oil, flour and bread.
In Aleppo, al-Nusra does not take on administrative or governmental roles, but the group is working to establish itself militarily and to distribute bread in and around the city. In November 2012, Aleppo's four grain compounds were shut down due to a lack of fuel for generators and a lack of grains, exacerbating the bread shortage. Although the Free Syrian Army and the local Aleppo administrative council helped re-open two grain compounds, more bakeries did not re-open until December, when Jabhat al-Nusra took over the protection of all four compounds and provided fuel to them.Similarly, in Mayadin, located 45 kilometers (about 28 miles) southeast of Deir el-Zour, Jabhat al-Nusra took control of the al-Ward oil and natural gas field and the local grain silos in late 2012. According to local residents, al-Nusra is able to use and provide oil locally as well as sell crude oil to local government authorities in Deir el-Zour.
In other areas, such as the city of Saraqeb in Idlib province, al-Nusra has begun securing the arrival of wheat and now serves as the predominant military force. Rather than compete with the many groups vying for political, administrative and security control of Saraqeb, al-Nusra assumes low-profile yet critical roles in securing resources.
Although the level of influence Jabhat al-Nusra plays in each city varies, for the most part the group tries not to assume too dominant a role. Many of al-Nusra's fighters are Syrians who crossed into Iraq after 2003, during the insurgency, and have learned from al Qaeda's mistakes. This experience influences al-Nusra's strategy of gaining the trust and support of the Syrian people in a delicate manner. Whether al-Nusra will ultimately succeed in this endeavor has yet to be decided, but in the meantime the group will continue its efforts to garner increased support and eventually play a leading role in the post-al Assad period.
Free Syrian Army
Although Jabhat al-Nusra has best demonstrated the ability to control and secure supply lines, the Free Syrian Army has one advantage that al-Nusra lacks. Unlike Jabhat al-Nusra, the Free Syrian Army is not on the U.S. list of designated terrorist organizations, meaning that the army will likely be one of the surest conduits for securing foreign aid. As more foreign aid groups gain access to Syria, it is possible that the Free Syrian Army will have a greater opportunity to strengthen its role in administering key resources and services.
The Free Syrian Army and other more secular units are providing bread and flour to local residents, and their soldiers serve as police forces in some areas. But in the process of doing so, the army brigades have earned a negative reputation in some areas.
When the rebel group was in charge of two of the grain silos in Aleppo, it built a reputation for corruption and disorganization. Residents complained that many bakeries had to shut down because the group struggled to organize flour delivery and sales, which led to public demonstrations.
In Maarat Misreen, nine kilometers north of Idlib, the Free Syrian Army does not secure the grain — this is done with the help of local donations from residents — but it helps sell and distribute bread, a task that residents complained they did unfairly. Unlike al-Nusra, the Free Syrian Army seems to play a lesser role in securing and protecting key resources and staples, and citizens view the army in a negative light.
Local Administrative Councils
Several local administrative councils have been set up throughout the country, though they lack demonstrated influence and importance compared to other groups, specifically Jabhat al-Nusra. Instead of securing key resources, these groups play a governing role and are said to be in direct contact with the political opposition body, the Syrian National Coalition. These councils claimed to have received an $8 million donation from Qatar facilitated through the Syrian National Coalition. Though these councils reportedly exist in all of Syria's 14 provinces, some have little to no control or influence, and the strongest councils are located in northern Syria, where the regime's hold is not as strong.
The local councils appear secular and although the Free Syrian Army works with some of these councils, Jabhat al-Nusra does not recognize them (since the councils are elected and operate democratically). In some cities, the councils are responsible for providing bread and local services, but in most cases their roles are overshadowed by al-Nusra.
Aleppo's transitional revolutionary council was established in August 2012 and is composed of predominately secular professionals. The council is in the process of establishing a 500-member police force, and a few courts have already been set up in the city, but the most pressing problem is the bread crisis. To help alleviate this, the council has decided to use their $1 million share of Qatar's donation to purchase wheat and identify a more long-term solution. Despite the council's administrative role, it is clear that without Jabhat al-Nusra's sustaining and protecting Aleppo's grain silos, the city would be facing much graver issues.
In al-Bab, a rebel-held town outside Aleppo, there is a local council of residents and activists, a police force and two courts applying civilian law and Sharia. But residents tried to form a new body in December, claiming that the local council was failing to solve the town's problems. A high turnover rate in local leadership is a common problem in towns and cities no longer under regime control, a dynamic that will likely persist as these areas face ongoing deep-seated issues.
Local councils in places like the Damascus neighborhood of Barzay do not provide services or administer the cities. But they are being faced with the question of whether they can secure bread and improve the quality of life for citizens — an outstanding question for many councils nationwide.
Although the aforementioned groups have assumed the predominance of administrative, governmental and security roles in the country, Kurdish groups have taken form and are administering these roles in some northeastern Syrian cities. In the predominately Kurdish city of Qamishli on the Syria-Turkey border, the Kurdish Supreme Committee is responsible for administering services. This committee, founded in July 2012, is a governing body for some Kurdish areas in Syria. But Qamishli and many towns in northeastern Syria are secured and controlled by the Democratic Union Party, which has a very capable militia. Rather than provide services, the party maintains control and security in the cities.
As the fighting in Syria continues and more towns fall to the opposition, more groups will emerge and strive for power and control. The battle to remove al Assad from power will eventually be replaced with a similarly complex jockeying for power among these factions. But the group with the real influence in the post-al Assad era will be that which maintains the military expertise and manpower to control and secure supply lines, something that al-Nusra has proved it is capable of and that the Free Syrian Army likely will compete for.