The Syrian opposition is in a rare position of power, at least internationally. In his September 10 address, President Barack Obama extended the war against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, into Syria. He said that the United States will lead a coalition to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. There is a wide recognition that the opposition will be key in the fight against the radical group. But the opposition does not have a strategy to seize this opportunity. And at this critical juncture Syrian rebels have even alienated some of their allies.
Until Obama’s speech, the opposition was suspicious that U.S. strikes in Syria would be carried out in collaboration with the Assad regime, despite repeated statements from Western capitals to the contrary. On Wednesday, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood rejected the international coalition against ISIS “unless the first bullet is directed at [Bashar] al-Assad’s head.” Even though the opposition’s National Coalition welcomed the American move against ISIS, the political opposition is still waiting for an invitation to play a role, rather than proactively presenting a vision for a way out for the Syrian crisis.
Away from politics, however, a fairly different situation exists among opposition fighters. Significant rebel coalitions have already been formed to help in the fight against ISIS, and preparations for the zero hour seem to be in full swing. On September 10, seven groups affiliated with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), Free Syrian Army, and the Islamic Front, among them Kurdish and Arab fighters, announced a small yet symbolically significant coalition to fight ISIS in eastern Syria. On Monday, five sizable fighting groups in Idlib announced a merger, named al-Faylaq al-Khamis (The Fifth Legion), saying they would adhere to strict military discipline and use the Syrian revolutionary flag, which indicates a rejection of Islamist ideology. The Syrian Revolutionary Front, which was key to the expulsion of ISIS from much of the north earlier this year, also announced that it would send “convoys after convoys” to areas under ISIS control to defeat the jihadi group.
But even though rebels on the ground are willing and prepared to fight ISIS, the political opposition has a critical role to play. The areas tightly controlled by ISIS will require an assiduous effort to organize groups that could fill any vacuum left by ISIS as a result of the potential airstrikes. ISIS has made it much harder for armed groups from these areas, particularly Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa, to regroup and make a comeback or for local forces to stage an insurrection against the jihadi group. Rebel groups from outside these areas will also find it quite difficult to navigate, much less be welcomed in, these territories.
Rebel forces from the north can help fight ISIS from the ground, under air cover and intelligence and with logistical assistance, but local forces will be vital in retaking areas currently under ISIS control. Many of the fighters from Deir ez-Zor, for example, left the province to fight near Damascus after ISIS entered their areas in June. Local forces who have surrendered to ISIS have little appetite to rise up against the group unless they know that it will be too weakened to return to their areas and retaliate against them, as it did to several villages and towns in recent weeks.
These complexities will make the fight against ISIS that much more difficult. The dilemma is obvious: in areas currently ruled by ISIS, local forces are unwilling to initiate a ground-up uprising against ISIS unless the group is weakened, and it cannot be seriously weakened without help from local forces. The U.S.-led coalition will have to consider aligning with rebel groups from adjacent areas outside ISIS control, combined with effective air operations, before expecting a popular impetus against the group. A leadership role for the political opposition will be needed to make that happen.
A main setback for the political opposition is that its relationship with even its most committed backers has turned sour, mostly because of crippling infighting. Saudi Arabia, for example, has not held any official bilateral meetings with the National Coalition since the new leadership was formed in June, and did not invite it to recent meetings, which countries like Jordan and Egypt attended, even though the discussions were about Syria and the U.S. strikes.
The worsening relationship has led to two developments that might prove to be a turning point for the opposition. The first one is that the opposition’s sponsors now focus on working with individual, reliable figures, rather than the National Coalition or even the military councils. These individuals are currently taking a leading role in the effort against ISIS. This might signal a tendency to overlook the structures that have been resistant to inclusivity and change. In addition, the sponsors’ effort to provide funding only to loyal groups has already produced remarkable results, primarily the weakening of the Islamic Front, which turned to little more than a brand that has no operational reality. Ahrar al-Sham, for example, had been steadily weakening even before nearly all its top leaders were killed on September 9 in an attack at one of the group’s bases in Idlib’s countryside.
Such efforts to tighten the noose around extremist groups—at least for countries like Saudi Arabia—will be part of a long-term effort to build an organic army that would be part of a future Syria. According to sources1 in the Gulf region, the need for establishing a “Sunni peshmerga” is key to the regional countries’ current strategy. There are already reports that thousands of rebel fighters will be trained in Jordan and the Gulf; Saudi Arabia has reportedly agreed to host training for the rebels inside the kingdom. This force, despite its name, is not meant to have a sectarian agenda, but it would be designed as an army that can police and protect Sunni-dominated territories in Syria and Iraq. The plan to establish “Sunni peshmerga” will exclude Islamist groups, even if they project a moderate tone.
Such efforts have already led some of the Islamist factions in Syria to significantly moderate their ideological and political stances in recent months, primarily the Islamic Front, and individual groups such as Ahrar al-Sham. It has also led others, such as Harakat Noureddin al-Zinki, to either join more moderate forces or form new ones. An indication that Islamists are concerned about this approach is that the Syrian Islamic Council, along with the Muslim Brotherhood, have so far opposed the anti-ISIS coalition because it might potentially bypass the existing Islamist-dominated structures of the opposition.
The dwindling trust in the opposition, even from its most committed allies, drives them to do more to win back that trust. Airstrikes against ISIS will provide the opposition with an opportunity to work alongside countries that long doubted its ability to rule a post-Assad Syria. It is an opportunity that should not be missed.
This article is reprinted with permission from Sada. It can be accessed online at: http://carnegieendowment.org/sada/2014/09/11/confronting-islamic-state/hoim
Hassan Hassan is an analyst with the Delma Institute, a research house based in Abu Dhabi, and a columnist for The National newspaper. Follow him on Twitter @hxhassan.
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