While the Islamic State pillages Iraq, the more moderate opposition in Syria is making headway against Assad's forces back home.
- By Robert S. FordRobert S. Ford is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington. He previously served as U.S. ambassador to Syria and Algeria and was deputy U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
Don’t believe everything you read in the media: The moderate rebels of Syria are not finished. They have gained ground in different parts of the country and have broken publicly with both the al Qaeda affiliate operating there and the jihadists of the Islamic State. Meanwhile, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is showing new signs of weakness.
The death of moderate armed opposition elements has been greatly exaggerated. These groups — whom I define as fighters who are not seeking to impose an Islamic state, but rather leaving that to a popular decision after the war ends — have recently gained ground in Idlib province in northwestern Syria, and have nearly surrounded the provincial capital. If the rebels are ever to demonstrate military capacity, it should be in Idlib, where the supply lines from Turkey are easily accessible.
Their advances over the past month also extend beyond Idlib. Notably, moderate armed groups repelled regime attacks in the vicinity of the town of Morek, in west-central Hama province, and also advanced on the Hamidiyah air base there. They even damaged aircraft at the air base, with some reports claiming that they used surface-to-air missiles.
Moreover, they launched renewed rebel incursions into Damascus from the nearby eastern suburb of Jobar on July 25 and 26. The regime reportedly even had to re-route Damascus city buses. These incursions follow the successful operations by the Army of Islam, led by an ambitious Islamist commander named Zahran Alloush, who declared war on the Islamic State and expelled it entirely from Damascus’s eastern suburbs after bloody fighting earlier in the month. Rebels in Aleppo have also begun an operation to cut off the regime’s supplies from the south, so their situation in the northern city is not hopeless.
For the regime, the last three weeks have been particularly painful. The most frequently cited source for casualty figures, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, put regime dead at more than 1,000; the figures provided by the armed opposition were more than double that number. Casualties at this rate are not sustainable for the minority-backed regime, and indeed there were reports of new Alawite grumbling about the growing toll. Most notably, Assad’s cousin, Falak al-Assad, bitterly criticized the Syrian military and the Syrian state media on social media after images of the massacred Assad forces appeared online.
Many of the regime’s new woes, of course, come from a new quarter — and a group that represents a dangerous threat for the moderates, too. The Islamic State, which has seized large swaths of territory in Iraq, has also ended its de facto truce with the regime: Building on its successes against moderate groups in eastern Syria, the Islamic State seized an army division headquarters in the province of Raqqa, in north-central Syria, as well as a regimental headquarters. More recently, the Islamic State overran the army’s Brigade 93, and it is now laying siege to the last remaining Assad-controlled airport in Raqqa province. As the Syrian military keeps large stocks of supplies at such bases, these victories provided the Islamic State with new weapons to continue its military advance. The jihadist group followed up with an unprecedented offensive against the regime in the hard-fought area east of Aleppo, even as it continued to struggle against moderate rebels in the Damascus area.
Despite the moderates’ recent gains, their weaknesses remain apparent. They have significant supply shortages, as they still have limited access to ammunition and other military resources. Despite last month’s U.N. Security Council resolution to allow aid to rebel-controlled areas, humanitarian supplies have been slow to arrive in desperate areas that are under siege. Coordination among them is still feeble. In early July, moderate rebel groups announced the creation of a combined emergency reaction force in Aleppo, but there is no sign on the battlefield of such forces actually deploying together. They have also still failed to figure out how to reach out to greater portions of the regime base, especially the Alawite community, which forms the core of the regime’s support. Islamic State gains in eastern and northern Syria have likely increased the Alawites’ fears of extermination — thereby reinforcing their support for Assad.
There was one positive political sign among the armed opposition, however. For weeks, there have been visible tensions between al-Nusra Front, the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, and the moderate armed groups. In months past, these diverse groups had coordinated on the ground in the desperate fight against the regime, and then also coordinated to push back the Islamic State. Earlier in July, however, al-Nusra Front quit the arbitration committees overseeing relations among the armed opposition groups in Aleppo and the Damascus suburbs, saying that it did so because the moderate groups "have a different political project." This announcement followed a May 17 communiqué by more moderate Islamists, in which they identified their goal as a state ruled by law (they did not say Islamic law), stated that they would not retaliate against communities that had supported the regime, and promised to respect minorities’ rights.
Nusra Front fighters have since clashed with moderate armed elements, but — unlike the Islamic State — have not yet declared war on them. There are indications that the al Qaeda affiliate may launch a broader offensive against more secular armed groups like the Syrian Revolutionaries Front in Idlib, a move that would give hard-pressed regime forces in Idlib a breather.
In the months ahead, the moderate armed opposition will remain in the fight and probably even seize more small chunks of territory from the regime. They are also slowly, sometimes painfully, separating themselves from fellow fighters who follow al Qaeda or the Islamic State. These breaks offer them a new opportunity to win over segments of the Alawite community to their cause. As the war drags on, the regime will be in serious trouble if the moderates can convince segments of Assad’s supporters that it would be safe to jettison the dictator for a mutually acceptable alternative who could rally both the regime’s remaining forces and the moderate armed opposition.