Tag Archives: Muhajireen Brigade

Found: Syria’s Other Secularist Opposition

First let me say that I know there is bigger news about Syria today, such as US Senator John McCain‘s surprise visit to the Free Syrian Army and the European Union’s decision to end the arms embargo against Syria.  I am not yet commenting on those, as I wait to learn more about what each development will mean.  I also have yet to post regarding the effectiveness of drone attacks, as I still intend to do.

But what caught my eye earlier today was a small article from the Chinese government news agency Xinhua, which reported that Hasan ‘Abd al-‘Azim, the leader of the Syrian secularist opposition group the National Coordinating Body, promised to participate “positively” in the US-Russia backed “Geneva 2” negotiations to seek a political end to the bloodshed in Syria, widely expected to occur some time in June.

Wait a sec, you say?  The Syrian opposition is divided between jihadis (such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian Islamic Front, Ghuraba al-Sham, and the Muhajireen Brigade) on the one hand, and the secularists in the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army on the other, right?

Well, yes, I mean, well, sort of.  The Syrian National Council brings together secularists like George Sabra and non-jihadi but distinctly non-secularist politicians such as past president Burhan Ghalioun, who was criticized for being “too close to the Muslim Brotherhood.”  The National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (هيئة التنسيق الوطنية لقوى التغيير الديمقراطي, often known as the “National Coordination Committee” or NCC), on the other hand, is a coalition of secularist opposition parties which is not recognized by the Syrian National Coalition, many of whose members suspect that they are a front for regime sympathizers or double agents working for the Assad regime.  It is true that the Assad government is secularist as well, and the NCC did not formally call for Assad’s removal until September 2012.  On the other hand, the NCC is now calling for Assad’s removal, which puts them more squarely with the rest of the opposition, despite the suspicions of other opposition groups.  They have rarely been noticed by Western media outlets, which have tended to focus on the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Coalition, perhaps viewing them by analogy with Libya’s National Transition Council.

Why is China picking up on the NCC?  While the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Coalition are calling for foreign military aid, the NCC rejects external military intervention.  This accords very well with China’s (and Russia’s) repudiation of “foreign meddling” in Syria, seen in their repeated UN Security Council veto of any UN military action in Syria, and this mutual interest in “non-interference” explains why the NCC has received diplomatic support from both China and Russia.  If China and Russia cannot have the Assad regime, the NCC is their opposition of choice.

The NCC also used to have a number of Kurdish member parties, but those parties have withdrawn to form the Kurdish National Council, which is separatist as well as secularist and leftist.  The KNC is arguing that the part of Syria where Kurds form the majority (in the northeast of the country) should be given full Kurdish autonomy, while the SNC and NCC both are pushing for maintaining Syria’s current borders.

With so many opposition groups to choose from, the Geneva 2 meeting may end up with every foreign country having its preferred Syrian opposition coalition.

The Chechen Connection

On Friday, Time published some remarks by Andrei Klimov, a leading Russian legislator (and not to be confused with the undefeated lightweight boxer of that name), which indicated why Russia is going ahead with supplying anti-aircraft and anti-naval (“ship-killer”) missiles to the Assad regime, despite requests from the US and Israel to halt the shipments.  In sum, Klimov presented the move as an attempt to ensure that outside force is not used to end the Assad regime in Syria without a political solution freely chosen by Assad and his allies (Russia and Iran most notably among them).  Klimov signaled distrust of the US particularly and regret over the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya which turned a “no-fly zone” into direct attacks on Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi‘s forces.

President Obama’s recent decision to rule out unilateral US involvement in Syria probably speaks to Moscow’s concerns.  But commentators have criticized Obama for this move, and have criticized Secretary of State Kerry and others for their failure to budge Moscow’s policy of arming the Assad regime (as if it were in their power to do so).

One additional aspect of the ongoing civil war in Syria which may worry Moscow, which was not mentioned by Klimov, could either prompt additional military support for the regime or hesitancy about pouring more weapons into Syria.  That is the Chechen element in the jihadi Syrian rebel groups.  The commander of the Muhajireen Brigade is Abu Omar al-Shishani, a Chechen Islamist who has previously fought against Russia in his native Chechnya, and other Islamist groups are employing Chechen fighters.  It was even rumored that the two abducted metropolitan archbishops of Aleppo were abducted by Chechens.  A month ago Mark Galeotti documented other instances of Chechen involvement in Syria, and the potential Russian government concern over the subject, in a post which deserves to be more widely known.

The effects of the Chechen concern may turn on how confident Russia is that the Assad regime can ensure that the Russian weapons do not fall into the hands of rebels.  Rebel forces have captured weapons and ammunition, even tanks, from the regime in the past, and used them against Assad’s own forces.  Especially with Israel openly threatening Assad with additional air strikes, the possibility of Assad’s forces spreading themselves thinner in order to respond to further Israeli attacks raises the possibility for further rebel gains against the regime forces, and thus for capturing Russian missiles.

While any captured anti-aircraft weapons would mostly likely stay in Syria to be used against the regime (and the Russian navy need not fear any “ship-killer” missiles launched from mountainous Chechnya), after the end of the war (whether jihadis take over Syria or are forced to withdraw) any captured weapons might make their way out to be used in Chechnya against Russian government forces there.  Just as the US has been wary of supplying weapons to the Free Syrian Army which might make their way into al-Qa’ida‘s hands, thence to be used by al-Qa’ida in attacks against the US, so the Russian-supplied arms to Assad might be captured in battle by jihadi militants with Chechen connections.

Russia might respond to this possibility in various ways.  It might decide to intervene more directly in Syria to prop up the Assad regime against the Chechen jihadi rebels, for example.  Or it may decide that future weapons shipments to the Syrian regime should not contain more powerful weapons that, if removed to a Chechnyan context, could threaten its own forces.  Mark Galeotti suggested that the existence of Chechen jihadi fighters moving from one hotspot to another may mean that Russia will consider the prolongation of the conflict in its own domestic best interest.  But the Chechen connection certainly complicates both Russian involvement in the Syrian Civil War and Western attempts to sway Russian support away from the Assad regime.

Syria’s Two Revolts

Everyone knows that the Syrian Civil War is a military contest between Bashar al-Assad and those who want a new Syria without him.  The US has publicly taken the position that Bashar al-Assad must go, and has been considering whether to increase its involvement in the conflict.

When I first taught a history course, a bit of advice I was given was to work backwards: decide what I want students to get out of the class, write final exam questions to assess that, and then figure out what assignments and lecture content are necessary in order to guide students to the point where they will likely get the desired results out of the class.  In weighing choices, whether in teaching or in other domains, it sometimes helps to start with the desired outcome.

When the war is over, as it will be sooner or later, what will “the new Syria” look like?  The groups that are now agreed on the short-term goal, ousting Assad, will quickly find it difficult to agree on the subsequent goals.  In particular, the jihadi ideology of groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, Ghuraba al-Sham (“foreigners of Syria”), the Syrian Islamic Front, and the Muhajireen Brigade (“The Brigade of Emigrants to the Land of Syria”; كتيبة المهاجرين الى بلاد الشام) will be at odds with the secular leftist agenda of George Sabra and much of the Syrian National Coalition.  It is hard to imagine a government composed of a coalition between adherents of these two ideologies.  Instead, it is likely that whichever side finds itself in power after Assad, the other side will constitute the opposition.

The nature of the opposition might be inferred from previous experience.  If the Islamists gain power, the secularists may be forced to go (or remain) underground or in exile, unless they are provided with outside arms to fight a new revolt against a new Islamist government.  On the other hand, if the secularists gain power, the jihadi groups are likely to declare the new government as un-Islamic and illegitimate as the Assad regime and continue their military revolt.  There is a very real possibility that the end of the Assad regime could mark the end not of the Syrian Civil War but merely of its first stage.

The Free Syrian Army, meanwhile, is something of a wild card, since its only goal is the removal of Assad.  Individual soldiers in the FSA might support either side in a stand-off between secularists and Islamists.  If the bulk of the FSA throws in their lot with the jihadis after the end of Assad rule, “the new Syria” may come to look distinctly like Afghanistan under the Taliban.  On the other hand, if the FSA largely opposes Jabhat al-Nusra and the violent Islamist groups, continued civil war between the two groups is certain, and it will be a contest of who receives greater foreign military aid.  As an ambiguous sign of things to come, FSA brigade commanders complained recently to the Guardian that they were losing troops to Jabhat al-Nusra.  I say “ambiguous” because while it indicates that many troops are swapping teams, the reason most frequently cited (both by continuing FSA commanders and by those who left the FSA) is Jabhat al-Nusra’s better resources.  For FSA soldiers who just want to bring down Assad but are under-supplied with weapons, the swap can look appealing.  On the other hand, the perspective of the brigade commanders may imply that the command structure of FSA is largely opposed to Jabhat al-Nusra, a potential divide between officers and common soldiers.

As usual, I am not advocating a particular strategy, both because no one asked me and because I don’t claim to know the future.  But it might be useful to think of the current civil war as two revolts happening simultaneously, not independently but in tandem, and to realize that the end of the Assad regime in Syria may not be be the end of the war.