Tag Archives: Syrian Islamic Front

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.

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.

Lost: Specificity of Responsibility

Carla Del Ponte of the United Nations’ Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria today said there are serious suspicions that the chemical weapon sarin has been used in Syria, but by rebels rather than the government, to her total surprise.  General Salim Idris of the Free Syrian Army responded that the remarks were “an injustice to the rebels and a provocation to the Syrian people’s feelings” (here in English, here in Arabic).  The UN commission has issued a terse statement saying its findings are not ready, which the BBC’s Imogen Foulkes interprets plausibly enough to suggest that Del Ponte’s remarks caught the commission by surprise.  But, as I raised the possibility in an earlier post, the allegations of chemical weapons usage raise more questions than answers.

I have three questions, and a plausible answer only to one of them:

1. When “the rebels” have done something, who are we talking about?  Is Del Ponte suggesting that the Free Syrian Army is using sarin, against the protestations of Salim Idris?  Or is it some other group (Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, Jabhat al-Nusra, Syrian Islamic Front, etc.)?  “The rebels” are a diverse group of organizations with very different structures, priorities, methods, and goals, apart from the single shared goal of bringing down the Assad regime.

2. How can the commission tell who has used the sarin?  The only method cited by the articles were interviews with exiles and refugees, but unless some of those interviewed were themselves rebels who confessed to deploying the chemical weapon, it is not clear how the responsibility could be inferred.  Certainly the use of sarin could be inferred based on a description of symptoms, but in a battle scenario it is very difficult to tell afterwards who did what to whom, as the phenomenon of “friendly fire” amply demonstrates.  If chemical weapons are used, anyone nearby regardless of whether they support or oppose the regime will suffer, so the identify of the victim cannot indicate the weapon’s use by the opposing side.  Del Ponte did not give any indication as to when or where the alleged use of sarin occurred, or under what circumstances, so it is unclear how the commission is able to distinguish regime from rebel usage.

3. Given that the commission’s report is not due yet, and Del Ponte herself emphasized that there are “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof,” while her comments seemed to catch the commission off guard, according to Foulkes’ interpretation, why did she make these allegations now?

I suspect this is related to the Israeli airstrikes against Syria over the weekend, and mounting pressure on the US government to arm “the rebels,” amid concerns of high-powered weapons falling into the hands of the terrorist component of “the rebels.”  Del Ponte’s remarks were probably designed to caution against rash Western military intervention, to indicate that the evidence of sarin used could go both ways (she did not rule out that the regime had also used the chemical weapon).  How much do we really know about what is going on in Syria?  How much can we discern among different armed groups, in order to supply weapons only, as John McCain advocated yesterday, to “the right people in Syria who are fighting for obviously the things we believe in”?  I think these are important questions, and I wonder if Del Ponte’s remarks were designed to slow things down after earlier news reports of chemical weapons usage by the Assad regime and Israeli airstrikes had sped up the expected decision timetable.