Syria: The Curse of the Opposition

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In the north of Aleppo there has been fighting between the CIA and the Pentagon

Syria: The Curse of the Opposition

Written by Eugene Satanovskiy; Originally appeared at VPK, translated and edited by SF Team: Theo N. Kaufman, Yoana

The situation in Syria is out of the acute crisis, in which it found itself in the autumn. The situation at the fronts have been stabilized more or less. The presence of the Russian Air force was recognized as legitimate, effective and very beneficial for fighting terrorists even in the eyes of the Moscow’s critics, many of whom are now wondering why the Pentagon started to behave passively after the start of the Russian operations.

The end of Syria’s operation on the part of the Russians Air Force was a response to the concerns (hopes and detractors) that Russia would “get stuck” in the war on the quagmire of this country, as in the past in Afghanistan. But, alas, the rebuilt Syrian army has been able to conduct the offensive in Palmyra and to not hand over its positions on the north of Aleppo. Surprisingly for everyone, a long-term cease-fire was brokered by the Russian military. But, at the same time, the civil war is not over yet. Consider, the current state of affairs and prospects of the future of the Syrian opposition that is based on the work prepared by the IPM Institute of experts, A. Kuznetsov and B. Yu Scheglovina.

There is less space under the sun

Partial withdrawal of the Russian military group in Syria and Moscow and Washington launched peace process in the country which opened a new stage in the development of the stalled political-military conflict that is already going on for five years. At the same time, the attitudes of the opposition began to mature and change, in part because of its attempts to find itself in a new reality of compromise, and this reality was categorically rejected. It shows in detail who in the post-war future of Syria have a chance to integrate into the system, and those who are not, by definition (and the blame for this “implacable” will fully rest on themselves).

“Iran intensifies their body of advisers in Syria, the government army replenishes stockpiles before the decisive campaign”.

Those who have not accepted the peace deal and are willing to go out on a war, a deal which is still on the table by Assad, under the guarantees of the Russian Air Force, still hope for a military victory over Assad, supported by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Ankara, Doha and Riyadh are seeking to achieve an absolute domination of the global confrontation between Sunnis and Shiites in Syria. Thus, they are not interested to harmonize the conditions of gradual withdrawal from the war fighters and to reach a compromise with Assad and his ally Tehran. The trio, does not accept another form of recovery from the crisis. What is more, they encourage the opposition groups to continue the struggle and they cannot accept that their supported groups have been finally defeated.

Official negotiations that were launched in Geneva, are moving very slowly and it is unlikely that in the near future there will be significant results. There are two remaining options. Firstly, the exiled opposition, with which negotiations are under way in Geneva, does not control the armed groups in Syria itself, having a negligible effect on them. Consequently, they can achieve a deal with anyone about anything, but “at the front” they are not recognized, once again recalling that it is the proverb “might makes right”, and showing the primary role of the military (including domestic) before diplomats in real politics. Secondly, the Syrian opposition is split between different interests by their major sponsors: Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Over time, its fragmentation, for objective reasons, is increasing. Pending negotiations all armed groups try to build dominions of power for themselves, which will guarantee them the most favorable position. This will lead to conflicts between the former allies.

An example of this situation is the clash that took place during March 27 and March 30 between the two groups, supported by the United States, near the town of Marea, north of Aleppo.

Militants of the units, who were supported by the CIA were called “Furqan al-Haqq”, and they attacked the representatives of the Syrian democratic forces, under the direct patronage of the Pentagon in the open. The latter is a coalition of armed militias, 80 percent made up of Kurds, with 20 percent of the Arab and Turcoman groups. The militia consists of the formation of the Kurdish Party of Democratic Union (PDS) Saleh Muslim, troops Syriac-Assyrian and Syrian Revolutionary Army ( “Jaish al-Suvar”), assembled from the remnants of the once highly “respected” by the United States and its NATO allies, the Free Syrian Army (FSA). A group of “Jaish al-Suvar” fighters attacked the two opposing factions – called “Harakat Al-Hazm” (“determination Movement”) and “The Syrian Revolutionary Front.” Apart from them, as part of self-defense forces, the leading fight against international terrorism, there are two divisions of the Syrian Turkomans, “Liwa al-Saladzhika ‘and’ Liva Sultan Murad.”

Along with this, they are trying to displace the secular armed opposition by radical extremist elements, the leading among which are recognized in the Russian terrorists as the terrorist group “Dzhebhat al-Nusra.” On March 25 its fighters were in the northern Idlib province, fighting against the 13th Brigade of the FSA. As a result of the fight, the Islamists managed to oust “moderate” forces from the province. According to an expert from the University of Michigan, Juan Cole, the vast majority of the “moderate” groups in the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo received American weapons, which were taken from, them through fighting, by jihadists (or voluntarily handed over to them). Which gives us a reason to think about the scandal in the US Congress about the transition of weapons to the side of “Dzhebhat en-Nusra” (officially storyline speaks of – the capturing of the weapon) from the two groups of “moderate opposition”, whom had received aid in the order of $ 500 million, which was allocated to Turkey.

Last month showed a significant intensification of operations by “Dzhebhat en-Nusra” in Syria. Its armed forces focused on the north of Aleppo, and were fighting with Kurdish defense units in the area of Sheikh Maqsud. This activity is stimulated by two factors. Firstly, the group, in spite of the increased lobbying by US diplomats officially included them the list of terrorist organizations and they are now trying to win for themselves at least some place under the sun. Secondly, after the announcement of the armistice and the reduction of the intensity of fighting by jihadists resulted in their loss of popularity among ordinary Syrians. In areas occupied by the militants’ Dzhebhat en-Nusra “ there occured demonstrations where participants chanted:” Damn your soul, Dzhulani “(the leader of the Islamist group). Along with his name they also cursed, Abu Muhammad al-Dzhulani, who is the leader of the “Islamic state” that is banned in Russia, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and official head Mufti of Syria Ahmad Badreddin al-Hassoun.

“Dzhebhat en-Nusra” suffered losses. On April 4 during a bombing of the Syrian Air Force, Abu Firas al-Suri was killed. He was the chief ideologist and advocated his “support for the Front.” Additionally, he was a veteran of the jihadist movement in Syria. In 1982 he took part in the uprising, of the “Muslim Brotherhood” in the city of Hama, and later, he voluntarily participated in the jihad in Afghanistan. He personally knew, Abdullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden, and for a long time he lived in Yemen, where he participated in the activities of the local “Al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) “, and in 2011, he returned to Syria to participate in the war against the Assad government. According to the Lebanese newspaper “Al-Akhbar”, during the time of the attack near Abu Firas, there were several militants from Uzbekistan.

Their script was prevented

The further fragmentation of the Syrian opposition, was proven during the Cairo Congress on March 12, which saw the birth of a new alliance called- “Ghada al-Suriy” (“The Future of Syria”), headed by the former chairman of the Syrian National Coalition, Ahmed Jarboe. The internet portal “Al-Arabi Al-Jadid” wrote that “The Future of Syria” will lobby for its interests in Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Regarding the Arab Republic of Egypt and the UAE, these words are not so far from the truth. Egyptians are trying to actively engage in the political process around Damascus since June 2015, when in Cairo there was a meeting of the National Coordination Committees of Syria. Cairo tried to create an coalition of the opposition, an alternative for the current fragmented orientation. The UAE has recently joined in these attempts and it is trying to realize its own political project, that is different from the Saudi’s.

Syria: The Curse of the Opposition

Shadow participants of the conference, say, that the conference was planned by Muhammad Dahlan, formerly one of the leaders of the Palestinian Fatah organisation, which led the security forces in the Gaza Strip before the rise to power of Hamas. In 2011, after being accused of involvement in the poisoning of Arafat, he emigrated to Dubai. In the UAE, he was acting as the security adviser to Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Commander of the armed forces of the emirates. According to “Al-Arabi Al-Jadid”, Dahlan arranged in one of the hotels in Cairo belonging to the Egyptian intelligence service, a meeting with Ahmed Jarboe, Kassem Khatib, who are members of the opposition, and are considered to be the unofficial creation of the Assad government.

There is, however, one point on the Syrian agenda, on the majority of the diverse opposition groups and the government share one. This is the categorical rejection of Kurdish autonomy and the federalization of the country. However, this point is unlikely to unite the antagonistic Syrian association. Thus, the Riyadh Group (VIP or Supreme Negotiating Committee) continues to put forward preconditions during the negotiations in Geneva, calling for the withdrawal of Assad and the transfer of all the power to the opposition. This is a prerequisite for their participation in the negotiations, which they told in an interview with TASS Russia’s permanent representative to the UN Office and other International Organizations in Geneva, Alexey Borodavkin.

The opposition demands that all the power in the SAR should be immediately transfered to it. At the same time for Russia “this can not be but a cause concern and Riyadh’s opposition rejects the idea of preserving the SAR as a secular state. There are many suspected, including those from the ranks of the moderate opposition, which represent the Moscow-Cairo angle, and who are against the Gulf Countries Council group’s idea to transform Syria into a kind of caliphate “, said the Russian diplomat. His words on Syria’s and the intentions for transforming it into a caliphate are repeatedly confirmed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, though Turkey would prefer to split the country and include the new northern regions into the new Ottoman Empire, headed by Sultan Erdogan.

However, this was not a complete failure, because, the current freeze in the process of the negotiations, at this moment is in the interest of not only of the KSA and Turkey, but also of the United States. They cannot prevent the capture by the government forces of Aleppo, and therefore, they are trying to twist around the main theme of the terrorists, who are going to eventually surrender the economic capital of Syria, which would result in the failure of all plans of Ankara and Riyadh. In the context of Washington’s refusal and Brussels support of the Turkish idea of a “no-fly zone” over a part of Syria, and betting on the Kurds as a separate opposition segment, this might not be an ultimate failure (for total collapse anti- Assad campaign could lead to the release of Idlib), but it will be at least just the start of this failure.

Towards the moment of truth

Aleppo, which initially appeared to Ankara and Riyadh as a kind of “Syrian Benghazi” and the surrounding area was planned to become the ground for a large-scale final attack on Damascus, rightly regarded it as a “cornerstone for their plans”. With the loss of this City it is clear that the Islamist opposition will only focus on the defense of Idlib (which definitely will be futile). But if the province is largely lost to the government forces and their allies, the opposition will wait for its fragmentation (which will exclude major offensives, including on Damascus), the intensification of the peace proces with the tribal leaders, which is in the final stages of this process – will make a steady progress at the Geneva talks. The diplomatic successes throughout the history of the world depended on the military victories. Syria is unlikely to be an exception.

Bids in Saudi Arabia on this case are extremely high. Too much money, is spent on this conflict, to let the victory slip out of its hands (not to mention being bogged down in Yemen, where the kingdom is not just spending money and prestige, but also loses military equipment and personnel). Losing in Syria threatens to provide for serious complications in KSA and for the King Salman, and that is much more important for him, and for his son, who are currently fighting for supreme power in the country. The power of his title of “heir to the heir” does not imply. Moreover, the king has the strongest influence, but it implies that Prince Mohammed bin Salman tried more than his best to compete as a successor, bypassing the other pretenders for the throne. All of this is overlaid on the overall global risk of “losing face” in the Middle East. While we note the confrontation with Russia in Syria, the Saudis have not yet mingled with the agreements with Russia, regarding their decision for an oil production freeze. Lastly the KSA regime is also facing an important challenge in the face of a looming fiscal deficit.

The US has other interests in the region and in Syria. They are only engaged as a way to deter Russia which is a growing geopolitical player. The persona of Assad as a president for Washington – is a secondary question. Suggesting that the same can be said of its allies – be it Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Turkey. As evidenced by the cold relations with Erdogan, which the US considers a dangerous adventurer, as well as the success of “sceptic’s of the Saudi’s” in the Congress, the Pentagon and the CIA. It is not an accident that the issue of the declassification of the secret parts of the report on the organizers and sponsors of terrorist attacks, of “9/11” has caused outrage in Riyadh, which is trying to fit in, in the higher echelons of power, and this prompted the Saudi’s to pose an ultimatum to Obama, about their sale of US treasury notes of 750 billion dollars.

The main issue for Washington at the moment – is to not letting Moscow to continue on its road towards “strategic successes”, which resulted in the capturing of Palmyra, this had a profound effect on the worldwide public opinion. Hence, the leak to the media regarding the possible supply of MANPADS systems to the opposition groups. In the White House there are discussions on how to prevent Russia’s campaign in Syria: whether it is necessary to interfere with the Islamist opposition to accomplish a centralized structure, and hereby take advantage of this momentum and save face, or to try to combat the results of the created vacuum from the defeat of the forces loyal to the US.

Based on the active training of the rebel organizations in Jordan and the growth of its special forces stationed there, and their direct support of the Kurds, we can speak of a victory of the second way of thinking. But this does not mean that the US is willing to accept the capture of Aleppo, by the government forces. Hence, it is understandable, why the American military-political leadership “closed its eyes” for the mass transfer of militants from Turkey to replenish the ranks of terrorist groups in Syria and hence to blackmail Moscow with all means available. Against this background, the United States needed progress on the battlefield, they will be able to accept everything as an asset in this conflict. Of interest is also the future capturing of Mosul or Raqqa. And we need a real big success on the front, not in the speeches of American politicians about the victories of the US in Iraq and Syria.

The capturing of Aleppo is also important for Tehran, who, after a short break will intensify its support for Damascus. On this subject, the spokesperson for the Russian General Staff said that “(it) is not on the agenda of the joint operations to recapture Aleppo”, which was commented upon, by American analysts, without their understanding of the subtext of this words, it makes sense to treat this as a transfer of the “leader sticks, on the ground” by the actions of Iran, rather than a rift between Moscow and Tehran.

Americans rightly point out that for Iran, Syria is the moment of truth that will determine the balance of power in the Middle East for at least ten years ahead. But their calculations in respect to the motivation of Kremlin’s actions are deeply flawed. The Russian leaders have learned to calculate the moves of the West and prefer not to believe a word they say. The calculations of the CIA on the effect of a perceived warming of a dialogue with Washington and the softening of the US position on Ukraine, hence their so called “analyses” that Moscow does not want to help Assad to retake Aleppo, ensuring its victory – are a clear attempt to wishful thinking.

Taking Aleppo with the help of Russian Air Force will motivate Saudi Arabia to ask the question of whether it can go back to the negotiations table, as this will be the only opportunity for the Kingdom to maintain a presence in the political arena when its time to settle the issue. The liberation of Aleppo and Idlib, will automatically deliver a blow to the KSA and to the Riyadh group and the weighty figures at the Geneva talks. And Turkey and its main ally – Qatar will also have an involvement. And in such a situation the preservation of the tripartite alliance of anti- Saudi countries or even only one axis of Ankara – Doha, will prove to be unsubstantial for the transformation of their relationship.

For its part, Tehran will seek to implement a scenario of military planning to influence the Saudis in Syria. That is why Iran tries to strengthens its body of advisers, Afghan and Iraqi Shiite militias, as well as to replenish the arsenals of the Syrian army to provide it with a decisive offensive. To do this, Tehran is sponsoring the purchase of arms and ammunition from Belarus.

Yevgeny Satanovsky, Head of the Middle East Institute

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