Posted by Aron Lund on Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013
by Aron Lund for Syria Comment
David Ignatius has written an article in the Washington Post called “Sorting out the Syrian opposition”, where he provides names and manpower figures for the Syrian insurgency. He’s basing his argument on reports from a Syrian opposition group. I happen to know which one, but I haven’t seen the actual report, so I won’t comment on that.
The Ignatius article itself is, however, rather confused, and readers should beware. Let’s pick it apart.
THE SYRIAN ISLAMIC LIBERATION FRONT
— Excerpt: ”The biggest umbrella group is called the Jabhat al-Tahrir al-Souriya al-Islamiya. It has about 37,000 fighters, drawn from four main subgroups based in different parts of the country. These Saudi-backed groups are not hard-core Islamists but …” etc.
The group he’s referring to is the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF, until recently known as SLF, without the ”Islamic”). It was formed in mid-2012, and incorporates the biggest mainstream Islamist groups of the insurgency. The SILF includes the Farouq Battalions (mainly Homs + Turkish border), the Tawhid Brigade (Aleppo), the Suqour el-Sham Brigades (Idleb), the Islam Brigade (Damascus), and a bunch of others.
Some of these groups were originally created in the name of the FSA but ”salafized” as the war went on, reflecting the new mood in the rebel movement and foreign funding requirements. It’s a basically mixed bag of opportunistic and principled Islamists, ranging from ideologically fuzzy big-tent movements (Tawhid Brigade) to rather grim-looking salafis (Islam Brigade).
They’re not simply ”Saudi-backed”, although they may be that as well (whatever it means, with all these princes doing their own thing). The northern wing of Farouq, for example, is well known to enjoy Turkish patronage. It’s been attacking Syrian army positions through Turkish territory, and it’s no coincidence that the main northern border crossings (outside Kurdish territory) are now controlled by Farouq. Several groups in the SILF also enjoy sponsorship from a donations network set up by Mohammed Surour Zeinelabidin, an influential Syrian salafi theologian whose relations with the government of Saudi Arabia are not good at all.
THE SYRIAN ISLAMIC FRONT
— Excerpt: ”The second-largest rebel coalition is more extreme and is dominated by hard-core Salafist Muslims. Its official name — Jabhat al-Islamiya al-Tahrir al-Souriya — is almost identical to that of the Saudi-backed group. Rebel sources count 11 different brigades from around the country that have merged to form this second coalition. Financing comes from wealthy Saudi, Kuwaiti and other Gulf Arab individuals. Rebel sources estimate about 13,000 Salafist fighters are gathered under this second umbrella.”
The names seem so similar because one of them is wrong, which should be obvious from the bungled Arabic grammar. The real name of this group is ”al-Jabha al-Islamiya al-Souriya”, or the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF).
The rest of the info seems correct, although the group itself claims to have about 25,000 fighters. Of course, only a minority of fighters are hardcore Islamists — most are simply religiously-minded Sunni men recruited off the street — but the central leadership holds to a strict salafi line. Some member factions seem a little less committed, but as an alliance, the SIF is dominated by a group called Ahrar al-Sham, and they’ve been salafi from day one. (As it happens, I just wrote a long report about the SIF and its member factions, which you can download here.)
— Excerpt: ”A third rebel group, known as Ahfad al-Rasoul, is funded by Qatar. It has perhaps 15,000 fighters.”
Well, maybe. There’s about a million different local groups in Syria called Ahfad al-Rasoul (”Descendants of the Prophet”), including some which are part of the SIF and the SILF and the FSA.
If there’s also an overarching Qatari-sponsored country-wide alliance of such factions, I haven’t heard of it, but I guess it could still exist. Judging by media reports and rebel statements on who conquers what in Syria, they’re not the dominant force anywhere in the country. Or maybe they’re just quietly playing sheish-beish and smoking argileh on Sheikh Hamad’s expense, because unlike a fighting army of 15,000, that could fly under the radar.
— Excerpt: ”The most dangerous group in the mix is the Jabhat al-Nusra, which is an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq. By one rebel estimate, it has grown to include perhaps 6,000 fighters. But this group, perhaps fearing that it will be targeted by Western counterterrorism forces, is said to be keeping its head down — and perhaps commingling with the Salafist umbrella group.”
If by ”keeping its head down” you mean roaring full throttle into every battle in Syria, I suppose you could have a point. And they do in fact have something to say on the subject of heads, but not their own.
Whether Jabhat al-Nosra is ”the most dangerous group” depends on your point of view. For Assad? Possibly. For the USA? Very likely — perhaps not in the form of Jabhat el-Nosra itself, but they suck a lot of people into Qaeda-style salafi-jihadism, which is bad news for US security in the long term. For Syrian Sunni civilians? Not at all. For Syrian non-Sunni civilians? Maybe, maybe not. They’re ideologically extreme Alawite-baiters, and do not hesitate to kill civilian opponents or murder POWs, but they seem to have maintained a certain level of discipline in conquered areas so far. This is unlike some non-Islamist factions who randomly loot their way through civilian neighborhoods, and who sometimes express themselves in more sectarian and genocidal terms than any salafi. (Yeah, looking at you, Salaheddin Brigades of the Hama FSA.)
FREE SYRIAN ARMY, IDRISS EDITION
— Excerpt: ”Idriss and his Free Syrian Army command about 50,000 more fighters, rebel sources say.”
Rebel sources being Idriss and his Free Syrian Army command, I imagine. But OK. There’s a lot of people who claim to be part of that alliance, although it’s not true that the leaders ”command” most of them in any way at all (which I discussed with Koert Debeuf here; for context, first see here). Brig. Gen. Salim Idriss seems to be a nice guy, and he currently also seems to enjoys a degree of moral authority over parts of the revolutionary movement. But as far as I can tell, he has yet to issue a direct order to armed groups that will be obeyed out of earshot.
In fact, can anyone recall when rebels last captured anything inside Syria, and gave credit to Idriss and the FSA? Meanwhile, the SILF, SIF and Jabhat al-Nosra have been racking up garrison kills and village captures by the dozens every month since late 2012. That lack of raw power on the ground doesn’t make Idriss an unimportant figure, since he sits at the top of a major trickle-down mechanism for international sponsorship and now also enjoys a measure of political recognition, but lets keep things in perspective.
For those interested in this faction, Elizabeth O’Bagy just published a very interesting report. I think it’s maybe a bit on the optimistic side, but it’s still a must-read.
DON’T DO THIS
— Excerpt: ”Realistically, the best hope for U.S. policy is to press the Saudi-backed coalition and its 37,000 fighters, to work under the command of Idriss and the Free Syrian Army. That would bring a measure of order and would open the way for Idriss to negotiate a military transition government that would include reconcilable elements of Assad’s army.”
Here’s where it gets really weird. See, most of the ”Saudi-backed coalition” (SILF) is already part of Idriss’s (rather nominal) FSA command structure. All their main leaders are there. Abdulqader Saleh of the Tawhid Brigade and Osama el-Joneidi of the Farouq Battalions are members of the ”General Staff Advisory Council” under Idriss, Ahmed Eissa of Suqour el-Sham is part of the ”Northern Front Command”, and Zahran Alloush of the Islam Brigade sits on the ”Southern Front Command”. So, to indulge Mr. Ignatius by presuming that such an FSA structure actually operates on the ground, these two groups already overlap. Idriss does the talking, but out of the 50,000 FSA fighters, a full 37,000 come from the Islamist militias of the SILF. (No, I have no idea whether these numbers are accurate, but let’s accept them for the sake of discussion.)
To add to the confusion, at least one SIF faction (the Haqq Brigade of Homs) is also part of Idriss’s FSA command structure. It’s military commander, Abderrahman el-Soweiss – an ex-Hezb al-Tahrir prisoner who now runs a sizeable chunk of the Homs insurgency – has been named by Idriss as one of five commanders on the Homs front. That brings the number of Islamist fighters in the “secular” FSA to about 40,000 out of 50,000, and I’m still curious about who exactly makes up the remaining 20 percent.
Bottom line, Ignatius’s proposed strategy is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of these groups. The Idriss network, pace Debeuf, is not so much a functioning command hierarchy as it is a symbolic ”flag” to rally rebels amenable to Western and GCC support, and a distribution channel for guns, ammo and money from Saudi and other sources.
Many of the other groups mentioned here work in a similar fashion. They are not cohesive alliances, they are political planks and coordinating bodies for largely autonomous rebel factions, who have banded together to increase their military weight, acquire political representation, and gain access to foreign funds (state and non-state). The main exceptions are Jabhat el-Nosra and maybe the SIF, which seem to be reasonably cohesive and well delineated from the others.
BUT THEN AGAIN
From a self-interested US perspective, it might still be a good strategy for Washington to back the Idriss group, which unlike previous FSA incarnations has the significant advantage of existing outside of Twitter. The way to do it would be to make sure it receives abundant resources, and to help solidify the Islamist mainstream insurgency around it – i.e., the SILF, some of the SIF, and various unaffiliated strays.
That would of course require a level of cold-blooded realism not currently apparent in US policy circles, which have been making shrill little cries of shock and terror about talking to Islamists for over a decade – never mind arming them. But if the US is not prepared to deal with Islamist actors in Syria because they are theocratic and anti-semitic, or whatever, it should just excuse itself from Syrian insurgent politics entirely. Islamism is now the name of the game among Syria’s armed factions, so let’s not pretend that this conflict is something it’s not.
Anyway, political sensitivites aside, the American deep state already seems to be on the case. And I imagine that the purpose of the US backing such an armed coalition is to make it the platform on which a not-too-wobbly political leadership (of the Ghassan Hitto/Ahmed Moadh al-Khatib variety) could stand, and from there negotiate along the Geneva parameters with what’s left of the Assad regime. Or if that doesn’t work, the US & its allies will at least have built up a powerful client militia for future use. You can imagine it as kind of a Syrian Sahwa, like the one in Anbar, except this plays out while the Baath regime is still crumbling and with no US forces nearby. Or, with a little less optimism, think of it as the next TFG.
It does have a whiff of Dr. Strangelove to it, and the results won’t be a pretty sight, whatever happens, but I guess that’s just politics: you always work with all you got, and you never get all you want.
— Aron Lund
Correction, April 8, 2012: Thomas Pierret kindly pointed out that I’d mistakenly included Shuhada Souriya in my list of SILF members. That’s wrong, and I’ve now removed it from the text. It’s leader Jamal Maarouf is a member of the “Northern Region Command” in Salim Idriss’s FSA network, but they’re not in the SILF. Not that it would necessarily be a bad fit ideologically – the reason is more likely that the SILF was co-founded by Maarouf’s local rival in the Jebel Zawiya region, Ahmed Eissa of Suqour el-Sham.