Aron Lund writes: After years of byzantine internal disputes, Syria’s armed rebels are suddenly gathering into large, centrally directed organizations of the kind they always needed to threaten President Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian regime. But rather than a winning move, these last-minute unifications look more like the prelude to ultimate defeat. The balance of power in opposition-held northern Syria has now swung sharply in favor of hardline Islamists and an internationally targeted jihadi group, whose growing influence is more likely to drive Western states over to Assad’s side than to topple him.
The background is complicated even by Syrian standards. The fall of the rebel-held eastern half of Aleppo last December ushered in a profound crisis among opposition groups. They had already suffered from political and ideological differences, incompatible foreign relationships, and internal recriminations after several rounds of failed unity talks, and now saw themselves losing the war. A ceasefire imposed by Russia, Turkey, and Iran on December 30 further upset relations, turning opposition-held Syria into a pressure-cooker of internal tensions, and the ensuing peace talks in Astana on January 23–24 finally catalyzed a brutal reordering of the rebel landscape.
The conflict began on January 24 when Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, a powerful terrorist-listed jihadi faction previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra, attacked a Western-endorsed group that had attended the Astana talks. Jihadists portrayed it as a preemptive strike against counterrevolutionaries in cahoots with the “Russian occupiers,” correctly pointing out that the Astana meeting aimed to isolate and destroy Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. Other rebels wouldn’t buy that, claiming that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham had lashed out to prevent a consolidation of rival, non-jihadi forces. “It is clear that they felt it was the most appropriate time because of the clarity with which [we were] moving completely toward a merger with the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian revolutionary factions,” said Mohammed Talal Bazerbashi, a leader in the region’s other large Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, which had not been present at the talks but did not object to others going. “As for Astana, I do not think it was the reason, but they used it as an excuse.” [Continue reading…]