Syria – the beginning of the end? The Sunni side

In 2013, the US designated the al-Nusra Front a terrorist organization, since it was a branch of al-Qaida in Syria.

Syrian refugee children pose as they play near their families' residence at Al Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, January 30, 2016. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syrian refugee children pose as they play near their families' residence at Al Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, January 30, 2016.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Just like in the Sykes-Picot Agreement during World War I, when the British and French divided the Middle East between them, various factors involved in the fighting in Syria – Middle East countries and opposition organizations, great powers and terrorist organizations – are doing the same thing today; they all want a share of the spoils. There is just one problem: the fighting is far from over in Syria, following the collapse of the third cease-fire.
The rebel groups The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is in fact an umbrella organization of different groups of rebels across Syria, each group with a different agenda. After the signing of the most recent cease-fire, led by Russia and Turkey, Moscow claimed the agreement did not include the Salafi factions affiliated with al-Qaida, while the FSA disagreed. While this disagreement may seem purely tactical, it is in fact very important to clarify, as it is a major key to understanding why the fighting in Syria continues despite the cease-fires.
In 2013, the US designated the al-Nusra Front a terrorist organization, since it was a branch of al-Qaida in Syria. The Syrian rebels, headed by the FSA, went out to demonstrate under the banner “I am a terrorist.”
From their point of view, this organization was an inseparable part of the revolution and thus should not have been designated a terrorist group. In recent months, the al-Nusra Front has announced its disengagement from al-Qaida and has twice changed its name. Now named the Levant Liberation Committee (Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham) it is aiming to bring other groups to join it, and essentially create the image of a local Syrian group and not a transnational Salafist one such as al-Qaida. During the war years, over a dozen groups, most of them moderate, have joined what is now called Levant Liberation Committee, with its Salafi Islamic agenda.
So, with the common goal of ousting Syrian President Bashar Assad various groups with different agendas may cooperate. This sometimes plays to the moderate groups’ disadvantage, since it seemingly justifies the claims that all the rebels are terrorists steeped in radical Islamic ideology. This is essentially the tragedy of the war in Syria. As the Shi’ites grow stronger, the extremist Sunni organizations attract more and more Sunnis both in Syria and abroad, as they believe these organizations are the effective solution against the Moscow-Tehran alliance.
Meanwhile, in other cases, the various rebel groups engage in confrontations among themselves and are unable to create a united and effective front against the regime. The same also applies to the Islamic rebel organizations. The dismantling and reuniting process that occurred during the past month among them ended with the creation of two rival Salafi blocs: The Levant Liberation Committee (Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham), against another radical Islamic organization, named the Freemen of the Levant (Ahrar a-Sham) that is supported by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia and which is also making efforts to attract rebel groups, including relatively moderate ones.
It is important to mention a third group that operates alongside these two organizations: The Army of Islam (Jaysh al-Islam). This group was more active in the Damascus region under Saudi Arabian patronage, but now appears to also be supported by Turkey and has led the negotiations in Astana and Geneva.
The Idlib region that absorbs the rebels and their families, who have been evacuated from regions that they have lost, is becoming the new center for the Islamic rebels. The latter are being joined by more and more rebels, who belonged to moderate organizations and have lost the battles in Aleppo and other areas in Syria. Thus, the revolution in Syria is becoming more and more Islamic in nature. The question that arises in this context is whether a future settlement will turn Idlib into the new Sunni center following the fall of Aleppo – with some form of independence – or perhaps this is an interim stage? Will Assad, after he regains control over the rest of Syria, return to the Idlib district and expel the Sunnis from there, too? The Sunni countries Saudi Arabia was notable by its absence from the Astana Declaration. It was a full partner in the preliminary cease-fire talks and led the position that uncompromisingly opposed the continuation of the Assad regime. However, it would now seem that the Russians preferred to finalize deals with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Saudi Arabia remained outside. Is that so? First of all, Turkey has succeeded in positioning itself as a central architect of Syria’s future. It was the first country that sent in infantry and armor, to prevent the Kurds from creating a territorial continuum along the Syrian-Turkish border. This rivalry between the Kurds and Turks has created great difficulty during all the years of the civil war, both concerning the struggle against Islamic State (ISIS) and the attempt to limit the reinforcement of the Russian-Iranian presence in the area. From Turkey’s viewpoint, the Kurdish organizations, mainly the PKK, are no less dangerous than ISIS, and need to be fought with the same determination.
Secondly, after Saudi Arabia was dismissed from the Astana process; after oil prices greatly harmed its economy; after it stood alone in its demand that Assad go; and after even Egypt began to turn its back on it and was shown to be prepared to reach a compromise with the Shi’ite side – after all that, Saudi Arabia was left “alone” in its position regarding the war in Syria. However, we cannot ignore the fact that Saudi Arabia controls quite a few rebel organizations on the ground, which it has supported throughout the war. Concurrently, Donald Trump being elected US president has created an opportunity for Saudi Arabia.
This week saw a meeting between Turkish President Erdogan and King Salman of Saudi Arabia. Even before they met, the Saudi Arabian foreign minister, who was visiting Ankara, made clear that the countries’ positions on Syria were identical. One can read between the lines that both Saudi Arabia and Turkey are also busy with the spoils of the hunt.
According to a report on Al-Arabiya, Erdogan traveled to the Gulf to make sure the Arab countries would support his idea to create “a safe region in northern Syria, where the refugees could go to” from the areas of fighting where Assad had been victorious. If this report is true, it is a brilliant tactic – Erdogan is using the ethnic change Assad is carrying out in Syria for his own purposes, pushing for the refugees to be settled on the border with Turkey so as to balance out the Kurdish majority in the area. In return for the Saudi support on this, he is offering Riyadh the opportunity to come back and be part of the discussions concerning the future of Syria. In this context, the Saudi Arabian foreign minister announced this week that Saudi Arabia is prepared to send troops to fight ISIS in Raqqa.
In past months ISIS has been losing in both Iraq and in Syria, yet simultaneously winning battles and conquering regions that are out of the public eye. It can be seen, among other examples, on the Israeli-Syrian border, where an ISIS branch has occupied several villages in the past few days, and on the Jordanian-Syrian border where ISIS has taken control of the refugee camp in the Syrian desert. This development has obliged Jordan to adopt a policy of greater intervention, although not without compromises. Jordanian forces have entered Syria to drive ISIS out of the refugee camp, and have attacked independently ISIS targets in southern Syria.
The Jordanians, for their part, want to create a safe area in the Daraa district, and have supported the rebels for years with American and British aid so as to prevent ISIS from reaching their border. Jordan’s policy has gradually changed since Aleppo fell. The Jordanian chief of general staff already clarified in December that Jordan had never closed the Syrian embassy in Amman, and denied that the kingdom had operated against Assad’s regime. It would seem that the Jordanian king, alongside the new risk ISIS has placed him in, has identified an opportunity to grab a more significant place in the talks to end the war, and hurried to fly to Washington to coordinate positions with the new president. Concurrently, Jordan has also succeeded in squeezing its way into the process that took place in Astana and has created its own direct communication channel with the Shi’ite-Russian side that will also allow it to influence the design of Syria on the “day after.”
However, there is still a long way to go before a true cease-fire is reached. The rebels, headed by the Southern Front of the FSA, are engaged in fierce battles against the regime. Reports also indicated that the Russians attacked hospitals in Daraa, an occurrence reminiscent of the crushing of Aleppo that was followed by surrender agreements and mass evacuation.
If Daraa, the city where the civil war, is the next target, the Jordanian king will need to decide whether to continue supporting the rebels and advance the creation of an independent region for them on the border, or abandon them in favor of Assad’s regime regaining control over the region, and the Syrian government taking responsibility for the border region.
Prophecy was given to fools, but, when examining all the factors that are attempting to shape Syria’s future, we can sketch a map of zones of influence on the day after the war with relative ease. Even if the territorial fragmentation process does not end in the official disintegration of Syria, the central government will have only limited control of most of Syria, and the “spoils of war” will be divided among the many actors: autonomic Kurdish areas close to Sunni regions under the influence of Turkey in the north of the country; the Sunni area with Saudi Arabian influence in Idlib (assuming it survives); a Shi’ite area under Iranian-Russian influence on the western side of Syria, and a Sunni Jordanian and Saudi Arabian- influenced region in southern Syria. Now the next open question is how ISIS territories will be divided.
Everybody is rushing to participate in the battles to get their share.