- By Charles ListerCharles Lister is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and a senior consultant to The Shaikh Group’s Track II Syria Dialogue Initiative. Follow him on Twitter at: @Charles_Lister., Phillip SmythPhillip Smyth is a researcher at the University of Maryland’s Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics and author of the Hizballah Cavalcade blog, which focuses on Shiite militant organizations. Follow him on Twitter: @PhillipSmyth.
Notwithstanding some speculation, Syria has become an intensely complex conflict. Militarily, the opposition currently consists of more than 1,000 armed opposition groups as well as dozens of alliances, fronts, and joint operations rooms and pro-government forces are similarly multidimensional. The battle itself is divided into countless kinetic theaters, each of which maintains its own unique characteristics and few of which can be neatly replicated elsewhere. The ideological spectrum on both sides of the conflict has broadened and simultaneously intensified. Additionally, the increasingly prominent role of external backers — interested countries, private individuals, and non-state interest groups — has introduced often mutually exclusive interests into the already existing amalgam of conflicting ideological, political, economic, and military objectives.
Despite this, journalists, analysts, and activists alike often seek to ascertain the "next big front" in Syria, particularly through the widely accepted paradigm of rebel forces versus the Assad regime. Unfortunately, complexity often gets lost amid a popular desire for more simple and digestible macro frameworks. Utilizing such perspectives in the Syrian framework regularly results in considerable hype, but little movement and unpredictable flare-ups.
A major battlefront today is often left idle the next. On other occasions, what may appear to be a major campaign can fizzle, continue in earnest, or slowly and endlessly bleed into other geographic regions.
Some organizations cooperate against a shared enemy while battling one another for a variety of ideological, political, territorial, financial, and other reasons. Not only can the conflict in Syria be divided into several geographically distinct kinetic fronts, but hostilities also encompass — sometimes in an overlapping manner and other times individually — a variety of non-kinetic ideological fronts.
As such, ideologically and practically speaking, the Syrian conflict has come to represent one involving (1) elements within the Syrian government; (2) Lebanese Hezbollah units and foreign fighter-dominated Shiite militias; (3) small remnants of genuinely nationalist and sometimes secular opposition rebel units; (4) Muslim Brotherhood-type rebel groups; (5) Salafist groups; and (6) al-Qaeda affiliates and similarly aligned units. Crucially, while 1 and 2 share a central goal of ensuring Assad’s survival and 3 through 6 aim to overthrow the Assad regime, all six can be said to individually retain their own unique ideological and operational objectives. The involvement of non-Syrians complicates this picture yet further, as does the increasingly prominent role in parts of northern Syria of the militarily confident and capable Kurdish Yekineyen Parastina Gel (YPG). Needless to say, all of this complex multi-polarity has huge implications for those considering facilitating the negotiation of peace in Syria.
But what does this mean on the battlefield?
From the point at which an active armed insurgency began emerging in June 2011 until the early months of 2012, the Syrian conflict was predominantly representative of a battle between, on the one side, the ruling Baathist-led regime of President Bashar al-Assad and his loyal circle, and on the other, a multifarious collection of nationalist-minded militias explicitly fighting for a multidenominational and potentially progressive Syrian future.
However, as time passed in 2012, the relative simplicity presented by a conflict in which opposition nationalists were confronting Baathist or Alawite Assad loyalists dramatically changed. Many pre-existing local opposition militias steadily adopted more Islamist identities and other initially Salafist groups (such as Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya and Suqor al-Sham) which had emerged in late 2011 and early 2012 expanded their influence considerably. By mid-to-late 2012, Jabhat al-Nusra had grown sufficiently to have adapted its military tactics to those more akin to Syria’s larger insurgent groups, where long-term sieges and assaults were more the norm.
Meanwhile, on the pro-government side, initial indications of Hezbollah intervention in a string of Lebanese-populated villages in western Homs governorate in early 2012 soon morphed into a more notable presence — acting in an advisory and training role as well as an active military force. Starting in May, Hezbollah acted as the spearhead for an offensive in Qusayr and Homs. Iranian-backed Shiite militias also began appearing in Damascus’s southern Sayyida Zeinab suburb and eventually elsewhere further north. Many of these militias enjoyed and continue to present significant proportions of non-Syrian (mainly Iraqi) recruits.
Iranian-backed foreign Shiite militias, whose primary goal is to act as fresh, well-trained and equipped replacements for the worn down Syrian units of Assad, have also entered their own levels of multi-polarity. On an ideological level, the old pan-Islamic sentiments of Iran’s Islamic Revolution have been replaced by macro-level calls for an expressly "Shiite Resistance" against ascendant Sunni Islamism. These militias have substituted the nominally secular messaging of the Assad regime with a tone of Shiite exceptionalism.
Despite that these fighters are the tip of Assad’s spear, their role as efficient fighters has also put them at loggerheads with the Assad regime, leading in some rare occasions to firefights with Assad’s forces. A number of Iran’s Shiite militias in Syria, while still acting in strategic conjunction with Assad’s forces, are no longer taking orders from Assad’s commanders. Instead, Hezbollah, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Iraqi Shiite commanders are calling their own shots.
Since the beginning of October, Qalamoun, high in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, has been the predicted site of a combined Hezbollah-government advance. For the regime and rebel groups, Qalamoun is an important strategic location near major transport roads linking Damascus to Homs, and the coastal highlands inhabited by Assad’s Alawite sect. The zone is also a main connective area for rebel factions in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley to rebels in southern and eastern portions of Damascus, especially rural East Ghouta.
It would be an easy assumption to expect major fighting until one side claims victory. Nevertheless, this anticipated pro-government offensive has in fact been one which has been slowly ebbing and flowing since the summer. Additionally, disparate rebel factions have demonstrated little coordination and a number of ideological differences between factions have simmered to the surface.
Starting in June, this rather sporadic and often abortive advance has ground on in Damascus’s eastern suburbs, such as Jobar, and other more rural towns of East Ghouta — the same area that suffered a chemical weapons attack on August 21, and where pro-government forces have undertaken an attrition-based siege. Iraqi Shiite militias active in the area have also met with little success, even in combined operations with the Syrian army and its airpower. In fact, only in mid-October did the Shiite groups declare they had taken Hussainia, a district only a few miles east of the Shiite militia hub in Sayyida Zeinab.
Still, in the areas around Damascus, tension between rebels is another factor. While the Free Syrian Army (FSA) dithered, Salafi forces like Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya and al-Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, have launched their own anti-government offensives, particularly in the eastern suburb of Jaramana. Simultaneously they have also cracked down on non-radical Islamist individuals and factions in East Ghouta.
Holding captured territory and taking new areas presents added problems for both pro-government and rebel factions. Salafi and al-Qaeda-aligned rebel groups led multiple offensives into the town of Maaloula, near Qalamoun. These led to over a week of fighting and little gained by those forces. Since 2012, Yarmouk, the southern Damascus Palestinian refugee camp cum neighborhood has swayed between pro-government forces and rebels for the better part of a year. Every time one side claims victory, heavy fighting flares again. Following this trend, there has been little movement by rebel factions in either Qalamoun or East Ghouta. Despite their overall control of these areas, they have not been able to press a combined counterattack on Damascus or in other areas.
An intriguing recent exemplification of Syria’s complexity and the impact it can have on the conflict’s macro dynamics is the shifts taking place within the Syrian opposition. Since its emergence in the Qatari capital Doha in November 2012, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) has struggled to sustain a balanced and consistent leadership and its extraordinary lack of a presence within Syria has seen its influence over the armed insurgency decline notably. Meanwhile, the Syrian Military Council (SMC), led by Salim Idriss, has arguably managed to sustain some distinguishable level of influence on the ground, but even this is nowhere where it should be.
Conversely, the influence of a number of Islamist and Salafist groups — some at least on paper under the SMC’s command — has risen, along with their potential impact on the evolving orientation of the armed opposition. The consolidation of this latter trend was arguably catalyzed by the September 14 deal struck between the United States and Russia to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles — a diplomatic agreement that nullified any chance of punitive U.S. military strikes following the August 21 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus. This agreement rattled core moderate opposition rebel groups and significantly eroded the SNC and SMC’s capacity to present as powerful an image as they had at least attempted to portray before. The reaction on the ground was rapid and wholly condemnatory.
Since then, 11 of Syria’s most powerful opposition rebel groups have condemned the SNC and called for an Islamic system in Syria; 49 rebel groups merged under Liwa al-Islam to form Jaish al-Islam; more than 1,000 rebels defected from an FSA-aligned group in Deir al-Zour and pledged allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra; and 19 key rebel groups renounced much discussed plans to hold a Geneva II peace conference and threatened to bring any opposition figure who did attend any such talks before their courts. There are many more such examples. Clearly, the opposition has undergone and indeed is continuing to undergo considerable shifts, many of which indicate a notable strengthening of core Islamist groupings.
If this did not complicate matters enough, rumor now has it that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey may recently have come to an agreement to begin co-opting current anti-SNC Islamist groups — most notably Zahran Alloush’s Jaish al-Islam — under their influence as well as that of a reformed SMC, potentially giving Alloush a senior leadership role. However, such measures would face the significant challenge posed by Alloush’s previously antagonistic stance toward the SMC and SNC, and his increasingly close relations with the leaders of Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya, Suqor al-Sham, Liwa Tawhid and other Islamists and Salafists. Similar rumors continue to claim that some or even all of these groups could be on the verge of uniting — a hugely significant prospect, though probably unlikely.
While international attention continues to focus on securing peace conferences and managing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, the conflict continues unabated. Every month that goes by, the influence of externally-based opposition leaders erodes and the military-strategic potential of jihadist groups expands. Meanwhile, the Kurdish YPG has undoubtedly expanded its military capacity and imposed a significant defeat on Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) forces in Al-Yaroubiya only several days ago.
Unfortunately, this leaves only one logical conclusion: a complex multidimensional and perpetually fluctuating and evolving sub-state conflict is set to continue. None of the involved parties appears even close to being capable of securing victory and until the labyrinthine nature of the conflict is understood and most crucially, accepted by all involved — both internally and externally — initiatives aimed at negotiating peace are highly likely to fail.
Charles Lister (Charles_Lister) is a terrorism and insurgency analyst in London, Britain, who focuses particularly on Syria’s anti-government insurgency. Phillip Smyth (PhillipSmyth) is a researcher at the University of Maryland. He specializes in Shiite militia activity in Syria.