Is it too late for the Syrian opposition to unify armed rebels?

Sunday 17/09/2017

The mainstream Syrian opposition is calling for the establishment of a unified military force to include all Free Syr­ian Army (FSA) groups. The goal is for the rebels to form a national army capable of bringing the downfall of the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad.

The initial call for unity among rebels was proposed by the Istanbul-based Syrian Islamic Council, Muslim clerics acting as the opposition’s Sunni religious authority. Shortly after, the Syrian opposition’s interim government in exile backed the initiative.

After meetings with various re­bel groups, the head of the interim government, Jawad Abu Hatab, was picked to be acting defence minister responsible for forging agreements among the fractured parties. Several of them, including the powerful Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham and most of the Ankara-backed FSA groups in northern Syria, backed the idea of the unifi­cation. Negotiations among rebels have begun, an interim govern­ment statement said.

Many issues regarding the unity proposal remain unaddressed, notably the prospects of success for such unification given that many merger attempts failed due to conflicting ideologies among rebel groups and their links to competing regional and interna­tional powers.

“We have always been paying the price for regional and inter­national disputes,” said Mustafa Sejry, the head of the political office of Liwa al-Mu’tasim Brigade, an FSA faction in northern Syria that has signed a statement in sup­port of the unification proposal.

“We need to put our people’s and country’s interests above foreign interests… We need to cut the road for Russia’s attempts to rehabilitate the Assad regime,” he added.

Analysts said the unification proposal was pushed on the Syr­ian opposition by Turkey, which backs the initiator bodies and the armed groups, including the al- Mu’tasim Brigade, that supported it.

Having Ankara as the backer of the unification among FSA groups would put the proposal at a critical crossroads with rebel groups that do not enjoy warm relations with Turkey.

Sejry alleged that Anka­ra has a “prominent” role in supporting the Syrian revolu­tion, adding that the increasing dominance of the al-Qaeda-linked faction, Hayat Tahrir al- Sham (HTS), in the northern governorate of Idlib bordering Turkey is a logical reason for Turkey to support the unifica­tion attempt.

“HTS dominance in the north is considered a threat to the Turkish national secu­rity,” he added.

The Syrian armed opposi­tion is arguably in a weaker position than it has ever been. The balance of power in Syria is on the side of the Assad regime and its foreign backers, Russia and Iran.

What the future holds for the Syrian opposition does not seem promising — even to the point that the United Nations is hint­ing at normalisation of relations with the Assad regime, whom UN officials proved has used chemical weapons against civilian targets.

UN Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura stated recently that the Syrian opposition must accept that it has lost the war against the Assad regime, suggesting that the conflict is reaching an end and that it is up to the opposition to make concessions to negotiate a political settlement.

“The Syrian armed opposition feels that it is facing an existen­tial threat,” said Ibrahim al-Assil, a Syrian political analyst and a resident fellow at the Middle East Institute think-tank in Washing­ton.

“One of the last options for them is to unite under one umbrella to improve their deteriorating mili­tary and political situation,” Assil added. However, “that is a very rough mission,” he said.

Assil said the differing interests of the opposition’s international patrons pose a serious challenge to any unification effort. “There is no consensus among the [opposition] backers about the military or the political plan or the outcome they want to achieve,” he said.

Additionally, “uniting the armed groups requires huge financial support to be able to pay the sala­ries and send the support through a central leadership,” he added. “There are no signs that would happen.”

While unity is an essential factor for any success the Syrian opposi­tion may wish to achieve, the situ­ation and the fractured nature of the Syrian armed rebellion could hinder efforts towards unifica­tion. It is likely the standing of the opposition groups deteriorate and their future will depend almost entirely on what international powers agree on.