After the Loss of Aleppo, the Military Opposition is under Pressure to Reconfigure Itself

The victories of the Syrian opposition forces came to an end with their taking of the city of Idlib over a year and a half ago. After the Russian military intervention on behalf of the Syrian regime, these forces have turned to defending their own areas. Since that time, they have lost key regions—the most significant being Aleppo, Homs, and important villages in the Damascus countryside—shifting the balance of military forces in favor of the Assad regime.

There are several reasons for this retreat, and the Russian intervention may be the biggest. But there are also various questions along the way about the role of the countries backing the moderate opposition during this rollback, and why they did not support them with advanced weapons to resist the regime’s army and the militias and foreign armies backing it, in light of the constant talk by those countries about how there will be no military victory for any of the sides in Syria.

Given the retreat in multiple regions, the Syrian opposition now fear the collapse of their revolution, which began peacefully, to a military solution. Some in the opposition, given the point to which things have now come, blame the military factions, because of their divisions and poor military preparedness on one hand, and also for their submission to the decisions of outside countries which control their armament and determine what military actions they will undertake.

This situation has caused several recent protests to break out in areas under opposition control, such as Idlib, rural Aleppo, Daraa, and Damascus. The protests demand that the opposition factions unite, first and foremost, and then emerge from their subservience to foreign operation centers. This, the various signs raised proclaimed, would finish the revolution.

Naji al-Ahmad, a member of the Youth of the Syrian Revolution group and one of the activists managing the coordination of protests, said that they would continue in the coming days and would not stop until the goals that the protesters had turned out for were achieved.

The activist holds that the fall of Aleppo and other recent defeats are due to “the [military] factions’ division and lack of coordination.” Adding, “There are hundreds of military fictions in the field now, and, each of them obeys its backers, following the policy demanded of them without regard for the interests of the revolution that the people came out for.”

Al-Ahmad says that the “so-called Friends of Syria countries” did nothing to restrain Russia or the Iranian sectarian militias during the occupation of Aleppo, but stayed silent, without lifting a finger, in the face of this massacre. He describes what is happening as “a disgrace to the international community.”

He added that if the military factions affiliated with opposition forces do not respond to the demands of the people, then there will be steps to escalate matters on the street, such as cutting off roads, strikes, and calls for civil disobedience.

The placards raised in the streets of Idlib and Aleppo read “The revolution is above any faction,” “Unite before you die,” and “The Syrian revolution has no friends.”

Against the same background, the media activist Musa al-Omar, in a video broadcast after the fall of Aleppo, called on supporters of the Syrian revolution to act on their own after “every one of the countries that claims to support them has abandoned them.” He holds that the fall of Aleppo “unmasked all of them after they failed it.”

Al-Omar claims in his speech that the present phase is one of armed struggle alone, especially given that the opposition forces no longer hold sufficient cards to apply any pressure after their withdrawal from Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs.

Al-Omar cast primary blame for the opposition factions’ loss of ground over the past year on “their leaderships’ submission to the demands of backers,” foremost among these the MOM (Müşterek Operasyon Merkezi) operation center based in Turkey, which is overseen by the intelligence agencies of foreign countries such as the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. “Why did the revolutionaries retreat from the battles on the Syrian coast and in Hama?” he asks. “Why are they periodically denied effective weapons and TOW missiles? Why is possession of the TOW denied to the Damascus revolutionaries? And why do the battles in Hama stop when they reach sensitive points that might hurt the Syrian regime? Isn’t it logical that we should think about the reasons?”

Responding to the popular demonstrations which broke out against the opposition factions in northern Syria after Aleppo’s fall, Abu Khaled, a military leader of the moderate Free Army of Idlib faction, said, “The people’s demands are just, but the huge military pressure, the flood of sectarian militias into Syria from Iran, and the Russian bombing, have been among the most important reasons for the losses over the past year.”

Abu Khaled continued to say that unifying efforts would be the priority in the coming period, but that outside intervention and the conditions of foreign sponsors impose limits. “Why are some revolutionary groups classified as terrorist while the militias from Lebanon and Iran are ignored or even given support by Russia?”

On the role of the MOM operation center in hindering military action, Abu Khaled clarified that “The countries supporting the Syrian revolution still supply the factions with arms, but they deny them to some regions that the Syrian regime is trying to occupy, like Damascus,” adding “After five years of massacres by plane and chemical weapons, we are still forbidden from receiving anti-aircraft weapons to defend ourselves… These countries are able to trust the moderate factions, and that they will be the only ones to use them [anti-aircraft weapons], unlike the TOW missiles.”

The MOM war room with its headquarters in Turkey supplies the moderate Syrian opposition factions with ammunition and anti-armor TOW missiles and with non-lethal logistical materiel. But it also sometimes asserts control over the course of military operations and limits delivery operations, several opposition activists claim.

U.S. president-elect Donald Trump said in his press interview with the Wall Street Journal after the election, that he would stop supporting the Syrian opposition fighting to overthrow the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

This statement came despite the adoption by the U.S. Congress of an authorization permitting Trump to supply Syrian opposition forces who have been vetted with MANPAD shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft missiles, subject to approval by the Secretaries of State and Defense, according to the draft text of the law. But it is not clear if the president-elect will do so, in light of his statements about working with Russia and focusing on fighting terrorism.

In the coming period activists fear the continued advance of the regime’s military towards Idlib province, the last refuge of the Syrian opposition forces, which would mean the victory of Assad and his allies and the end of the Syrian opposition. This is despite the insistence of international officials, most recently French President François Hollande, that there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria. But the latest tipping of the scales toward the regime makes it harder to find a just political solution and achieve the Syrian revolution’s demand for a democratic political transition in the country.

The opposition is proposing a return to full-scale liberation war and a change from the military tactics currently followed, which are based on direct confrontation in battles, and their substitution with a war of attrition. Popular demonstrations have also called for removal of the military leaders of the revolution, holding them responsible for the current defeats, and dissolution of all military formations to form one group with one source of authority. It would have political representatives to negotiate in its name and would be met with popular acceptance among the majority of the people.

Whatever the case, the need to change political and military strategies has become urgent with the change of domestic and international circumstances. International backers are turning away from support for the Syrian revolution, and there is a need to accept the idea of setting out to achieve goals based on autonomous efforts, in order to impose a new reality on the ground that will enable the opposition to negotiate and achieve the aims that it was started for.

Hosam al-Jablawi is a Syrian citizen journalist.

Image: Photo: Rebel fighters and civilians walk in a rebel-held sector of eastern Aleppo, Syria December 18, 2016. Picture taken December 18, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail