Armed Opposition Groups in Syria Face Obstacles to Unity

There has been renewed talk about combatant groups in the north of Syria joining together, particularly after opposition groups lost Aleppo—the largest city in northern Syria—to Assad’s regime. Opposition groups first entered the city in 2012, and its recent loss led to a decline in their popularity. Demonstrations against opposition groups demanded that they unite and coordinate their military efforts to resist the advance of the Syrian regime forces and sectarian Iranian militias.

While combatant groups have attempted to unite into one entity in regions in northern Syria before, some observers think that the coming period will be influential in determining the fate of the armed opposition. This is especially true since they have begun to lose popularity among people, who hold these scattered, divided opposition groups responsible for the current situation, given their inability to make effective and united decisions.

Some argue that opposition groups’ differing ideologies and political views, and the interests of powers supporting them, are among the most important reasons they failed to unite in the past. Another factor is internal conflicts over attempts to control decision-making and represent the opposition politically and militarily.

Perhaps the greatest cause of opposition groups’ failure to unite is the fact that there are so many of them. There are about 220 armed groups fighting in Syria, each under their own leadership and flag, and without commonly agreed on military or political ideals.

The last major attempt at uniting military opposition groups was the Army of Conquest, which formed in March 2015. It seized control of Idlib Governorate and united the most powerful military groups, including the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham movement, the Nusra Front (now Jabhat Fateh al-Sham), Sham Legion, and others. This collection quickly failed when internal rifts emerged, several groups withdrew, and vast differences appeared between the two largest groups: Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafist group supported by several countries in the Gulf, and the Nusra Front, which the Security Council has classified as a terrorist organization.

Growing popular pressure, the emergence of a broad protest movement demanding that opposition group leaders step down, and the prevalence of the rallying cry, “We unite or we die as one,” appears to have driven the groups to try to merge. There are two main merger movements, one Islamist and one nationalist, to unite the armed groups under a single banner.

Several meetings were held recently, and activists circulated photos of the leaders of Jihadist Islamist groups Jabhat Fateh al-Shamthe Nour al-Din al-Zenki, the Turkistan Islamic Party, the Ansar al-Din Front, the Ajnad al-Sham, Liwa al-Haqq, and the Ahrar al-Sham. Members of Ahrar al-Sham Movement—the most prominent and powerful of these groups—are divided between those who support and those who oppose the initiative.

The initiative was a response to a call by Abu Mohammad al-Julani, leader of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, to establish what he called the ‘Syrian Islamic Commission,’ provided that it is headed by Abu Ammar al-Omar (the current leader of Ahrar al-Sham), Abu Mohammad al-Julani serves as its military commander, and Tawfiq Shahabuddin (current leader of the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement) is head of its Shura Council. Many have likened this initiative to the Army of Conquest’s previous attempt.

This initiative is likely to face great difficulties, according to a military leader from Ahrar al-Sham who is familiar with the negotiations. This leader preferred to remain anonymous given the sensitivity of the ongoing negotiations. He warned of “disputes over the mechanisms of uniting, and the fact that each party is developing complex conditions, particularly Fateh al-Sham, which insists on al-Julani being appointed as the new group’s military leader. This would mean placing large weapons stores under his command.”

Labib al-Nahas, Director of Political Foreign Relations for the Islamic Ahrar al-Sham Movement, indicated over Twitter a few days ago that a broad section of the movement’s fighters oppose the new group that is being formed. He added that there are people “who call for dangerous, suicidal alliances, and are introducing Islamic State-like elements to Idlib.” In a clear indication of his rejection to proposals like this, he emphasized that “a true union is not based on secret agreements, threats, or gaining strength through extremism, and does not result in increasingly isolating the revolution; it is based on actual popular support.”

Faced with these complications, ten small groups in the north of Syria preempted the calls to unite. On December 28, 2016, they announced an initiative to merge, and called on all military forces in the region to join them without laying down any conditions.

According to information, the groups proposed an entire draft initiative that includes creating a Shura Council composed of the groups’ leaders, joint military leadership, and a united political council. It would also unify civil administration, the judiciary, and checkpoints, among other things. All fighters, including those from Fateh al-Sham and the Ahrar al-Sham Movement, would join one national Syrian project under the banner of the Syrian revolution. Finally, it would also “eliminate all extremist members, immediately start organizing civil matters, and solve the problem of having numerous checkpoints that all belong to different factions.”

Although this project has not been announced, it appears close to being implemented, particularly given the increasing number of meetings held by opposition leaders in Turkey. Some commanders in the Free Syrian Army also leaked news that the announcement of a new national army that includes all moderate fighters was close.

Some express fear over the formation of two separate entities: one including Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and another including Ahrar al-Sham. This would result in competition over who manages opposition zones, and cause sharp divisions and disputes over territory, which could lead to conflict.

Others argue that if opposition groups manage to form a united military army that includes all moderate groups, it would be a positive step towards coordinating political and military efforts against the regime and its allies, albeit a belated one, given a number of regional and international factors. Currently, the opposition’s only other choice is to enter negotiations with Assad’s regime, especially now that the opposition’s allies have abandoned it.

Syrian opposition members are currently attending peace talks in Astana hosted by Turkey and Russia, to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis through negotiation.

Although the Syrian regime and its allies continue their military operations in Rif Damascus during the truce, the opposition announced that it has agreed to attend negotiations under Turkish guarantees. Unlike previous negotiations, regime and opposition representatives are convening in the same room, but rebel groups have refused to negotiate directly, and the regime has said that the opposition’s statements are “insolent” and “provocative.”

The opposition’s political and military forces agreed on the choice of Mohammed Alloush, Jaysh al-Islam’s political leader, as the chief negotiator, and that securing the truce and deploying observers will be the first demands.

Some argue that the negotiations will be crucial for the future of these groups and their existence, because the failure of a political solution will mean a new round of the war—and this time in Idlib, the main stronghold of opposition forces.

Hosam al-Jablawi is a Syrian citizen journalist.  

Image: Photo: Rebel fighters carry their weapons on the outskirts of Al-Bab town in Syria January 22, 2017. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi