It’s safe to say that Syria’s revolution has seen setbacks on the battlefield of late. A promising opposition offensive into Aleppo in August ended with the regime’s siege of the city of several hundred thousand being broken by opposition fighters, alongside the seasoned fighters of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra).
The offensive was stunning, smashing through several of the regime’s defensive lines over a large front, in spite of the superiority of the regime and its allies in terms of firepower and air cover. The famous inighmasi shock-troops took over Ramouseh’s artillery college and other crucial bases, some of which had been shelling civilians in the city up until the point of their capture.
The offensive, however, turned out to be similar in nature to the German army’s Ardennes offensive in 1944. A stunning short-term success, achieved by a spirited and outgunned force using a combination of concentrated armour and shock-and-awe tactics in the face of huge numbers of enemy forces. But, crucially, unsustainable. As was the case in Ardennes, the regime forces were able to use weight of numbers and a huge advantage in air power to roll back the gains of the offensive a short time later, much as the British and Americans had ground down Hitler’s final Blitzkrieg. On September 4, the siege of Aleppo was in full sway once again.
Further bad news emerged on the 6th; the IRGC’s General Soleimani was visiting Aleppo province in the company of Iran’s Shi’a militia proxies and allied regime militants. According to pro-Hezbollah accounts, Soleimani (who, in practice, leads all regime-allied forces on the ground) is planning an offensive towards the besieged Shi’a enclaves of al-Fou’a and Kefraya in Idlib, encircled in the offensive to capture Idlib city in 2015.
Some, however, took solace in the progress made on the northern borders. Turkish troops finally intervened in Syria in August, propping up FSA fighters as they smashed through Da’esh defences on the Turkish border and captured the town of Jarablus. Days later, Turkish-backed FSA forces had sealed off the whole border and ruined any remaining chance of Da’esh recruits entering Syria via Turkey. The FSA also drove the YPG and affiliated militias from positions they previously occupied around Manbij, ruining their chance of linking up the PYD-controlled “cantons” with Efrin.
Meanwhile, Moscow and Washington have been frantically trying to develop a “ceasefire deal”. “Ceasefire” in Orwellian terms, that is. Kerry and Lavrov, acting as intermediaries for their leaders, recently completed a deal that would do several things:
- Ground Assad’s airforce over (all) opposition-controlled areas.
- Begin a ceasefire today (12 September) between all sides.
- Provide humanitarian aid to all the besieged areas of Syria (Aleppo included).
So far so good, right? On paper, nobody could disagree with grounding the air force that has been committing horrific massacres since 2012, bringing an end to the fighting and providing humanitarian relief to besieged people by re-opening roads.
It’s the following points of the deal that make it absolutely appalling in the context of the ongoing genocide:
- As of the 12th, the US and Russia will begin jointly sharing intelligence on the positions of “Jabhat al-Nusra” in Syria via a “Joint Intelligence Group”.
- An “extended period of calm” will then follow. After this period, the US will begin joint bombings of both Da’esh and “al-Nusra” throughout Syria.
In other words, the US and Russia will share intelligence on the positions of anti-Assad fighters, followed by a protracted campaign of bombing against them. This is under the facade of fighting against “al-Nusra”, AKA “al-Qa’eda”. There’s only one problem: there is no al-Qa’eda in Syria, nor is there an al-Nusra.
The al-Nusra Front disbanded voluntarily in July of 2016. The fighters reorganised into Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Front of the Conquest of the Levant). Al-Nusra literally doesn’t exist any more. When it did exist, it bore the banner of al-Qa’eda in Syria in name only; most of the fighters were purely Muslim locals intent on defending their country and their families. The al-Qa’eda affiliation, however, had given them some valuable support from veteran foreign fighters from around the globe. It also prevented some of the loose cannons (see Jund al-Aqsa circa 2015) from defecting to Da’esh.
In other words, the US and Russia are going to target any opposition group they can get their hands on. Although they claim that they will only go after Da’esh and the members of the now-defunct Nusra Front, the devil is in the details. Assad and his Russian allies consider every Syrian dissenting against regime and its international allies (Hezbollah, Iran, the Iraqi Shi’ite militias etc) as being part of “al-Nusra”. The US (as pro-regime as Russia) harbours similar views, and has threatened the opposition accordingly.
How this would play out is clear; Russia passes on coordinates of every opposition group it can locate to the US (from Free Syrian Army to Ahrar al-Sham) and the US will willingly bomb each and every one of them alongside Russia and the Syrian Air Force. Yes, you read correctly, the Syrian Air Force will be conducting bombing runs alongside Russian and American planes in spite of the alleged “ceasefire”. Kerry himself claims Assad will be told where he can and cannot bomb. In other words, where he can and cannot hit markets packed with civilians. Despite walking back on these comments, documents show that Kerry wasn’t misspeaking when he made this statement.
The Russian government has been openly hostile to the Syrian opposition with growing audacity since 2011. The Obama administration (which has always seen the Syrian revolution as an irritating elephant-in-the-room which hindered the newfound alliance with Tehran) has been giving out pro-regime rumblings for a long time. In 2011, Obama was talking about ensuring that the “state institutions” of Syria were preserved (meaning the regime and its many torture chambers) and stopping crucial anti-aircraft weaponry getting to the opposition, which could have enabled them to win the war years ago. The recent “deal” involving airstrikes on Assad’s enemies is the culmination of years of determined policy-making by two nations eager to keep Assad afloat. Their betrayal of the Syrian people was to be expected. The pizza was on the Americans and the vodka on the Russians. Literally.
What’s arguably all the more appalling, however, is the conduct of various self-declared opposition groups in deciding to take part in the push to oust Da’esh from the Syrian borders. The Turkish government ordered Syrian opposition forces to move away from other crucial battlefronts to take part in the operation. Crucially, just after the opposition had successfully broken the siege of Aleppo. Rather than insist that they stay put and cling onto their precarious gains around Ramouseh, several FSA groups (and, unbelievably, Ahrar al-Sham) gladly agreed to sap the manpower in the newly opened corridor and move to the border with Jarablus for the offensive. While Da’esh control of parts of the border is hardly a good thing, degrading fronts crucial to the survival of hundreds of thousands to confront them is never, ever excusable.
The Turkish request drew crucial men and arms away from the Aleppo front at a crucial time; the groups participating in the offensive readily agreed to neglect Aleppo in favour of messing around on the Turkish borders. The subsequent Iranian counterattack against the weakened front recaptured the corridor and reimposed the siege on some 500,000 people in Aleppo. It’s no surprise that as the Turkish offensive got underway, rumours of a deal between Moscow and Ankara bubbled to the surface. Ankara would be able to use the FSA to secure its borders, and Moscow would get to besiege Aleppo accordingly. The sapping of Aleppo’s manpower by Turkey cannot be coincidental.
The anti-regime forces are swamped by enemies within and enemies without. The Iranians, Russians and Americans on the outside, and hireling FSA groups on the inside. As for the latter, half the problems the opposition forces have faced over the last few years have stemmed from the fact that some groups (namely the secular ones) have essentially been willing to prostitute themselves to foreign powers in exchange for support, knowing fully well that these powers are hostile to Muslims, and naively imagining that such support won’t result in becoming obliged to obey the orders of their backers.
The results on the battlefield have been disastrous, as has the ensuing corruption of opposition groups. After becoming prominent recipients of US aid, Jamal Maarouf and his men left Abu ad-Duhur airbase unmolested and free to bomb and shell surrounding civilian settlements. Other opposition groups later drove them off in disgust and took the base. The Southern Front’s “Southern Storm” offensive towards Suweida and Damascus was called off after making spectacular gains; the US-managed MOC in Jordan ordered that they were not to advance any further and threaten the regime in Damascus. Earlier this year, audio was leaked of the FSA’s Division 13 leader Ahmad al-Sa’oud using rather ripe language when referring to JFS/al-Nusra, claiming he could easily get Russian support to use against them if he wished.
The US-founded “New Syrian Army” that recently snatched territory in Deir Ezzor is explicitly ordered not to attack regime forces. Worse still, US backing (and simultaneous unwillingness to protect their own proxies) has resulted in the group becoming a defenceless lame duck. When the Russians openly bombed the group it was forbidden from fighting back. US jets did nothing to stop their own hired guns from being hit. Humiliation after humiliation.
The argument that opposition groups *must* take aid from unsavoury powers in order to fight the regime is clearly rendered redundant by the fact that any aid taken from them immediately turns the group into a proxy force obliged to stop fighting against Assad – the cause of over 96% of the deaths in Syria, not Da’esh. It is also made redundant when you consider the fact that over 80% of Syria was freed from his clutches between 2012 and 2013, with no foreign support being involved.
It was when the “friends of Syria” started to disingenuously promise support that the problems started; hinting at anti-aircraft weapons while giving light arms only, implying anti-tank missiles and only committing to training programs and ready meals etc. Giving enough to keep them hooked and indebted, but not enough to enable them to win.
The US and allies are now seeking to pressure the opposition to abandon Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, claiming the group is a “terrorist” organisation. The issue is not with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. The issue is with their opposition to Assad and refusal to compromise with outside powers. Crucially, JFS abandoned the al-Qa’eda connection in order to unify with other factions, including Ahrar al-Sham. The unity talks were making progress. This was enough for the US to panic and hand them down a death sentence; the last thing Obama needs are Syria’s opposition groups uniting to throw Assad and his backers out of Syria. Remove JFS (in his eyes) and you keep the opposition disunited.
If JFS wasn’t around, Kerry and Lavrov would blame Ahrar. If Ahrar wasn’t around, they’d blame the FSA. The Islamic groups won’t compromise, so the Islamic groups have to be destroyed. It’s no coincidence that three high-ranking JFS leaders were killed when their meeting was targeted by US (or Russian) airstrikes. The meeting they were attending was held to discuss a second offensive to relieve the besieged population of Aleppo. Such an offensive would have disrupted the Kerry-Lavrov “ceasefire” deal.
As if to openly insult the Syrian opposition further, the US fawningly offered to pay compensation to the families of regime soldiers accidentally killed in a friendly-fire incident by a series of US airstrikes in Deir Ezzor (despite many of the fighters being non-Syrians). Not one bit of “compensation” has been offered to Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham or the FSA, despite repeated bombings. As punishment for fighting to liberate Hama, Jund al-Aqsa was designated as a global terrorist organisation on September 20 by the US state department. The US continues to cling desperately to the phoney “truce”, in spite of the regime continuing to deny food to besieged areas (and actually bombing a UN aid convey). The mad dash to preserve Assad has resulted in the administration caving to the Russians at every possible turn.
If the Syrian opposition factions (and I’m not talking about the impotent, plodding bureaucrats in 5* hotels) want to unite and defeat the regime, they’re going to have to tell foreign powers to, quite frankly, stuff it and stop offering aid with strings attached. That includes both weapons and “humanitarian” aid; the UN having become little more than a carrot-and-stick tool of Assad’s ethnic cleansing campaign, providing aid to regime-controlled areas while simultaneously using it to coax besieged opposition-controlled areas to surrender. Not only that, but they must unify and refuse to begin infighting at the behest of those powers. To say nothing of disavowing the hireling groups that would sell their own country down the river for a few dollars.
Soleimani and his men could reach the gates of Bab al-Hawa, and some opposition groups would still be floundering around in border villages at the behest of whoever pays them enough. What is abundantly clear, however, is that the “Islamists” (bar one or two groups with clearly questionable strategies) are the only ones that will save Syria. In other words, the Islamic groups that won’t sell their struggle or their country for a handful of US dollars, Turkish tanks or token small arms.