War of attrition: The Syrian rebellion grinds on into its 6th year, with no end in sight

In the Sunni-Shia proxy war currently under way, no side has a clear and obvious advantage.

Nour al-Din al-Zenki fighters training in the north Aleppo countryside, June 2016 (photo credit: YASSER IBRAHIM)
Nour al-Din al-Zenki fighters training in the north Aleppo countryside, June 2016
(photo credit: YASSER IBRAHIM)
IT IS now five years since the outbreak of the Syrian armed rebellion against the regime of Bashar Assad, and up to 400,000 people have been killed in the civil war that has ravaged and destroyed the country. In addition, 13.5 million people have lost their homes and of those, around 6.6 million have left the country.
Yet an end to the war seems nowhere near, as a half-decade on, the revolt finds itself at an impasse. Any hopes for a democratic transformation of the country are long gone.
Today, the rebellion is dominated by Sunni Islamist groups of various hues, supported by a variety of regional players. Salafi Islamist groups are the strongest among the armed groups, with Ahrar al-Sham (Free Men of the Levant) perhaps the single strongest group. Jabhat al-Nusra (Support Front) – until recently the official franchise of the Al-Qaeda network in Syria – and Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) from the Damascus area are also leading players.
Many analysts throughout the war had assumed that the sheer weight of numbers must eventually, inevitably, lead to a rebel victory.
Throughout the fight, the Assad regime has been plagued by a shortage of manpower.
The regime has a narrow core base of support. The Alawis, the sect from which the Assads emerged, constituted only about 12 percent of the population of Syria at the outbreak of the war. The rebels, meanwhile, came from Syria’s 60 percent Sunni Arab majority. Hence on the basis of sheer attrition, their eventual victory seemed likely.
In 2015, this moment appeared close. But Russian and Iranian mobilization and assistance prevented its realization.
The current situation now stands as follows: Russian air power and Iranian proxy manpower have kept the regime in existence, and are now pushing the rebels back. Rebel-controlled eastern Aleppo is surrounded. The fronts in the south remain more static, but the initiative in the war has now passed back to the regime. In the south, too, local ‘de-escalation’ agreements effectively constitute rebel surrenders.
In late 2016, I traveled to the border area between Turkey and Syria in order to interview rebel fighters and leaders. I was among the first foreign journalists to meet the rebels and visit their first areas of control, all the way back in February 2012. I wanted to see what had changed and what remained the same. And, in so doing, perhaps also to get a sense of the current balance of power in the Middle East, as seen through the lens of its most bloody and intractable war.
The towns of Gaziantep and Kilis, where I visited, have become centers of the Syrian refugee population. The various rebel groups have hunkered down here, setting up their offices in the echoing apartment blocks of the poorer parts of these cities.
There they spend their days waiting, with much time on their hands.
The most immediately obvious change is in the border itself. In the first couple of years of the war, the Syrian-Turkish border was basically open, except for in the areas facing Syria’s Kurdish population. Turkey was a strong supporter of the rebellion. Its imminent victory was expected. Ankara in essence turned the border over to the rebels against Assad in the first years.
In those days, the rebels and the many journalists who wanted to write about them crossed over more or less freely.
The border fence was an old and flimsy affair. There were many obliging smugglers’ rings willing to trace a path through the minefields for a fee. The Turkish army itself was cheerfully amenable to bribery.
All that is over now. The journalists for the most part no longer come. In the course of 2013, the Salafi jihadis entered the picture, bringing with them their hatred of the kuffar, the infidel. The kidnappings of journalists soon followed.
Moreover, since the emergence of the Islamic State in Syria, interest in the destruction of the Assad regime has waned in the West. The rebellion itself is dominated by Sunni Islamists. Any notion of it representing the doorway to some better or more representative future for the region has long since departed.
Furthermore, ISIS and its activities have forced the Turks to recalibrate their position.
From Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s point of view, ISIS wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. The jihadis were keen to challenge the Kurdish nationalists of the PKK and its Syrian franchise. These were the forces that Ankara was really worried about. But with the commencement of ISIS’s war against the West, a policy of benign indifference toward the jihadis was no longer possible. Turkey began to act against the ISIS presence in the country, and ISIS hit back – both by shelling the town of Kilis, and by activating its cells within Turkey itself, carrying out the bombing at Ataturk airport in Istanbul on June 28. As a consequence, the border fence has been revamped, and replaced with a wall along some sections of the frontier. The army no longer take bribes; and anyone seeking to make a run to or from Syria now faces a good chance of being shot dead (back in 2012, the soldiers used to just fire in the air).
But the nature of the conflict itself has also changed. There was a moment, in the early days of the rebellion, when it genuinely looked like a popular uprising. This was always perhaps misleading. Today it seems very distant. There is no longer a single war taking place in Syria. Rather, the country has fragmented into a variety of interlocking ‘projects’ and conflicts.
AS BASAM Haji Mustafa of the Islamist Nour al-Din al-Zenki group put it to me, “There are four projects in Syria today: The Assad regime and its allies; the [Kurdish- led, US-supported] Syrian Democratic Forces; the Islamic State; and the rebellion.”
We were speaking to Haji Mustafa via Skype, from Gaziantep into besieged Aleppo.
It was just a few days before the regime closed the final exit from the eastern part of the city, the Castello Road. Yet the Zenki commander remained withering in his contempt for the dictator’s forces. “The regime is no longer an organized force,” he said. “It is a mixture of many components – Iranians, Lebanese, Iraqis.”
This is a fair appraisal. As of today, the regime-controlled southern and western Syria, the rebel-controlled northwest, the Kurdish-controlled northeast, and Islamic State-controlled east all seem fairly secure.
Perhaps only the latter will yet fall, because of Western determination that the Islamic State be destroyed.
But the rebels too, even in their own Sunni Arab enclave, are badly divided.
Northwest Syria today constitutes the last area firmly in the rebellion’s hands.
But the area is sub-divided into three separate areas of operation: the south Aleppo countryside and Idleb Province, the area of eastern Aleppo city, and the small Azaz-Marea pocket, in which the rebels are sandwiched between an Islamic State area and the Kurdish Afrin enclave.
The South Aleppo and Idleb area is by far the largest. Islamic State is not in this area, and the war is fought between the regime and the rebels only. In this area, the Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) rebel coalition is dominant. This coalition is dominated by two Salafi jihadi groups, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, and one Muslim Brotherhood- inspired militia, Faylaq al-Sham (Legion of the Levant).
In Aleppo city, the jihadi groups organized in Jaish al-Fatah are dominant, but a number of smaller militias also play an important role.
The Aleppo city front is separated from the Syrian-Turkish border by a narrow strip of regime-controlled territory. North of this line of regime-controlled territory, in the small Azaz-Marea enclave, the rebels are engaged in fighting ISIS. So far, they have enjoyed only limited success.
The rebels in this area again include representatives of the larger Islamist forces further south. But non-Islamist forces are more strongly represented here. The small Mutassim Brigade, a non-Islamist group, has emerged as the favored partner of the US.
So the rebellion in Syria today consists of three interlocking frontlines in which organizations ranging from al-Qaeda’s (now departed) local franchise to US-supported militias are cooperating.
But while a myriad of organizations exists, it is clear that Sunni political Islam of one kind or another is the dominant force.
This should surprise no one. The armed rebellion emerged from conservative, Sunni, rural, pious northwest Syria. That it should take on this hue is entirely natural, and predictable.
I asked every rebel leader and representative I spoke to if they could conceive of some role for Bashar Assad in a transitory phase that would lead to a new Syria. The reaction was unanimous and predictable: Assad had to go, as soon as possible. Yet as Ahmed al-Imam, a military commander of the 1st Regiment from Aleppo city told me, “We have no clear strategic plan. The regime is supported by powerful countries, and the allies of the free army are weak.”
The gap between the aspirations of the rebels and their abilities to achieve them are huge, and growing.
Yet at the same time, they do not appear close to defeat. The Müşterek Operasyon Merkezi (Military Operations Center) is continuing to operate, supplying US weapons to certain vetted and selected rebel groups. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, meanwhile, maintain their own direct lines of support to Islamist groups not supported by the MOM. So weaponry is not about to run out.
The loss of eastern Aleppo in its entirety would represent a disaster for the rebels.
But even then, should Assad seek to retake the entirety of Aleppo and Idleb provinces, he would be faced with the same dilemma which forced him to abandon them in mid- 2012 – namely, the absence of sufficient manpower with which to effectively police and hold these areas. These provinces are still inhabited by a Sunni Arab population, which completely rejects the dictator.
Also, as al-Imam pointed out, the rebels have no way back. “To be or not to be,” he said. “We have no choice but to continue.”
On a moral or ethical level, there is nothing particular to celebrate regarding the Syrian rebels, or their opponents. A horrifying video uploaded to the Internet on July 19 showed rebel fighters of the Nour al-Din al-Zenki movement decapitating a young child of Palestinian-Syrian origin. The fighters in the video claim that the child was a ‘spy’ and a member of a pro-government militia.
THE LEADERSHIP of Zenki later condemned this act and referred to it as an “error.”
But it seems to reflect a context of wider and extensive human rights violations by rebel groups in northwest Syria. An Amnesty International report issued in May sets out details of this, including allegations of kidnapping and torture by a number of groups.
Of course, such actions notwithstanding, the Assad regime’s attempts to portray itself as an anti-terrorist force remain ludicrous.
As the conflict has progressed, the dictator has become increasingly reliant on Iran-linked militia forces to plug the gaps in manpower. The Assad regime has, throughout its history, made energetic use of terrorist clients of Sunni, Shi’ite and other loyalties. What is happening in Syria today with regard to the regime and the rebellion is that two rival forces of sectarian gunmen are clashing. Yet the Assad regime has been responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths in Syria over the last five years.
So is the Syrian rebellion doomed? The answer is – probably not. For all its fragmented nature, it retains lines of support from powerful countries. There is the ‘MOM’ of course, in Turkey, and its equivalent in Jordan. But there are also the separate channels of support from Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to the powerful jihadi and Islamist militias in the north. It is also notable that large numbers of Sunni Arab Syrians appear to remain willing to volunteer in its ranks and risk their lives in its cause. This mass of active support has been the rebels’ main advantage throughout the war. It derives from their hailing from Syria’s single largest community. It does not appear to have yet been exhausted.
So the rebels can neither win their war, nor can they be completely defeated. What might this mean for Syria? With Aleppo surrounded, the rebels may lose their main symbolic territorial asset in the months ahead. The rebellion’s entry into Aleppo in the summer of 2012 represents its single greatest achievement. But even if it is lost, the rebels will still hold a large swath of territory in Aleppo, Idleb, Latakia and northern Hama provinces, where they are still scoring tactical victories against the regime.
Jabhat al-Nusra’s decision in late July to part from the core al-Qaeda network was almost certainly tactical in nature, rather than representing some profound shift in the outlook of this group. But Nusra has been characterized by a tactical flexibility (in stark contrast to the rival jihadis of Islamic State) since its outset. The move may well be sufficient to prevent a joint Russian and American counter- terror campaign against the group, which had seemed like an emerging possibility.
What this means is that five years on, the conflict in Syria appears nowhere close to conclusion. The rebellion – now an entirely Sunni Islamist affair – appears to be set to continue the fight even in the absence of any strategy or even any serious hope of eventual victory. As Ahmed al-Imam of the 1st Regiment put it to me, “The Free Army is surrounded by three enemies [the regime, ISIS and the Kurds], and we are exhausted. They have all the energy, we have nothing.”
But al-Imam expressed this gloomy prospect before inviting me to join his fighters for a reporting trip into northern Syria (I declined).
The rebellion still holds ground and appears in no immediate prospect of eclipse.
What might be learned regarding the region from this situation? Firstly, that in the Sunni-Shia proxy war currently under way, no side has a clear and obvious advantage. Rather in Syria, as in Yemen and Iraq, the proxies of the Saudis and other Sunni powers and those of the Iranians appear capable of surviving each other’s assaults, but not of achieving comprehensive victory.
Secondly, that this, combined with the fragmented ethnic and sectarian nature of the countries in question, means that ongoing war of attrition and ongoing division across a large, ruined swath of the Middle East looks set to remain.