No end in sight as rebels look likely to atomise further
Almost half of rebels adhere to hardline ideologies
Female members of the “Mother Aisha” battalion sit together along a street in Aleppo’s Salaheddine district. Photograph: Loubna Mrie/Reuters
A Free Syrian Army fighter holds his weapon in Ashrafieh, Aleppo. Photograph: Muzaffar Salman/Reuters
Free Syrian Army fighters play around inside a damaged bus in Ashrafieh, Aleppo. Photograph: Muzaffar Salman/Reuters
Who are Syria’s armed rebels? It’s a question mulled over by policymakers in Europe and the US as they consider the risks of intervening in the two-year-old war.
Syria’s opposition never formed a cohesive whole: the evolution of peaceful anti-regime protests into an armed uprising against president Bashar al-Assad in 2011 resulted in a constellation of fighting forces on the ground that emerged with little planning or organisation.
Almost three years on, the dynamics of Syria’s war are ever-shifting, with a web of mini-conflicts growing within the greater battle between regime and rebels. As the war grinds on, rebel forces have taken on a more explicitly religious hue, which sometimes manifests itself in sectarian rhetoric.
According to a recent study by geopolitical and risk consultancy IHS Jane’s, the rebels comprise some 100,000 fighters spread across more than 1,000 disparate units which are increasingly prone to infighting. The study estimates that about 10,000 are jihadists fighting for al-Qaeda affiliates the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) and the smaller Jabhat al-Nusra, while another 30-35,000 are hardline Islamists who seek to establish an Islamic state in Syria but do not share al-Qaeda’s global vision. Another 30,000 or so cleave to more moderate Islamist ideologies closer to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The report estimates that more secular-leaning nationalist fighters – usually associated with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) – number about 20,000, with Kurdish forces amounting to between 5,000 and 10,000.
In recent months, simmering tensions over territory, patronage and resources have boiled over into fighting between factions which could be described as united only by their wish to overthrow Assad. Jihadists linked to al-Qaeda have assassinated a number of commanders aligned to the FSA. This week fighters from ISIS seized control of Azaz, a town near the Turkish border, after battling FSA-linked forces in the town. Similar clashes have taken place in the northern city of Raqqa and other towns. Al-Qaeda-linked jihadists have frequently clashed with Syrian Kurds affiliated with Kurdish separatists in Turkey.
The IHS Jane’s estimate that almost half of rebels adhere to hardline ideologies, and that a majority share an Islamist vision for Syria’s future, challenges the picture recently painted by US secretary of state John Kerry. Addressing congressional committees earlier this month, Kerry said: “The opposition has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership, and more defined by its adherence to some, you know, democratic process and to an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution, which will be broad-based and secular with respect to the future of Syria.”
With no end to the war in sight, most observers disagree with Kerry, arguing instead that rebel forces are likely to atomise further, with hardliners in the ascendant.