If the West can’t deliver for Syria’s mainstream rebels, maybe al Qaeda will.
It didn’t take long for the breakdown in cease-fire talks between the United States and Russia to affect the situation on the ground in Syria. Early Friday, Damascus heavily bombarded rebel-held neighborhoods in eastern Aleppo in a bid to retake the divided city.
But the West’s failure to silence the guns of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could also have a more insidious effect over time: the merger of mainstream rebel groups in Aleppo with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), an al Qaeda-affiliated group formerly known as the Nusra Front.
“We’re seeing everything being done to force together all the groups inside Aleppo today,” Bassma Kodmani, a senior member of the Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee, told Foreign Policy. “That’s a deadly direction for everyone.”
For weeks, mainstream rebel groups resisted efforts to merge with JFS, fearing that it would expose them to American airstrikes. And on Sept. 9, the United States and Russia brokered a cease-fire that promised to halt the Assad regime’s barrel bomb attacks and provide urgently needed humanitarian aid to besieged rebel-held areas — as long as the rebels dissociated from hard-line Islamists.
But on Thursday night, Moscow and Washington failed to find a way to revive the short-lived cease-fire during what U.N. special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura called a “long, painful, difficult, and disappointing meeting.”
The gathering of the International Syria Support Group, which includes the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, and several other countries, occurred on the sidelines of the annual United Nations General Assembly. In the middle of the meeting, the Syrian government announced the beginning of a new military operation in eastern Aleppo, blowing up any possibility of resuscitating the cease-fire accord.
A senior U.S. official described the meeting as “contentious” in a conference call with reporters, and said it would take “extraordinary steps by the Russians and the regime” to restore the cease-fire.
“The ball is very much in the Russians’ court to come back to us with some ideas that are serious,” the official said. “That would be above and beyond the types of things they have been willing to agree to in the past with regard to air activities over large parts of Syria.”
A visibly frustrated Secretary of State John Kerry left the gathering, saying he would meet again with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday, but expressed concern about reports of the Assad regime’s new offensive.
“I am no less determined today than I was yesterday, but I am even more frustrated,” Kerry said.
Now that the cease-fire is officially dead and the Assad regime is waging a new offensive in Aleppo, Syria experts say mainstream rebels may find themselves forced into closer military ties with al Qaeda-aligned Islamists in order to stand a better chance against Assad’s military.
“The only carrot was the aid and access Kerry supposedly secured from Moscow,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “That didn’t happen.”
Opposition forces are unlikely to separate from extremist elements if Washington can’t get Russia to rein in Assad, another analyst said.
“From the armed opposition perspective, the cessation of hostilities process cannot proceed without first achieving civilian protection,” said Nicholas Heras, a Syria expert at the Center for a New American Security. “U.S.-backed armed opposition groups simply won’t even begin to roll back the influence of extremist groups with ties to al Qaeda like Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham within the rebel movement without more forceful U.S. action.”
Kodmani, whose group has long sought to distinguish members of the mainstream opposition from Islamists, said the absence of diplomatic progress makes it difficult for the political arm of the Syrian opposition to maintain credibility with Syrians on the ground.
“We are here as the moderate opposition,” she said. “If this opposition does not deliver anything to the people and the moderate groups on the ground, where are the alternatives? What is it?”
Any further cohesion between the rebels and hard-line Islamists could spell trouble for efforts to revive a cease-fire agreement, as well as other U.S. efforts to arm Syrian opposition forces to defeat the Islamic State. It would also fuel Moscow’s longstanding complaint that Washington and its Sunni allies have failed to separate legitimate members of the Syrian opposition from radical Islamic groups.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, Assad said the five-and-a-half-year war in Syria would “drag on” for as long as the United States and its allies support militants he called “terrorists” in Syria. The defiant strongman said he gives little credence to what U.S. officials say.
“American officials — they say something in the morning and they do the opposite in the evening,” he said. “You cannot take them at their word, to be frank. We don’t listen to their statements, we don’t care about it, we don’t believe it.”