Dividing Factions Add Up to Total Chaos in Syria, With No Solution in Sight

With the civil war in Syria soon to enter its third year, the situation on the ground is increasingly fractured and hard to read for Western intelligence.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

On the outskirts of the Turkish town of Reyhanli at the edge of Hatay Province, the Bab al-Hawa border crossing connects Turkey to Syria. Every day, trucks loaded with merchandise passed through here from Turkey to Syria, and dozens of Syrian civilians crossed every hour into Turkey, seeking a new life. That is, until Turkey closed the crossing about two weeks ago. When I visited Bab al-Hawa a few months ago, a young Syrian man hanging around near the crossing offered to take me into Syria on his motorbike. Not by the official crossing but by the smugglers’ dirt routes. “Who will wait for us on the other side?” I asked him? “Who do you want to wait? Do you want Jabha men? I can bring you to them. If you want the Ahrar it will cost you more, because they’re a little farther away.”

“If you want the Free [Syrian] Army, no problem, they’re close. It’s only $50,” he told me. I turned him down.

“Jabha” is Jabhat al-Nusra (aka the Nusra Front), established in 2012 by a group of radical Sunni rebels and reported, a few months ago, to have joined a branch of Al-Qaida known as the State of Islam in Iraq and Syria. Ahrar, the full name of which is Ahrar al-Tha’ura (the free people of the revolution), is also an Islamist group. It detests Al-Qaida, but also the other religious groups, and is ready to kill the members of the other religious groups with the same enthusiasm as it does the soldiers of the Syrian regime.

Are there good guys and bad guys, or is everybody measured by the yardstick of evil? That is precisely the question that Western intelligence is trying to figure out in seeking possible partners for dialogue among the various Islamist groups. Because when Washington announces that it is ready to negotiate with a group called Jabhat al-Nusra al-Islamiyyah (the Islamic front), toward its joining a Geneva II peace conference and to put it together with the Free Syrian Army as one fighting opposition bloc, it can’t be sure that the front will not also contain Al-Qaida elements or members of the gangs of murderers who, just over a week ago, were involved in beheadings in the town of Adra in the Damascus district.

The map of the Islamic groups operating in Syria is like an amoeba, constantly splitting in chaos and violence, sometimes joining with others and sometimes split from them, leaving behind heaps of bodies of civilians who were unable to flee.

One example is the Islamic Front, a radical religious group that calls itself “moderate” and, until a month ago, part of the Free Syrian Army. But serious disputes erupted when the Islamic groups claimed that the Free Syrian Army leadership had not given them their fair share of money and ammunition donated by Arab countries, the West and Turkey. And so the religious groups decided to leave the Free Syrian Army and establish their own “front.”

The hastily written treaty of the Islamic Front shows that it consists of 11 organizations, but only seven actually joined. What happened to the rest? Some decided to join a new bloc established only two months ago – Jabhat Tha’or Suriyyeh (the Rebels of Syria Front). The new front has 15 groups, including the Islamic Martyrs Brigades of Syria, which is headed by Omar Jamal Maarouf. The Rebels of Syria Front was established on the initiative of the Free Syrian Army, after the Islamic Front took over a Free Syrian Army base near Bab al-Hawa and confiscated its weapons and ammunition.

A war seemed ready to break out between the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front, but last Wednesday the Rebels, Islamic Front and Free Syrian Army reconciled and signed an agreement in which the Islamic Front pledged to cooperate with the Free Syrian Army and give the weapons back, but not to disband.

The split among the Islamic groups is based, among other things, on the countries that give them money and logistical support. For example, Turkey supports the relatively moderate Islamic Front and, until recently, Saudi Arabia supported the branch of the Martyrs Brigades of Syria in the city of Idlib and the Free Syrian Brigades in the city of Aleppo. But when Saudi Arabia realized that the brigades Qatar was supporting were more significant, the Saudis started “stealing” Qatar’s brigades and supporting groups like the Islam Brigade in Ghouta, near Damascus, which was attacked with chemical weapons a few months ago.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, associated with Al-Qaida, is fighting both the Syrian regime’s forces and the moderate Islamic groups. For example, the Al-Qaida forces attacked the courts established by the Islamic Front in a few towns and executed dozens in the city of Sarmada, whom they said were working with Assad’s forces (although they were not); some were Christians and others were Sunnis.

A look at the treaty of the “moderate” Islamic Front, which is cooperating with the Free Syrian Army and could become Washington’s new ally, reveals its purpose as the establishment of a state in Syria run by Islamic law. “Our goal is to strengthen religion in the state and the individual, to protect Islamic identity and to build the perfect Islamic personality,” the treaty says. It also states that the status of women and men is equal “according to the woman’s special characteristics in keeping with Islamic Law.” Is this a new version of the Muslim Brotherhood or the twin brother of the Taliban? It seems that Washington will need a powerful magnifying glass to tell the difference.

The Free Syrian Army’s concern is that Washington will decide that the Islamist groups are the real landlords of the campaign in Syria, and turn its back on the Free Syrian Army. After all, that is what the United States already did in Iraq and Afghanistan. This concern is causing some Free Syrian Army commanders to talk publicly about the possibility of cooperating with the Syrian regime’s forces against Al-Qaida operatives and, in fact, against all the religious groups.

The part of the Kurdish opposition in all this has been “forgotten.” It also consists of a political and military arm; there is also a group called the Kurdish Islamic Front, which is not part of the Syrian Islamic Front but does not coordinate with the Kurdish forces, either.

At the moment, it seems President Bashar Assad is the only hope left in Syria. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry continues to claim that there will be no place for Assad in the new Syrian government to arise, but he also cannot say who his replacement will be. The only certainty is the dead, the injured and the refugees that continue to fuel this war.

A Free Syrian Army fighter takes cover during fighting with the Syrian Army in Azaz, Syria in 2012.Credit: AP
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with Tishreen newspaper, a local and government-owned newspaper, in Damascus, October 6, 2013.Credit: Reuters
A Free Syrian Army fighter holds his machine gun as a fellow young fighter helps him to carry the ammunition in Old Aleppo, November 4, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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