Al Qaeda is starting to swallow the Syrian opposition

Charles Lister writes: After six years of conflict, Syria and its people have been completely transformed. The effects of a crisis that has killed nearly a half-million people and forced nearly 11.5 million more from their homes are now etched into the many identities to which Syrians attach themselves. While a majority of Syrians vigorously resist the formal breakup of their country, it is impossible to ignore how the brutal and protracted war has instilled deep divisions in a once-cohesive society.

In many areas of the country, battle lines remain physically drawn among villages that once lived in harmony. And the sectarian dynamic that was once supported only by extremist fringes has started to decisively shape the mainstream opposition.

The origins of this dynamic lie with President Bashar al-Assad, who was quick to label the peaceful protest movement of early 2011 as a “foreign conspiracy.” This conspiracy, Assad claimed in mid-2011, was one being led by Sunni “terrorists” — many dozens if not hundreds of which he had released from prison in March, May, and June 2011. Assad’s sectarian framing of the crisis and his cynical positioning of himself as the protector of Syria’s minorities not only allowed him to bolster his base, but also guaranteed that extremists within the opposition would gradually see their sectarian narrative thrive.

And that is, more or less, what has happened. The Syrian opposition is at its weakest point since 2012, and international trends are moving against it. The United States has distanced itself from the “Assad must go” narrative and seen its attention diverted by its own election; Europe is distracted by refugees and Brexit; and Turkey has done an about-face and, in effect, sold Aleppo to Russia. Meanwhile, Moscow, Tehran, and Hezbollah have methodically enhanced their military commitments to the Assad regime, guaranteeing at minimum its survival.

Amid these challenges, Syria’s opposition has entered into a period of introspection and great internal strain. Placed under concerted pressure — whether by Jordan and Saudi Arabia in the south, or by Turkey and Qatar in the north — and faced with few other options, Syria’s non-al-Qaeda armed opposition demonstrated their pragmatism by agreeing to attend political talks in Kazakhstan and Switzerland, even though their popular base remained deeply opposed to such signals of “compromise,” and few of the attendees expected the talks to succeed.

But Syria’s armed opposition is also changing as a result of internal pressures. Al Qaeda’s Syrian representatives — rebranded as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) in July 2016 and then renamed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) after subsuming several other groups in January — have been relentless, and patient, in pursuing their long-term objective: a merger of all armed Syrian opposition groups under its broad transnational Islamic umbrella. Al Qaeda has commonly called this goal a “uniting of the ranks.” [Continue reading…]

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