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