Russia airstrikes help push Syria rebels closer, for now

The Wall Street Journal reports: Moscow’s intervention in Syria’s multisided civil war has spurred some of the country’s fractious rebels to fight together, offering another shot at a more unified front against the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies.

Since Russian warplanes entered the conflict two weeks ago, three local rebel alliances have emerged across the provinces where President Bashar al-Assad aims to regain ground and consolidate control. Although such alliances have been short-lived in the past, rebels said more were expected in the coming weeks.

Opposition factions including U.S.-backed rebels and Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, have come together to counter a regime offensive across several fronts in the northwest, while others continue to fight Islamic State militants.

On Monday, regime forces briefly retook part of Kafar Nabouda, a rebel-held town in Hama province, which it has been attacking for a week. More than 700 rockets were fired on rebels and Russian planes launched numerous airstrikes, said Abu al-Majid al-Homsi, a commander in Hama with Suqoor al-Ghab, a rebel group that has received training by the Central Intelligence Agency.

But hours later, rebels were able to push them back as a result of tight coordination through a joint command post they established last week, he said.

“Any coalition will benefit the rebels,” said Maj. Yasser Abdolraheem, a commander with Faylaq al-Sham, a moderate group that has fighters in several provinces. “But time and time again problems and differences emerge and they don’t survive.”

Rebel coalitions have formed and disbanded regularly over the 4½-year war, and their ideological and strategic differences remain profound. Rivalries among rebel leaders have also endured, and scores are sometimes settled violently among the rank-and-file.

“You have those kinds of local-unity projects and ad hoc alliances forming all the time, and it’s usually in preparation for when they are going to attack something or for a certain goal or a certain offensive,” said Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis, a website run by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank. “Most of these unity experiments tend to either fade away after that goal is achieved or they fade away without that goal being achieved.”

Amid the latest fighting, Islamic State militants also have seized the opportunity to advance against the rebels in some areas. [Continue reading…]

Aymenn al-Tamimi writes: In a joint statement released on 5 October, 41 Syrian rebel factions condemned the “Russian military aggression against the Syrian people,” describing it as a “genuine occupation of the land even if some sides claim that it was done on official request from the Assad regime.” The statement added that the Russian airstrikes in Homs province, which left “approximately 50 martyrs from the civilians,” should be considered Russia’s first war crime in Syria. The statement went on to describe “any forces occupying the land of our beloved homeland” as “legitimate targets,” and repeated the standard mantra of commitment to Syria’s territorial unity, opposing any sort of “partition project,” while concluding with a call on “all armed revolutionary factions” to “unite ranks” and put aside differences.

The language of the statement, especially in referring to Syria as watanina al-habib (Arabic for “our beloved homeland”), excludes groups with transnational jihadist agendas. The signatories include familiar mainstream groups whose vision is confined to the national framework, such as Jaish al-Islam (based primarily in Damascus), Ahrar al-Sham (arguably the single most powerful rebel group in Syria), the Saudi-backed quietist Salafi coalition known as the Authenticity and Development Front and the southern FSA Yarmouk Army. But does this statement actually represent greater unity among these factions? Or will the Russian intervention push rebels toward jihadi factions like Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra – as is widely feared?

The answer is that the prospect for real mergers among these signatories is marginal. Whatever impressions of political unity dealings in Turkey and joint online statements might convey, groups on the ground are localized and tend to be divided. The case of Jabhat al-Shamiyya, one of the signatories to the statement, is emblematic of the problem. [Continue reading…]

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