The Rational Syrian Rebel

An Islamist rebel coalition is emerging in Syria, deepening the irrelevance of the US-backed Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and further eroding US influence in the conflict. On September 24 key rebel groups, accounting for much of the opposition’s military strength in northern Syria, issued a declaration abandoning the SNC and rejecting its role in the Syrian revolution. The alliance is significant because it appears to indicate a complete break with the SNC and the continued indigenization of the Syrian rebellion, partly due to a US policy indifferent—if not hostile—to an opposition victory and incongruent with the basic logic of civil war.

The new alliance’s Islamist character appears to vindicate the view of the Syrian uprising as a Sunni sectarian war led by extremists. However, ideology was likely a secondary factor in its emergence, which in any case does not indicate an ideological shift among members. Islamist groups had already emerged as the most capable militants in Syria by virtue of their discipline, tactical proficiency and access to consistent financial and military support. Many of them have forged strong ties with local communities and established basic services in areas they control. While alliance members have pledged to uphold sharia as the sole principle of legislation, they do not agree on what this means in practice; Islamism itself is not a unified or even fully developed and coherent political ideology. Furthermore, the coalition includes groups from across the Islamist spectrum, from the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, to moderate Islamist groups previously under the US-backed SNC umbrella, to nonideological fighters who once hosted US Senator John McCain.

The emergence of a breakaway Islamist alliance separate from the SNC is the product of several long-running trends. The most obvious (though not necessarily the most important) is the rank political incompetence of the SNC itself, and its inability to institutionalize the political, military, and civil goals of the uprising. This failure emerged over the several months of failure to agree on a leadership and form a government and continued bickering over the distribution of the little power the SNC has—which must strike those suffering in Syria as odd, if not scandalous. The population and fighters feel alienated from what many Syrians call the ‘hotel opposition’ of exiles based in foreign capitals.

The SNC’s failure to show results for its alliance with the United States—in the form of financial and military support for those fighting the war—marks a second critical factor in this sense of marginalization. Despite its disadvantage in securing Syrians’ loyalty compared to groups on the frontline, the SNC’s supposed advantage lies in its ability to lobby foreign powers for resources and political support. In this it has failed largely due to US indifference or hostility towards the opposition and its cause. To the extent that the United States has a Syria policy, it simultaneously voiced support for the SNC, called on Assad to step down, promised aid to the armed opposition, failed to deliver said aid, and insisted that there is ‘no military solution’ to the war—a view that is unhelpful and irrelevant to the conflict because the Syrian regime and its allies do not share it.

The SNC’s weakness, of which the new Islamist alliance is the latest symptom, will complicate any US effort to shape events in Syria. One can hardly blame the rebels for seeing US claims as either duplicitous or naive, and promises of military aid as hollow. There is no need to revisit US President Barack Obama’s handling of the chemical weapons affairs. Suffice it to say that settling for involving Russia and the Syrian regime as partners in a dubious effort to eliminate the latter’s chemical weapon disappointed the rebels, who had hoped the chemical attacks would push the United States to commit to an opposition victory in Syria. President Obama extinguished any such remaining hopes during his UN General Assembly speech, in which he implied the United States had no interest in involving itself in “someone else’s civil war.”

Despite their mounting, well-founded skepticism, this phrase undoubtedly surprised members (and former members) of the SNC. Someone else’s civil war? Had the president himself not called on Assad to step down? Did he not recognize the SNC as the “legitimate representative of the Syrian people in opposition to the Assad regime”? And had the United States not publicly pledged support for the armed opposition? Surprise gave way to disappointment and, eventually, resignation to the bitter reality that the United States was no ally of the Syrian opposition. It is understandable that the SNC and the United States are now objects of contempt and ridicule among many Syrians.

Rather than seize on the Islamist alliance as proof that the Syrian uprising was never worth supporting, we should ask why those fighting in Syria should answer to an SNC dependent on a United States that has so visibly failed it. Rebel groups will not prioritize pluralism, tolerance, or liberalism amidst an uprising now funded by Gulf Arab benefactors who are unlikely to hold those principles in high esteem. In fact, some rebels claim to have grown beards and adopted traditional Islamist dress and slogans in order to attract foreign sponsorship. Faced with a choice between dying at the hands of the regime and obtaining whatever support they can get for the war effort, Syrians are making a rational choice. In other words, the rebels in Syria are learning to live without the United States and, for now, with one another. Under the circumstances, they are acting in their best interests. In the process, the United States’ ability to shape events in Syria is disappearing.

The new Islamist alliance is not wholly the product of US policy or SNC incompetence. There are other, more subtle but equally important drivers of its emergence: the need for rebel groups to cooperate against the regime, consolidate their own power base in northern Syria, and contain the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—a transnationalist jihadist group whose harsh methods and largely foreign membership alienate civilians and fighters alike. Indeed, ISIS was conspicuously absent from the Islamist coalition despite its ideological similarity to Jabhat al-Nusra. Syria will likely see a prolonged conflict between ISIS and its rivals. Until a clear winner emerges, this tension will certainly serve the interests of the Syrian regime. These factors are all part of the indigenization of the Syrian conflict which, while still a proxy war, is increasingly shaped by local needs and interests.

This was probably inevitable, but the United States’ now-limited ability to influence the outcome of the domestic struggle was not. Those fighting a brutal civil war would naturally and predictably prioritize their survival over the ideological preferences of unreliable allies and the shallow coalitions they build. If this was an outcome that the United States saw as acceptable all along, then its claims to seek a democratic, pluralistic Syria were always disingenuous. If, on the other hand, the new Islamist alliance comes as a surprise and is seen as a blow to the United States’ interests, then the fault lies with the US leadership’s inability to grasp the basic logic of civil war.

Faysal Itani is a fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Syrian rebel army patrol an area near Homs, March 2012. (Photo: Flickr/Freedom House/CC license)