Abdelbari Atwan says the West and the Assad regime may soon be finding themselves on the same side in a fight against al Qaeda in Syria.
We have received many reports that Major General Salim Idris, the commander of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has fled to Turkey, and thence to Qatar.
He allegedly fled during a battle to defend FSA headquarters and weapons warehouses from a takeover by the Islamic Salvation Front at the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the Turkish/Syrian border. The Islamists won and are now in possession of US-provided hardware and ammunition. The FSA has denied these reports, claiming that Idris has gone to Qatar to attend a conference.
The US and UK responded to this significant military progress by the Islamic Salvation Front by immediately suspending all “non-lethal” military aid to the rebels. This is an unspoken acknowledgement of the collapse of the FSA and the failure of American policy in Syria which took a gamble on the FSA being able to topple the regime.
The resistance map in Syria is changing rapidly. The most powerful factions are four major Islamic forces: the Islamic Salvation Front (ISF), supported, armed and funded by Saudi Arabia and reportedly comprising 70,000 men; the Taweed Brigades (Islamist); the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS) – part of al-Qaeda, and the al-Nusra Front – allied to al-Qaeda. There are also some smaller groups loyal to Al-Qaeda.
The collapse of the FSA will inevitably lead to the collapse the Syrian National Coalition, led by Mr Ahmed Al-Jarba. Since the beginning of the crisis, the opposition has struggled to create a moderate body politic to act as interlocutor and an alternative to the Syrian regime.
Islamic Salvation Front
The US appears willing to accept that the ISF is “moderate” and a clear shift in media coverage of the crisis is emerging. The Washington Post reported “a senior US official” as saying that the Obama administration is willing to support Islamist groups as part of the rebel coalition “so long as they’re not allied with al-Qaeda,” and also offered to invite them to attend Geneva 2.
Continuing in this naive vein, the official also said that the Americans “would like the Islamic Front groups to return US vehicles, communications gear and other non-lethal equipment they seized last weekend from warehouses at the Syria-Turkey border.”
If we accept the premise that the Saudi-backed ISF is acceptable to the West as “moderate” and is the most heavily-armed, funded, and well-trained, then this is at the diplomatic expense of Qatar and Turkey, who have been backing the FSA and the Syrian National Coalition (SNC).
We cannot rule out that this political body (the SNC) will be completely dismantled, and replaced with a new organization and a new name. We have already seen the original opposition National Alliance, founded in Turkey, crumble after expanding intervention by Saudi Arabia, both politically and militarily.
Bashar al Assad
Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad will rejoice in such a collapse, for two main reasons:
* First: he has mentioned several times in interviews that hundreds of former FSA fighters have availed themselves of his proffered amnesty, throwing down their arms in exchange for assurances of safety.
* Second: Assad asserted since the beginning of the crisis that he was facing an insurgency by Islamic jihadist groups; few believed him, yet, as the conflict evolves it is clear that this is the case. This three-way struggle will be hard to resolve, with the FSA at war with the jihadis and the state and vice versa and vice versa again.
The United States has reached the same conclusion, and has held direct talks with “moderate” Islamic fronts through Turkish mediation; they accept that a lasting peace will not be possible without their participation. The West is struggling to find appropriate opposition representation for the forthcoming Geneva Conference.
As a result of the rise of Islamist factions, the US and the West now find themselves having more common ground with the regime than the rebels. On December 3rd, Ryan Crocker, a veteran American diplomat, told the New York Times that “We need to start talking to the Assad regime again.”
Meanwhile, the US is urging General Idriss to return to Syria. he has already threatened to join with the official Syrian Army to oust the Islamists and maybe that is what the Americans want. Nothing can surprise us any more in Syria.
We stand at the threshold of an Iraq-style “Awakening” campaign in Syria, with a basic and important difference which is that the Syrian “Awakening” to root out Islamic militants, will be supported directly or indirectly by the Syrian army and the United States and its Western allies. Some other Arab nations may participate, in the first stage at least.
Another aspect is where does all this leave Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Will they continue to support their favourite (largely different) Islamist armies, or will they back the “Awakening”?
It is clear that the West will hope to make the ISF the nucleus of “Awakening”, not only because it has the support of Saudi Arabia, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi intelligence chief, but also because it has started to fight with ISIS in several places in Syria, especially the northwest.
President Bashar Al-Assad said in press interviews that he now has contacts with most Gulf States, and the only problem is with some Saudi princes. A clear reference to Prince Sultan, who runs the line of conflict in Syria on behalf of his country.
Syria has become the lunatic asylum of the world and meanwhile we cannot forget the millions of displaced persons, and refugees, suffering a hellish existence as the winter snows start to fall.