Friday, November 29, 2013

New rebel merger off to modest start

[Originally posted at NOW]

The merger of seven major factions has yet to make much impact on the battlefield.

When seven major Syrian rebel brigades announced their merger last week into a unified Jabhat al-Islamiyya (“Islamic Front”), independent of both the al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadi factions and the US-backed Supreme Military Council, a number of analysts speculated the move would translate into significant military gains for the opposition on the ground.

So far, however, while rebel factions have made a number of advances on forces allied to President Bashar al-Assad in recent days, analysts told NOW Jabhat al-Islamiyya’s contribution to these efforts appears to have been relatively modest.

The new super-brigade brings together an estimated 45,000 fighters from some of the most powerful Islamist forces in the country, comprising what were hitherto known as Liwa al-Tawhid, Ahrar al-Sham, Suqur al-Sham, Liwa al-Haq, Ansar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, and the Kurdish Islamic Front. Over and above the military alliance, Jabhat al-Islamiyya has also explicitly declared a political program. In a marked departure from the more secular rhetoric of the Western-supported Syrian National Coalition opposition body, Jabhat al-Islamiyya calls for replacing the Assad regime with an “Islamic state where the sovereignty of God almighty alone will be our reference and ruler.”

Coinciding with the Front’s formation were several substantive territorial gains for rebel forces, though the overall war continues to stand at a general stalemate. On Saturday, in Deir Ezzor province, rebels captured the largest oil field in the country, effectively bringing an end to the regime’s supply of the commodity. On the day the Jabhat al-Islamiyya merger was announced, rebels captured the town of Deir Attiyeh in the strategic and heavily-contested Qalamoun region along the Lebanese border, though regime forces later re-took it. And in the Damascus suburbs, an intense rebel campaign to break a year-long regime siege overran a number of neighborhoods earlier this week, and has led to a spike in casualties among pro-regime militias such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

“Hezbollah has already announced around 30 dead for November,” said Phillip Smyth, researcher at the University of Maryland and author of the Hizballah Cavalcade website that tracks the various Shiite Islamist militias active in Syria. “Casualties are [also] coming from the entire Iranian-backed front” of pro-Assad Shiite forces, including the Iraqi Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr Organization, which recently announced the death of a commander, Smyth added.

For the most part, however, these rebel advances have been made not by Jabhat al-Islamiyya fighters but rather their powerful jihadi rivals.

“The capture of Deir Attiyeh was the work of Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which is currently in a joint front in Qalamoun with Jabhat al-Nusra and an independent battalion led by Saudi foreign fighters known as ‘The Green Battalion’,” said Aymenn al-Tamimi, Syria analyst and Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum. Similarly, “the capture of the [Deir Ezzor] oil field was led by Jabhat al-Nusra.”

Only in the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta does Jabhat al-Islamiyya appear to have played a lead role in the recent fighting, where it and a local coalition have outperformed the smaller ISIS and Nusra contingents, according to Tamimi. A video uploaded Sunday showed Ghouta residents celebrating as “victorious” rebel brigades drove through the streets.

In general, though, “It’s still very early days for the Islamic Front so [there have been] no really significant military gains as of yet,” said Tamimi.

Nonetheless, several analysts with whom NOW spoke argued the Front could soon make a noticeably bigger impact on the battlefield, provided it receives sufficient logistical and financial support.

“If they can draw more financial backing and set up a better internal coordination of their forces, funding channels, and resources, I'm sure that the creation of the Islamic Front could have an impact on the military balance,” said Aron Lund, researcher and editor of the Carnegie Endowment’s Syria in Crisis website.

“This coalition is formal and set to last, unlike the Islamic Alliance that translated to no real change on the ground,” said Tamimi. “A change in the rebels’ fortunes might occur if this appeals to the Saudis and potential foreign backers to step up support in the belief it is the only viable rebel force.”

Absent that crucial ingredient of material foreign assistance, said Lund, the Islamic Front’s formation will be “mainly a political event, rather than a military one.”

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