19.11.2016 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

“Rebel Unity” Fails Amid Aleppo’s Fall


What had once been called a “jewel of Syrian rebellion” by the West is now facing its collapse. Aleppo now stands to fall back to the Syrian government forces, and with is likely to come one of the biggest symbolic and territorial defeats to the foreign funded “rebels.” According to the latest reports, Syrian government forces have recaptured all of the areas taken by “rebel fighters” in a recent assault intended to break the regime siege on eastern Aleppo. The setbacks these “rebels” have suffered have practically undone all of the progress made during a recent push by a coalition of groups, including (former) Al Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham front, as they tried to end a government siege on the east of Aleppo city.

Whereas the defeat is likely, it has done a lot of damage to the fragile unity different rebel groups, particularly backed by the former Al-Nusra front, had forged among themselves at the beginning of their counter-attack on Syrian forces in August. What had started as a ‘co-ordinated front’ against Assad’s siege-attack is now crumbling like a heap of cards and is desperately fighting its own self to salvage out of the city. Aleppo being the last major urban centre where the rebels have had a foothold, success against Syrian forces would have meant a lot of psychological advantage, reversing the momentum of months of setbacks brought about by an intense Russian air campaign in support of Assad. Failure to hold onto the city has initiated a self-destructing process, forcing the bigger rebel groups to swallow the smaller groups and bring more territory under their control, and thereby find more recruits for future fighting.

This has happened when the “rebel” coalition has failed to sustain the counter-siege they had initiated for the part of the city under Syrian army’s control. The “unity” faced its demise when some of the groups clashed in a town near the Turkish border on Monday, November 14. The confrontation in Azaz pitted a prominent Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel group, the Levant Front, against factions that also fight under the FSA banner and the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham, sources on both sides and a group that reports on the war said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said headquarters and checkpoints held by the Levant Front had been seized in the fighting, which a Levant Front official said had forced the group to withdraw some fighters from a battle with Islamic State in the nearby city of al-Bab.

Calling this in-fighting a fatal blow to the opposition forces, the “rebel” officials were reported to have said that a campaign has been started in that part of Syria, close to the Turkish border, to cleanse it of the groups that have been acting as “gangs” and been a source of dis-organization.

These developments clearly indicate that not only is Aleppo falling but the foreign-funded “rebel forces”, marred as their unity was by ideological clashes as well as conflicting local interests, have started to resort to tactics that will eventually not secure their foreign sponsors’ interests.

On a larger scale, the fall of Aleppo has a lot of symbolic importance. Since its fall to the “rebels”, a part of the city had been structured to resemble an Assad-free system of government. It elected, under the overlordship of these “rebels”, local leaders, ran its own education system and built an economy trading with the rebel-held countryside and neighbouring Turkey.

While Aleppo was, before the start of current crisis in 2011, Syria’s largest city and its commercial center, with a sense of its own identity and pride bolstered by a unique cuisine, distinct local culture and millennia of history in its Old City, its eastern part, relatively less developed than other parts, did welcome the “rebels” and built a system that symbolised an eventual fall of Assad.

However, only symbolic as this system was, the current fall of the city has reinforced, rather than mitigated, the fact that a rebel-imposed system, with or without Assad, cannot be expected to sustain life onto a positive direction. Nothing could better explain this fragility than the start of in-fighting among different groups, fighting for their group interest rather than for the people.

As such, the eastern Aleppo, which was once the crown example of an Assad-free Syria has now started to see rebel-infighting, making the people experience one of the worst crisis of their lives. And as the reports have indicated, rebel factions clashed, earlier in November, in eastern Aleppo itself. In that clash, the Zinki group and the allied jihadist Jabhat Fateh al-Sham tried to crush the Fastaqim faction, which is part of the FSA. So much for the “rebels” to hold steadfastly to their avowed aim of ridding the Syrians of a “tyrant”!

While after the November 3 clashes, the rebel officials had stated their “work” was underway to resolve the crisis, the November 14 clashes have confirmed their inability to hold onto their position amid the Syrian army’s well sustained attacks.

With the fall of Aleppo, rebel activity in the northern part of Syria will be crippled to a great extent. With the regime in control of the capital of Damascus and Aleppo, the perception is likely to grow among the people of Syria who are still disconnected with their government that the forces supporting Bashar al-Asad are on the path to defeating the opposition.

On other hand, what has provided the latest impetus to this in-fighting and what has failed previous attempts to maintain unity, or even a semblance of it amid Syrian assault, is the victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential elections—a victory that has brought with it a powerful assumption—or fear for rebels—that the in the US’ new policy, co-operation with Russia will be given priority over sending arms and planes to their aid in Syria.

The implication of this election outcome is clear, at least this stage: If the US was to withdraw its support, it would mean that it would play a much lesser role in directly providing weapons that are sent into Syria from Turkey.

Sensing such a situation, the rebel groups have started in-fighting, a potentially cleansing campaign, to bring as much territory under their control as possible, and seek fresh avenues of aid elsewhere, potentially from Syria’s other enemies in the region i.e., the Arab states, who are yet to define their position vis-à-vis Syria after Trump’s victory.

Were the US to changes its policy under Trump and were the Arab states to continue to provide support to “rebels”, which is most likely to happen, the war in Syria would continue. While Aleppo would eventually fall, the disgruntled “rebel” groups might be forced to shift to guerrilla tactics, due to short supplies of weapons, instead of holding cities under their control.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.