In the two weeks since the US announced it would withdraw its military forces from Syria, there have been fierce battles among major military factions in northwest Syria between those viewed as part of the Syrian opposition and others affiliated with the terrorist Al-Qaeda group.
The latter has declared it will fight the armed opposition and support the Syrian Kurdish militias that are now supporting the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in what threatens to be the stamping out of the last stronghold of the opposition.
The military confrontations between the two camps indicate that there will also be ramifications for the region, and even those who could have played a mediating role to end the activities of the terrorist Islamist factions are indirectly fighting them.
Last week, the Nureddin Al-Zinki forces, one of the largest armed opposition groups, battled the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) (formerly the Al-Nusra Front), which is listed as a terrorist group by the international community, in an attempt to annihilate Islamists that want to take control of the roads connecting Turkey with central and southern Syria.
Al-Nusra overran several towns and villages in the area and defeated the opposition troops of the Free Syria Army (FSA). There is now concern that the armed opposition will lose the fight in favour of the Islamists.
The regime is the main victor in these battles among the military groups in northwest Syria, and it has fanned these confrontations through agents that have infiltrated all sides.
The aim has been to create a pretext for it to take control of the area, which is part of the “de-escalation” zone decided at the Russian-sponsored Sochi Conference on Syria.
Battles have focused around the Aleppo-Damascus and Aleppo-Latakia highways. The Al-Nusra Front wants to take control of these main arteries due to their strategic importance, especially after information was leaked about Russian mediation with Turkey to re-open them.
The Al-Nusra Front, which the opposition accuses of doing the bidding of the regime and Iran, has been bringing military reinforcements into the area to take control of the highways.
It wants to isolate the opposition factions backed by Turkey to put pressure on Ankara and prevent it from attacking east of the Euphrates River against Kurdish militias affiliated with the Democratic Kurdish Union, which Turkey lists as a terrorist organisation.
Abul-Yaqzan Al-Masri, a leader of Al-Nusra Front, issued a religious edict (fatwa) banning opposition groups from participating in military operations against the Kurdish militias that have asked the regime to take their place in the area.
This has prevented attacks against the Kurdish militias that have decimated the opposition in northern Syria and is in line with the Russian position pressuring Turkey to stop attacks against the Kurds. It is also in line with the regime’s aim of peacefully taking over the direction of the Kurdish militias.
The opposition believes that the Al-Nusra Front has vowed to protect the transit highways in the northwest with Russian blessing, since Moscow wants to create a “safe environment” before re-opening them.
It began preparing in April 2018 and deployed military forces there. The opposition was not prepared for the new fighting after battling the Kurdish militias, and the National Liberation Front (NLF), backed by Turkey, did not state it would fight alongside the Al-Zinki forces, even though the latter is one of the factions in the opposition coalition.
Perhaps Turkey has decided not to intervene or has given its blessing to eliminate this faction.
The Al-Nusra Front has deployed its forces to eliminate any group that has fought against it in the past, and a green light has apparently been given to Abu Mohamed Al-Jolani, its leader, to attack any faction that stands in the way of its goal of controlling the roads through the region.
Al-Zinki is one of the factions that has received orders from US intelligence in northern Syria, but cooperation ended after it killed a prisoner associated with the regime. It has fought against other military groups loyal to the FSA and helped Aleppo to fall into the hands of the regime.
Its relationship with Turkey improved when the armed group agreed to partner with Ankara in the fight against the Kurds, with Turkey then restoring its funding of the group.
Many believe that the campaigns by the Al-Nusra Front will lead to a Russian campaign in northwest Syria that will expel the opposition from its last stronghold.
But Russia’s and Turkey’s manner of dealing with the reborn Al-Nusra Front implies that it has made concessions and will implement the Sochi Agreement to pave the way for a larger deal.
There is a new stage in the struggle of the armed groups in northwest Syria, especially since the area is the subject of understandings made at Sochi between Turkey and Russia in September 2018 and overlaps with developments east of the Euphrates.
Al-Nusra seems to be imposing itself in northern Syria as a main player that can negotiate with Ankara and Moscow over the region’s fate. It is entrenching its presence, and it formed a “salvation government” in early 2018 that took control of local councils.
The regime is watching similar scenarios unfold in other regions in Syria. In many areas, it has infiltrated factions through intelligence agencies that instigate battles among the opposition. It has created new pretexts to attack them and to violate truce agreements under the pretense of “fighting terrorism”.
Its Russian and Iranian allies support it militarily in many areas, and the regime will likely ask Moscow to pressure Turkey to annul the Sochi Agreement and agree to its retaking control of the area.
In-fighting among the various factions since the start of the Syrian Revolution has played a fatal role for the opposition, impacting its political and military path and giving Al-Assad and his allies important victories.
The so-called “legitimate” factions, whose members were mostly released from regime prisons at the start of the revolution, were also a hindrance after the armed opposition took control of some areas.
They frustrated the creation of a single body to represent the revolution, as the regime and the various factions pursued their own interests and those of their benefactors.
Moscow now seems likely to reorganise the north of Syria after the US withdrawal, and it will likely pressure Turkey to achieve this. The repercussions will go beyond the Sochi Agreement, and if Russia succeeds it will mark the defeat of the armed opposition in Syria.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 10 January, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Elimination of Syria’s armed groups