As usual, international media has misread the Syrian conflict. They reported that rebel fighters have “abandoned” the opposition in exile.
These reports followed a September 24 YouTube statement by 13 of the Islamist rebel groups fighting in Syria.
Abdul Aziz Salameh, a leader in “Tawheed Brigade” fighting in northern Syria, read “Communiqué number 1” and made two main points. Firstly, he called on all military and civilian factions to unite under a “framework” that adopts Islamic “Shariaa” as the main and sole foundation of Syrian law. Secondly, he asserted that the only legitimate representatives of the fighters are the fighters themselves – those who have lived and sacrificed for the “revolution.” He stressed that the 13 groups signing the Communiqué do not recognise the western backed “National Coalition” as their representatives, nor do they recognise any opposition group in exile.
This indeed comes as a major blow to the National Coalition, particularly as it was in New York for meetings with world leaders on the margins of the UN General Assembly. However, it is not correct to call this a new schism. Most of the groups mentioned in the statement have never actually endorsed the leadership of the Coalition.
Since the Coalition formation in late 2012, the US, UK and France have joined Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to promote the Coalition as a “legitimate representative” of the Syrian people and, therefore, their main interlocutor. Similarly, the Supreme Military Council (SMC), linked to the Coalition and led by General Selim Idriss, has been accepted as the main umbrella organisation for rebel fighters, and the channel through which external military support should be provided.
Nevertheless, from day one the Coalition has faced accusations of being unrepresentative and unable to communicate with large sectors of the Syrian population. On the one hand, Western officials have constantly pushed the Coalition to establish better links with Syrian minorities, especially Alawites and Christians. On the other hand, more hard-line extremist rebel groups, like “Alnusra” and “Ahrar Alsham”, have accused the Coalition of being a western puppet that is disconnected from the rebel groups fighting on the ground. Unsurprisingly, Assad and his Russian allies agreed. This enabled the regime to dismiss the Coalition as a credible negotiating partner. Assad could continue to claim he was ready for talks, but there was nobody to sit on the other side of the table.
It has been clear all along that Western political support for the Coalition was not enough. With a war under way what matters most is financial and military support. The Gulf countries, with Saudis and Qataris at the forefront, have led in providing this kind of support. The initial plan was to help buttress General Idriss and his Supreme Military Council, under the umbrella of the Coalition, by channeling all kinds of rebel support through them. This did not happen. For reasons clear and unclear, lines of supply were irregular, disorganised and distorted. Fragmentation among fighting groups worsened. Their number now exceeds one thousand. Some have thousands of fighters while others are as small as a dozen, with varying degrees of sanity and insanity.
The US, UK and France have declared their intentions quite a few times to arm and support the rebels in an orderly regular manner. These promises have never been fulfilled. The fear of supporting “unidentifiable” groups was always a hurdle. Hesitation, confusion and lack of clear objectives had a negative impact on the process of Western decision making regarding Syria.
Watching the atrocities and brutalities Assad committed against his own people, foreign fighters started to flood the country. They found backing from individuals, associations, and probably some intelligence agencies. These fighters proved to be strong and adamant, better organised and better trained than the more moderate factions. This made them an appealing option to zealous youngsters wishing to join the fight, and, more importantly, to external supporters. A vicious circle was created. The numbers of foreign and ideological fighters have increased from a few hundred a year ago, to a significant portion of the current warring factions.
Then, why is “Communique number 1” important? It is safe to say that this statement exposed an already known fact. Some details might be of interest, though. Most of the groups mentioned in the statement have never actually embraced the Coalition as their representative. Tawheed Brigade, however, was the main military subordinate group for SMC in Aleppo. Abdul-Kader Saleh, leader of Tawheed Brigade, was a deputy-head of the northern front in the Military Council. Now it looks like Tahweed fighters have changed their minds.
This can have significant consequences for the presence of SMC in Aleppo and the whole of northern Syria, especially after the clashes between SMC affiliated groups and Qaeda-affiliated “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria-ISIS”, which ended with victory of ISIS and their dominance in a number of cities in north and northeastern Syria.
So how does this alter the bigger picture? International leaders on all sides have been calling for a political solution to the Syrian conflict. The recently adopted Security Council resolution on Syria stated that representatives of the government and opposition should come together with international sponsorship in a Geneva-2 conference in November. Now with the more diminished credibility of the Coalition, even after having agreed to go to Geneva, the question will always be whom they are representing and how they can commit to whatever results can be cobbled together.
The picture looks bleak. This is a tragic truth. However there is an opportunity, narrowing over time, to move forward. What is happening on the ground in Syria is still reversible if the international community starts to work on the factors that led to the current impasse. A clear vision for change in Syria, and a strategy that involves both international and regional actors, coupled with hard and meticulous work with the civilian and military components of both the regime and opposition, can reverse the current dynamics. This kind of action requires strong countries and strong, righteous leaders. Sadly, this is exactly what the world is missing right now.
Mohamed Elfayoumy is a World Fellow at Yale University.