Rebel Reaction to Russian Intervention

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 24

On September 30, Russia’s military intervention in Syria officially began with airstrikes against Syrian armed opposition forces in western Syria. Since the start of Russia’s military intervention, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its auxiliary forces—such as the National Defense Force (NDF) local militia network, and allies including Lebanese Hezbollah, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-mobilized paramilitary forces, including Iraqi and Afghani organizations—have engaged in multiple ground offensives throughout western Syrian in Latakia, Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, Homs and Damascus governorates (see MLM Briefs, October 31). Although these offensives have not been uniformly successful—in some battle spaces, such as in northern Hama and southern Idlib, SAA forces have faced significant difficulties—Russia’s military intervention in Syria, has fundamentally impacted the geopolitical context within which the Syrian armed opposition operates.

The immediate impact of the Russian military intervention is that the Syrian armed opposition in northwestern Syria has lost the initiative in its campaign to apply pressure upon the Alawite community in Latakia Governorate that provides significant demographic support for the al-Assad government. This pressure, particularly that applied by the Islamist Jaysh al-Fateh (Conquering Army) coalition, which includes several constituent militant Salafist organizations, was intended to threaten the stability of the al-Assad government by seeking to amplify internal dissent against it by loyalist communities through the prospect of impending military defeat (See Terrorism Monitor, June 12; MLM Briefs, April 29). While Jaysh al-Fateh was successful in seizing the majority of the northwestern governorate of Idlib, and also ceding practical control over a significant portion of the governorate to the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, its continued advances beyond Idlib in Hama, Latakia and Aleppo governorates, were actively contested by the SAA and its adjutant paramilitary forces.

For the foreseeable future, the Russian military intervention in Syria has secured the continuation of an al-Assad government-led statelet in western Syria, with the SAA’s ongoing presence in highly contested battle spaces in southern Syria in Dara’a Governorate, in northwestern Syria in Aleppo Governorate and in the eastern governorates of al-Hasakah and Deir al-Zor. The indefinite survival of the al-Assad government, even if its authority over Syria’s territory is significantly weakened, presents a significant dilemma for opposition-supporting international actors. This dilemma is that since the initiation of Russia’s military intervention in Syria and the solidification of the al-Assad government’s statelet, the armed opposition is in a worse position to force a decisive military conclusion to the conflict, while retaining its significant disunity in leadership and ideological goals for the end state of Syria after the conflict.

Conversely, the al-Assad government and its allies are in their best position since the beginning of the civil war to dictate the terms of a humanitarian ceasefire and an eventual political process in such a manner as to preserve the rule of Bashar al-Assad or his regime’s handpicked successors. While loyalist forces are unlikely to restore Bashar al-Assad’s rule throughout all of Syria in the foreseeable future, a general ceasefire between loyalist forces and some elements of the armed opposition, if achievable, also provides the al-Assad government with the opportunity to reallocate military resources as needed from less to more important battle spaces.

The October 30 Vienna communique, released under the auspices of the United Nations, calls for a transition from the al-Assad government to a secular, inclusive and democratic Syria post-conflict (United Nations, October 30). However, this communique does not address the Syrian armed opposition’s demands for the immediate removal of the al-Assad government, and all of the structures of the military, security, intelligence and administrative functions of the Assad regime as well as the withdrawal of Russian and IRGC forces and their proxies from Syria (Elaph, November 22; Aksalser, October 2). The demand of the withdrawal of Russian, IRGC and Hezbollah forces from Syria is highly unlikely to be met until late in a political transition period after the end of conflict, especially in the context of Hezbollah’s deployment in Syrian-Lebanese border regions and the IRGC-mobilized paramilitary network’s deployment in the vicinity of the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab, in a strategic area of Damascus’ southern suburbs. Another demand of the broader armed opposition is the dismantlement of the NDF militia network, which incorporates fighters from local loyalist communities, including sectarian minority communities; the armed opposition accuses the NDF of being a sectarian weapon of the Assad regime and its IRGC patrons (Elaph, November 22; Aksalser, October 2).

The NDF, which was established by the SAA and Syrian security and intelligence services in cooperation with advice and direction of the IRGC, is an effective, if limited, paramilitary organization that allows members of loyalist communities to be armed, salaried and sponsored by the al-Assad government in exchange for an agreement to stand their ground against the armed opposition in contested areas throughout the country. It is in the context of the NDF, and the Ministry of National Reconciliation and its adjutant “Reconciliation Committees,” that the al-Assad government seeks to reincorporate armed opposition fighters under its authority. In some battle spaces (particularly in Damascus and Homs, and to a lesser extent in Aleppo and Deir al-Zor), the option for besieged armed opposition groups, and the local communities that support them, to surrender and return back to the fold of the al-Assad government in the context of the NDF, is a core component of al-Assad government’s counter-insurgency strategy (see Terrorism Monitor, August 21). This is likely a fundamental part of the al-Assad government’s strategy throughout the Vienna process, and in any potential political transition period.

Further, according to a prominent and well-connected Syrian opposition figure, the greatest impact of the Russian intervention in Syria has come less in the context of backing the SAA’s ground offensives throughout northwest Syria and in the Damascus battle space, but has instead come in the context of the destructive power of Russian air and artillery assets. [1] These are degrading the armed opposition by killing civilians and destroying the communities from which the armed opposition draws support. In particular, the psychological impact of the escalation of Russian and IRGC involvement that does not appear set to end in the near term, and which has firmly taken the initiative away from the armed opposition, is driving Syrian armed opposition calculations in the context of the Vienna process. [2]

One of the most direct impacts of the Russian intervention on the broader Syrian armed opposition movement has been a revival of the process to achieve a wide-ranging framework for the unification of the leadership of the broader Syrian armed opposition throughout the country, and across the ideological spectrum, from militant Salafist organizations to secular nationalists (Ammon News [Amman], November 22; Elaph, November 22; Elaph, November 14). Meetings scheduled for the week of December 7-11 in Saudi Arabia seek to establish both a unified list of Syrian armed opposition groups that can be a party to the Vienna process and the baseline political vision for a post-conflict Syria that is secular, inclusive and democratic as outlined by the October 30 communique (Reuters, December 6; Ammon News [Amman], November 22; Elaph, November 14; United Nations, October 30).

As a model, opposition-supporting states are seeking to revive the Majlis Qiyadaat al-Thawri Sooria (Syrian Revolutionary Command Council—SRCC), which was an effort announced in August 2014, and which has since fallen into inactivity. The Syrian Revolutionary Command Council, included a wide range of armed opposition groups, including militant Salafist organizations Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya (Islamic Movement of the Free Ones of the Levant) and Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam), and organizations including Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki (Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement), Jaysh al-Mujahideen (Mujahideen Army), Suqur al-Ghab (Falcons of al-Ghab), Liwa Fursan al-Haqq (Knights of the Truth Brigade) and Faraqa 13 (13th Brigade) that have received TOW missiles from Saudi Arabia and Turkey with the approval of the United States (YouTube, November 30, 2014; al-Jazeera [Doha], August 3, 2014). However, prominent Syrian opposition figures, and opposition-supporting states, look to the Revolutionary Command Council as a potential blueprint for how to achieve the wide-ranging armed opposition unity sought in the Vienna process. [3]

The TOW-supplied Syrian armed opposition organizations have sought to capitalize on the military effect—and propaganda utility—of their TOWs, and the reported difficulties that TOWs present to the Russia and IRGC-backed SAA offensives in northern Hama and southern Idlib, in order to increase their prominence in the broader Syrian armed opposition movement (Twitter, December 1; Reuters, November 25; Reuters, October 30; Reuters, October 19). Some of these externally supported organizations, which are considered to constitute the most effective elements of the Syrian moderate armed opposition, are actively utilizing the propaganda points earned by their successful deployment of TOW missiles to attempt to position themselves as the centers of gravity for the broader armed opposition movement in northwestern Syria (al-Nahar [Beirut], December 2; Twitter, December 1; SMO [Hama], December 1; YouTube, November 26).

In spite of these ongoing efforts toward the unity of the armed opposition, there remains no clearly empowered leader or leadership body that has authority over the broader Syrian armed opposition movement. Media sources close to Hezbollah and supportive of the al-Assad government’s war effort, indicate that the Syrian government and its allies are fully aware of the challenges of unification facing the armed opposition and have incorporated this reality into their political and military calculations (al-Manar [Beirut], November 17). These divisions among the rebels occur throughout Syria, including in southern Syria, where the relative strength of the generally moderate armed opposition coalition the Southern Front (SF) is receding to militant Salafist armed opposition groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra (Victory Front), Harakat Muthanna al-Islamiya (Islamic Movement of Muthanna), Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya and the former SF constituent faction and current Islamic State affiliate Liwa Shuda al-Yarmouk (Yarmouk Martyrs’ Battalion). [4]

However, it is in northwestern Syria where rebel disunity could have the most destructive, and trans-national, impact as the conflict continues. This region of the country is where the majority of the Russian and IRGC-backed SAA operations have occurred, and where the highest concentration of Salafist-Jihadist, militant Salafist and militant Islamist organizations, some with a similar ideology to the Muslim Brotherhood, have the strongest presence. The largest concentration of Salafist-Jihadist fighters from the Caucasus, outside of Islamic State-controlled areas of eastern and northern Syria, are also present in northwestern Syria, and resolving the threat of Caucasus-origin foreign fighters based in this region presents a counter-terrorism priority for the Russian forces (al-Akhbar [Beirut], November 30; AFP, October 7; Terrorism Monitor, April 2). This region of Syria also borders Turkey, the most significant site of strategic depth for the armed opposition, and it is from Turkey that the armed opposition has the ability to achieve the strongest lines of supply and reinforcement to apply indefinite military pressure on the al-Assad statelet.

The Syrian government’s current list, the October 30 Vienna outline and the recent statements by the United Arab Emirates’ State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, that the UAE would not be unhappy with Russian airstrikes against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, further highlights the dilemma of the broader Syrian armed opposition movement in northwestern Syria (AFP, November 30; Mehr News [Tehran], November 28). The October 30 communique indicates that there is broad public agreement by international actors supporting the designation of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in Syria, which is generally but not exclusively referred to in the context of Jabhat al-Nusra, as terrorist organizations to be marginalized and defeated (United Nations, October 30). In spite of this agreement, prominent armed opposition organizations throughout northwest Syria, including TOW-supplied organizations in Idlib, Hama and Aleppo, still militarily cooperate with Jabhat al-Nusra and are ambivalent in regard to their future relationship with it (ARA News [Hama], November 26; All4Syria [Hama], November 23).

Jabhat al-Nusra’s continuing influence on the Syrian armed opposition is pragmatically recognized by the predominately exile-led opposition movement that frequently interacts with pro-opposition states, such as the Syrian National Coalition. Khaled Khoja, the current president of the Syrian National Coalition, has made several public statements, including a statement after the conclusion of the latest round of the Vienna process on November 23, asking Jabhat al-Nusra members to renounce their allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri in return for full acceptance in the mainstream armed opposition (AFP, November 23).

This stance is highly problematic as it indicates that there is still deep reservation within the Syrian opposition movement, and opposition-supporting regional actors, to completely marginalize, confront and defeat non-Islamic State, militant Salafist actors in Syria, which are embedded in the broader armed opposition’s military campaigns against the al-Assad government and its allies. Throughout Syria in areas that have fallen into rebel rule, these organizations include Jabhat al-Nusra, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya, Jabhat Ansar al-Din (Partisans of Religion Front), Jund al-Aqsa (Soldiers of Aqsa Mosque), Jaysh al-Islam in the eastern Ghouta region of the Damascus suburbs and Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya in Dara’a, and others, including militant Islamist organizations that are part of the Jaysh al-Fateh coalition. The ongoing dispute among international actors over the status of Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya is indicative of the assumptions, and the challenges, that are inherent in creating an “approved” list of Syrian armed opposition actors.

Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya is an ideologically militant Salafist umbrella organization of local constituent militias, which at its leadership level has close and well-recorded ties to al-Qaeda’s leadership and its senior international commanders; at its local constituent militia level, the organization regularly and enthusiastically coordinates and conducts operations with Jabhat al-Nusra and other Salafist-Jihadist organizations throughout the country (ARA News [Aleppo], November 30; All4Syria [Aleppo], November 27; al-Akhbar [Beirut], November 17; Enab Baladi [Hama], November 15; Free Syrian Army [Damascus], October 21; al-Bawaba [Idlib], October 15; Enab Baladi [Latakia], August 16; al-Safir [Beirut], July 24). Further, although certain factions within Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya publicly state that they seek a more conciliatory and gradualist approach to revolution in Syria, the constituent militias within Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya have aided and abetted the development of Jabhat al-Nusra’s growing administration in Idlib (al-Mujhir [Idlib], November 11; al-Quds al-Arabi, November 7; al-Araby al-Jadeed, November 1; al-Qabas [Kuwait City], October 24; YouTube, September 26; al-Araby al-Jadeed, July 16; al-Araby al-Jadeed, June 11).

The al-Assad government, and likely its Russian and Iranian allies, want to marginalize Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya and Jaysh al-Islam in the course of the Vienna process (France 24, November 29; Mehr News [Tehran], November 28; al-Alam [Tehran], November 18). A majority of the joint operations rooms that are conducted throughout northern Syria incorporate either Jabhat al-Nusra or Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya, or both, and to a lesser extent Jaysh al-Islam, while in the Damascus area, the operations rooms heavily incorporate Jaysh al-Islam (al-Nahar [Beirut], November 21; Enab Baladi [Hama], November 15; Enab Baladi [Latakia], August 16). The Syrian government, by demanding that these operations rooms, which include more ideologically moderate armed opposition actors, disavow Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya, is seeking to create rifts within the broader armed opposition movement.

In particular, several of the most active and most celebrated TOW-supplied armed opposition groups actively cooperate with Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya constituent militias (al-Jazirah Online [Aleppo], November 29; All4Syria [Hama], November 23; Enab Baladi [Hama], November 15; Enab Baladi [Latakia], August 16). These rifts, should they develop, have the potential to lead to open warfare among Syria’s rebel organizations throughout the north—and across the ideological spectrum—which would threaten not only a humanitarian ceasefire, but also the project of building Syrian armed opposition unity. At the center of these rifts remains Jabhat al-Nusra, which has increased its influence and leverage throughout northwestern Syria.

The ceasefire plan and the Vienna political process is likely dependent on Jabhat al-Nusra, and other militant Salafist armed groups, not preventing its implementation. In the event that a ceasefire is achieved and a political process begun out of the Vienna process, there will remain significant challenges from within the Syrian armed opposition. This scenario will be most challenged, from within the armed opposition, via a “war after the war,” whereby more ideologically extremist Sunni armed opposition groups led by Jabhat al-Nusra demand that the war against the al-Assad government and its allies continues until all of the security and intelligence structures of the regime are removed and a Shari’a governance structure is imposed over all of Syria. In the event of these developments, the pro-opposition states’ support for TOW-supplied groups in northwestern Syria could serve the purpose of challenging Jabhat al-Nusra’s building governance structure’s expansion, if in fact the TOW-supplied armed opposition organizations in northwestern Syria are not in a subordinate position to Jabhat al-Nusra and its ideological allies.

Nicholas A. Heras is a Middle East researcher at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and an associate fellow for the Jamestown Foundation.

1. Interview with a Syrian defector from the al-Assad government who worked several years in Damascus with close ties to prominent Syrian opposition, including the armed opposition, leaders involved in the Vienna process. Interview conducted by Viber on November 30.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Interviews with two Syrian activists with close ties to the Southern Front. Interviews conducted via Skype on October 28, November 14, and December 2.