By Vijay Prashad. This article was first published on The Hindu.
Swift advances by new rebel formations in western Syria raised the spectre once more of the collapse of the government of Bashar al-Assad. Backed to the hilt by Qatar and Turkey, the newly formed Jaish al-Fateh (The Army of Conquest) and its allies seized the crucial town of Jisr al-Shugour, southeast of Idlib (the city that they had already taken in late March). The momentum swept into Hama province and toward Damascus. The main elements in the Army of Conquest are Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra — both of whom defer to the black banner of the al-Qaeda. Renewed support for these groups from Qatar and Turkey comes largely because of the green light from Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom has even suggested that it no longer frowns on the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, whose hold on the exiled opposition remains. Saudi Arabia summoned the new head of the Syrian National Coalition, Khaled Khoja, for a secret meeting in Riyadh in early April. Following this meeting, Saudi Arabia’s own rebel formation – Jaish al-Islam led by Zahran Alloush — sought an entente with Ahrar al-Sham. In mid-April, Alloush — who leads the umbrella Islamic Front that operates largely in southern Syria – travelled to Turkey and met with leaders of the resurgent Ahrar al-Sham. Such connections between the proxies of Saudi Arabia as well as Qatar and Turkey and new arms deliveries from these powers have given the rebels a fillip.
The string of reverses for Assad drew him to a public speech on Martyr’s Day on May 6. “Today we are fighting a war,” he said, “not a battle.” Assad acknowledged that his forces, exhausted by four years of war, have been defeated in Idlib and elsewhere. That Assad openly warned against “the spread of a spirit of frustration or despair” suggests that rumours of fatigue and a lack of morale in his armed forces are correct. Just as al-Qaeda affiliates and others benefit from a surge of external support, Assad’s strategy has been put on the back foot by pressure from Iran and Russia. Both the Iranians and the Russians face immense burdens as a result of Western sanctions. They hoped that the Moscow-II process would yield some fruit, and that the fractious opposition and the obdurate Assad government would come to some terms. Egged on by their Gulf Arab and Turkish backers, the opposition neither came with any concrete proposals nor spoke with one voice. Deaf to the pleas from Moscow and Tehran to make a political settlement, the Assad government could not make concessions of its own. Neither Iran nor Russia has rushed to Assad’s aid. However, in late April, Syria’s Defence Minister Fahd Jassem al-Freij, who has held this post right through the civil war, went to Tehran to ask for immediate logistical support. It is likely that Iranian aid will bolster the flagging Syrian army.
As the spring arrives in the mountainous western part of Syria, the fighters of Jabhat al-Nusra engage not only the Syrian armed forces but also the Lebanese militia group, Hezbollah. For months now, Hezbollah and the Lebanese armed forces have threatened to move against Jabhat al-Nusra positions along the Lebanon-Syria border in the Qalamoun region after the “melting of the snow.” On May 5, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah delivered a speech that ranged from a critique of the Saudi war on Yemen, the fractious state of Iraq, the civil war in Syria and the threat to Lebanon. Nasrallah suggested that the rebels alongside the Lebanese border are aggressively threatening Lebanon “every hour and every day.” Despite arms shipments from the United States and France, the Lebanese army — Nasrallah said pointedly — is not prepared to deal with the threat from al-Qaeda. “We believe that this war is not a Syrian war,” he said. The full offensive for Qalamoun Mountains has not yet begun, but already Hezbollah has made some gains around Assal al-Ward.
“The only power in the region that seems to want calm — for reasons having to do with the P5+1 nuclear deal — is Iran ”
What the chessboard shows, then, is not that the rebels are on the flight path to victory, but that the gains made last year by the Assad government have been reversed. Syria returns to a military balance that will only encourage more bloodshed and less politics. The Syrian people cannot tolerate any further attrition of their social order. More than half of the Syrian population has been displaced from their homes, and the average life expectancy of Syria has dropped in these four years from 76 years to 58 years. Catastrophe is the watchword of this crisis.
In the Qalamoun Mountains, the al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, went into alliance with the remnants of the Free Syrian Army this February. Any “moderate” force was overrun and drawn under the hegemony of al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. Under cover of banners such as Jaish al-Fateh al-Qalamoun (Army of Conquest of Qalamoun) and Jaish Tahrir al-Sham (Army of Liberation of Syria), the extremists operate. Orders from their leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, have stopped the barbarous hand of al-Nusra in Syria and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen (AQAP). When AQAP seized the Yemeni city of Mukalla (capital of Hadhramaut province) under cover of the chaos occasioned by the Saudi bombardment, they operated with a light touch. There is no urgency in their politics, unlike that of the “Islamic State,” which hastily declares harsh and suffocating laws.
The assertion of al-Qaeda in Syria and Yemen and the sustained bombing of ISIS in Syria and Iraq have turned the needle of audacity to favour the former. But this does not mean that ISIS is in general rout. It operates in Libya and in large parts of Syria and Iraq (in fact, it recently reopened a five star hotel in Mosul under its own flag). ISIS recruits continue to come from the Philippines and Chechnya as well as the West, while supplies come across the Turkish border. Around Damascus, ISIS has made its presence felt. When it suited the other rebels, coordination with ISIS was approved. Newly emboldened and re-supplied Jaish al-Islam and the al-Qaeda affiliates have conducted a few raids on ISIS territory near Damascus and in the Qalamoun region in recent months. It has been their calling card to suggest that they are more moderate than ISIS. As a way to claim the mantle of audacity, Jaish al-Islam released a video that showed the 17th graduation class from their “jihadist training school.” The troops marched past Saudi-backed Zahran Alloush not far from the heart of Damascus. It was a message from Saudi Arabia to the Assad government. ISIS is far from overpowered, but it has been eclipsed in the media war by al-Qaeda and its new allies.
In a recent paper, Omar Dahi argues that when the 2011 uprising in Syria took to the gun, this became “the main conduit by which Turkey and the Arab Gulf states — under cover of the exiled Syrian opposition — hijacked the movement inside Syria.” These outside powers continue to set the pace for the chaos in the country. In March 2012, the International Crisis Group warned that the entry of Gulf Arab influence would “plunge the nation even deeper into a bloody civil war without prospects for a resolution in the foreseeable future, and almost certainly trigger counter-steps by regime allies, thus intensifying the budding proxy war.” This is precisely what has happened. To believe that greater influence and military support by Turkey and the Gulf Arab states as well as Iran would help bring peace in Syria is a cruel creed. The US training of 90 rebel fighters in Jordan is both ineffective and dangerous – most of its previous fighters have joined up with one or the other al-Qaeda backed group. The appetite for a political solution is neither visible amongst the fighters nor amongst their backers. The only power in the region that seems to want calm — for reasons having to do with the P5+1 nuclear deal – is Iran. But trust between Iran and its Arab adversaries are at low ebb. It will take a great deal more than rhetoric to bring the regional powers to the table. Trust in the United Nations is also low. Despite the fact that the former UN envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, was ready to announce a deal, Saudi Arabia began its bombing runs. Trust in the UN envoy to Syria, Steffan de Mistura, is at historic lows. Other ways shall have to be found. The message that Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States are unwilling to digest is that the conflict in Syria, as in Yemen, advantages al-Qaeda and ISIS. That is the cold-hearted reality.
(Vijay Prashad is Professor of International Studies, Trinity College, Connecticut, U.S.)