Waning Support Weakens the Syrian Rebellion

3 MINS READJul 26, 2016 | 14:44 GMT
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Waning Support Weakens the Syrian Rebellion

Shifts in momentum have marked the Syrian civil war since it began in 2011. At different times, the rebels and the loyalists have each held the upper hand on the battlefield. But lately, the most decisive element determining who maintains the advantage has been the degree of outside assistance each side receives.

For the Syrian rebels, Turkey has been a major benefactor, if not their most important. The chaos in Turkey, however, in the aftermath of its failed coup is likely to distract the government in Ankara from the conflict in Syria. From the rebels' perspective, the timing could not be worse: At the moment, they are both heavily dependent on Turkish aid and under extreme pressure from their foes. Another dark cloud on the horizon for the rebel cause is the growing coordination of action in Syria between the United States and Russia, which is problematic for the rebellion for two reasons. First, Washington and Moscow's coordination is focused on targeting one of the rebellion's most effective and deadly groups, Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda's branch in Syria. Despite significant differences in outlook and ideology with other rebel outfits, Jabhat al-Nusra cooperates extensively with them against loyalist forces. The weakening of the group without a simultaneous strengthening of other rebel units will ultimately work to the Syrian government's advantage. Second, the United States' increased coordination with Russia means that rebel expectations of more U.S. aid and weapons, which Washington promised to send if talks in Geneva on ending the civil war fail, will likely go unfulfilled. In sending a proposal to Moscow for greater collaboration, Washington showed that it is keen to avoid escalating tension with Russia and with loyalist forces, since doing so could undermine its wider military effort to weaken the Islamic State.

Compounding the rebels' problem is the sustained support their loyalist enemies are receiving from their allies. Over the past few months, Iran, Hezbollah and Russia all have maintained their direct aid, and in some places, increased it. In southern Aleppo province, for instance, Iran has all but taken charge of the front lines, while Russian airstrikes have figured prominently in the loyalist effort to besiege the rebel-held parts of Aleppo city. As Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah promised in a speech in late June, his group has also bolstered its presence across Syria, including in the prominent battlefields of Aleppo. Faced with uncertain levels of foreign support and heavily backed, advancing loyalists, the Syrian rebels no doubt have several challenging months ahead of them.

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