The cease-fire between the armed opposition’s Brotherhood- and Qaida-led camps is unlikely to last
By Abdel Bari Atwan
The biggest achievement of the Astana conference —as far as its Russian, Turkish and Iranian co-sponsors are concerned – is the rift it has caused within the armed opposition in Syria and its two most important components: the Fateh ash-Sham (formerly Nusra) Front, which is classified as a terrorist organization, and Ahrar ash-Sham, the military wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is well on its way to being re-branded as a ‘moderate’ organization.
The armed Syrian opposition is now effectively divided in two broad camps:
One is headed by Ahrar ash-Sham under the leadership of Abu-Ammar al-Omar, which backs the decisions made and mechanisms agreed at the Astana conference, and is supported by Turkey and Qatar.It includes a number of other factions such as Jaish al-Islam, Suqour ash-Sham and Jaish al-Mujahideen.
The second is embodied in the newly-created Hay’at Tahrir ash-Sham (Association for the Liberation of the Levant) which joins Fateh ash-Sham (Nusra) with several other groups such as the Noureddin Zangi Movement, Liwaa al-Haq, Jabhat Ansar ad-Deen and Jaish as-Sunna. The former leader of Ahrar ash-Sham, Abu-Jaber Hashem ash-Sheikh, who recently announced his resignation from the group, was chosen as leader of the new Hay’a, while former Nusra chief Abu-Muhammad al-Golani will be its military commander.
The rift between them is political, military and ideological. The hardline salafi groups joined Hay’at Tahrir ash-Sham. They deemed the Astana conference to be tantamount to a ‘Syrian Oslo’, and have vowed to keep on fighting. Ahrar ash-Sham and the factions that have remained on its side have adopted the cause of a political solution, and are banking on the international community and friendly countries to turn them into what some in the Syrian opposition liken – despite the massive difference in their nature and objectives – to a Syrian PLO.
The influential Saudi jihadi preacher Abdallah al-Muheisni announced his endorsement of Tahrir ash-Sham, as did other Salafi figures from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Muheisni could be appointed head of the new umbrella group’s sharia judiciary, the position he used to hold under the auspices of Ahrar ash-Sham and Jaish al-Fateh in the district of Idlib. This would make it more likely that Salafi sheikhs in Jordan such as Abu-Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Abu-Quatada ad Abu-Sayyaf would also back the group.
Battle for Idlib
In the aftermath of the Astana conference, Ahrar Ash-Sham – having incorporated most of the armed groups that used to operate under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) label – declared war on Nusra in Idlib.
This was done at the instigation of Turkey, and on the pretext of protecting groups which supported the Astana conference – such as Jaish al-Mujahdeen, Suqour ash-Sham and Jaish al-Islam – after they were subjected to bloody attacks by Nusra.
Turkey meanwhile officially designated Nusra a terrorist organization — a step it had been dragging its feet over for six years — and the opposition Syrian National Coalition held an emergency meeting in Istanbul and issued a statement – again at Turkey’s instigation – denouncing Nusra as an extremist terrorist organization and rejecting its claim to have separated from al-Qaida.
Prior to the Astana conference, Ahrar as-Sham and its allies had fought alongside Nusra against both Islamic State (IS) and the Syrian army. They formed a joint force called Jaish al-Fateh, which currently controls Idlib. So how did this turnaround happen in a few short weeks?
It was Nusra which took the initiative, launchinga fierce offensive aimed at eradicating the groups that went to Astana, especially Suqour ash-Sham, Jaish al-Mujhdieen and al-Jabha ash-Samiya.
It did so for two reasons: It was convinced that they had provided the US-led coalition with information on the whereabouts and movements of leading figures in Nusra, leading to 13 them being killed in America air strikes. And it viewed them as having committed at Astana to wage war against it, so opted to act first.
War of words
Mediators managed to broker a cease-fire between the two sides in Idlib, but it is likely to prove precarious. By signing up to the operational and political package agreed at Astana, Ahrar ash-Sham indeed agreed to help eradicate Tahrir ash-Sham and its component groups in their capacity as terrorist organizations.
The merger of the five Salafi groups with Nusra into the new coalition, and the naming of Abu-Jaber ash-Sheikh as its leader, could help break the ice between it and Islamic State. It could also bring it back into the al-Qaida fold and resolve its differences with al-Qaida leader Dr. Ayman al-Zawaheri. He is said to have opposed Nusra’s Gulf-inspired attempt to shake off its ‘terrorist’ label by changing its name to Ahrar ash-Sham and disavowing links with the parent organization.
It would be premature to talk of Tahrir ash-Sham joining forces with Islamic State. But the fact that both are on the terrorist list, and both face the prospect of joint Russian-US military action to destroy them – Trump has ordered the Pentagon to draw up the necessary plans — could drive them towards reconciliation and subsequent cooperation.
The next stage of war in Syria may not pit the two rebel coalitions against the regime in Damascus but against each other, specifically in Idlib. Turkish aid to Ahrar ash-Sham is likely to be stepped up, perhaps including the provision of more modern and sophisticated weapons, and could later be followed by Russian assistance. Russian airstrikes were halted against Idlib city amid, and efforts stepped up to arrange the evacuation of opposition fighters as in Aleppo.
Anyone who doubts that the current calm prevailing on the ground is the kind of calm that precedes a stormed only look at the attacks and recrimination exchanged by the two sides on social media. They have traded charges of treachery and branded each other apostates, infidels and allies of Satan. The Islamist Wisal TV channel said the crimes committed by Golani against Jaish al-Mujahideen were worse than the regime’s.
The Russian leadership’s postponement of the Geneva talks that had been scheduled for 8 February may have been in order to settle the Idlib issue first, by overcoming Tahrir ash-Sham and ejecting it from the parts of the city it controls and other areas in northern Syria.
The Russian-Turkish understanding which supplanted the US-Russian understanding in Syria has upended all the political and military equations in the country, and could be setting the stage for an eventual a political settlement.