It’s beginning to look a lot like the war in Syria is coming to an end — or, at a minimum, the nature of the two-year conflict is transforming into something quite different from what it was just a few days ago.
As a freak snowstorm covered much of the Middle East, threatening thousands of refugees from exposure to the cold, the Syrian opposition crumbled into opposing camps after the Islamic Front ( الجبهة الإسلامية, al-Jabhat al-Islāmiyyah), a merger of seven jihadist rebel groups created in November, pushed opposition general Salim Idris out of power earlier this week from his perch as chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army (الجيش السوري الحر, al-Jaysh as-Sūrī al-Ḥurr) and executed several other moderate leaders in the Free Syrian Army. Idris, who was in Qatar at the time of the jihadist push, reportedly returned to Turkey, not to Syria.
The merger last month transformed the Islamic Front, whose most important member is the Salafist-backed and Saudi-funded Ahrar ash-Sham (حركة أحرار الشام الإسلامية ), into the largest rebel fighting unit within the Syrian opposition, with up to 45,000 fighters (compare that to between 20,000 and 40,000 fighters in the Free Syria Army). While the Islamic Front represents a much more pro-jihadist coalition than the moderate leadership of the Free Syrian Army, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s still separate from the most radical al Qaeda affiliates that are also fighting the Assad regime. But though the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Nusra Front, جبهة النصرة لأهل الشام), which itself has up to another 15,000 fighters, is not a member of the Islamic Front, the two work closely together. Another al Qaeda-affiliated group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS, الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام) boasts up to 15,000 more fighters. It’s still unclear whether the Islamic Front will supplant, oppose or cooperate with ISIS and the al-Nusra Front.
Another 40,000 Kurdish fighters operate in the relatively autonomist Kurdish territory in the far northeast of Syria.
No matter how much control Idris and the moderates still retain over the Free Syrian Army (and, well, it doesn’t seem like much), it’s clear to everyone that the opposition is now nearly as much at war with itself as with the Ba’athist regime of president Bashar al-Assad. The joint US and UK decision to suspend non-lethal aid to the northern Syria opposition reflects how seriously power has shifted away from the moderate FSA leadership and toward the more radical Islamic Front– US policymakers were probably distraught to hear that US supplies have now fallen under the control of the Islamic Front. (For the record, this is exactly why many policymakers opposed the call from John McCain, US senator from Arizona, to arm Syria’s opposition with fully lethal aid).
The week’s amazing putsch within the Syria opposition follows confirmation from a UN report that chemical weapons have been used at least four times in Syria’s civil war, including the massive attack in Ghouta last August, where over 1,000 Syrians died from exposure to sarin gas. Nonetheless, Assad continues to cooperate with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and the OPCW is optimistic it can still meet the first December 31 deadline for the removal of the first trance of chemical weapons.
So how does the geopolitical stage look vis-à-vis the Syrian opposition these days?
Iran, along with its allies in the Shiite Lebanese militia Hezbollah (حزب الله), are certain to back Assad and his Alawaite (a variant of Shi’a Islam) regime to the bitter end — to lose Assad would be to lose one of the Iranian regime’s key allies.
But earlier this year, the Syrian opposition had the sympathy, if not the open support, of an incredible number of allies. They included the United States, the United Kingdom, France and their NATO allies, happy to see the fall of an authoritarian regime and the rise of a potentially moderate government in Sunni. They included wealthy Sunni petrostates like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which saw an opportunity to replace the Assad regime with a Sunni government. They included neighboring Turkey, which saw ongoing civil war as a threat to its own stability, which increasingly came to view Assad as an enemy to its own Islamist government, and which also saw an opportunity to enhance its influence by aiding the ascendant Syrian opposition coalition. It also included the Islamist regime of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, which saw an opportunity to influence regional politics in its favor (notably in Syria, which briefly merged to form the United Arab Republic with Egypt between 1958 and 1961). Even the Sunni Palestinian group Hamas (حماس), a longtime strategic ally of Hezbollah and Iran, supported the opposition (much to Iran’s dismay).
One by one, all of those allies are backing away from the Syrian opposition in a way that, after the past week, is now looking like a full retreat.
The United States and its Western allies are hardly interested in ousting Assad in favor of a jihadist regime dedicated to supporting future terrorist efforts in Europe and the United States. From the most brutal realpolitik perspective, an Assad victory may be the least worst option for the United States, especially if the net result is a weakened and isolated Assad who’s been stripped of his access to chemical weapons. In retrospect, it makes the decision of US president Barack Obama to back away from military intervention earlier this summer appear incredibly wise.
Turkey, with one foot in Europe and one foot in the Middle East, would also suffer from a neighboring jihadist state — especially one that could send Kurdish Syrians flooding into Turkey. A secular military coup in Egypt brought to power an Egyptian government much less enthusiastic about the Syrian rebels, and earlier this week, Hamas announced that it is no longer intervening in Syria (in exchange for a return to its alliance with Iran). While Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are likely to continue to support elements within the Islamic Front, they hardly hope to encourage the rise of a radical Sunni state in Syria, lest radicals in their own countries begin to challenge their respective monarchies and emirates.
None of those allies necessarily need to believe that Assad represents the best leader for Syria — or a leader with any moral claim to governing Syria (from either an Islamic or a liberal democratic perspective). But in a war that’s caused between 120,000 and 160,000 deaths, created two million Syrian refugees throughout the region and internally displaced millions more, a speedier victory for Assad wouldn’t be the worst option from a humanitarian point of view, especially if it hastens a peace that brings an end to the war sooner — and without plunging neighboring, tiny Lebanon, which has so far largely avoided large-scale violence in relation to the Syrian war, into more tumult.