The moderate Syrian rebel groups are caught between a rock and a hard place, pilloried by radical factions for taking Western weapons but failing to get enough of them (or quickly enough) to become serious players. Moderate groups also suffer from poor morale and a lack of resources which is leading to large scale dissertation. The forces that the U.S. and west has nominally been backing have suffered losses at the hands of the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra (al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise) and the regime. The current trajectory means the moderate opposition remains marginal and incapable of shaping the battlefield in any material way. US and coalition airstrikes against ISIS had allowed President Bashar al-Assad to refocus on hitting mainstream rebels, and the regime had made gains around Hama and Aleppo. Combined with al-Nusra’s advances in Idlib and the threat of a renewed offensive by ISIS, moderate groups were now in danger of a rapid decline. Making things still worse for moderates there appears to be at least a truce between al-Nusra and ISIS, allowing each to focus on other enemies, whether moderate groups, the regime or the Kurds, and consolidate control over their respective strongholds. The bottom line is that the pace and scale of U.S. and west support is not sufficient to halt, let alone reverse, the erosion of moderate forces in Syrian arena.
Most territory in Syria is essentially shared by the “big three”: Islamic state, al-Nusra and its allies, and the regime. Assad’s forces control Damascus, the Mediterranean coast and much of the area in between. Islamic State, controls the east, while Nusra controls much of the northwest and is expanding at the expense of moderates. Syrian regime is after the moderate rebels which it wants to vanished out from the scene as soon as possible. Assad regime is working on the strategy of killing off the mainstream groups and leaves the West with a stark choice: Bashar al-Assad or ISIS and other jihadist groups turning Syria into an Islamic state. On the other hands the jihadists group are also attacking moderates and taking territory from them as they consider them soft targets as compared to Syrian regime. During a key battle in the rugged mountains of northern Idlib province this month, US-backed Syrian rebels collapsed before an assault by Nusra fighters. Some surrendered their weapons and others outright defected to the militants. At the same time, a string of assassinations has targeted some of their most powerful moderate’s commanders. This is the end of the Free Syrian Army, said Alaa Al Deen, an opposition activist in Idlib, referring to western-backed rebel groups. “It’s the beginning of an Islamic emirate. Al Nusra drove US-backed factions almost completely out of Idlib provience where they had been the predominant force since from the start of the Syrian conflict. Two of the strongest western-backed forces, the Hazm Movement and the Syrian Revolutionary Front, were defeated and several other allied groups simply vanished.
Meanwhile, US is also reworking on its strategy to make moderates a prominent force in Syria. The Pentagon plans to train and equip a force of 5,000 fighters in northern Syria to fight the Islamic State. A location south of the Turkish capital, Ankara, has been identified as a base for training the first 2,000 rebels, this training is expected to start from March next year. This new strategy which seems to have very little chance of success is being hastily formulated. The aim is to build a proxy rebel army from scratch to take on the Jihadists, recruiting from the sprawling refugee camps which house millions of displaced Syrians in neighbouring countries. It is unclear how the US will go about convincing Syrians brutalized and displaced by their regime to turn their attention away from battling it, and focus instead on fighting groups which they consider as brothers in arms. The Americans either have to employ some extraordinary powers of persuasion, or otherwise end up with little more than a limited and mediocre mercenary force, motivated by money and lacking any real conviction in its cause. A force like that would stand little chance against the more numerous and better motivated fanatical jihadists, let alone a cornered regime viciously fighting tooth and nail for its very survival.
If the fighting in Syria continues on its current trajectory, the country soon it will be partitioned almost entirely between jihadist forces and those of the Assad regime, leaving the moderate rebels without territory and the United States without allies in the strategically important country. It’s a hard fact that the Free Syrian Army the umbrella group of moderate rebels is currently the weakest force on the ground in Syria, a result not only of inadequate foreign backing compared with that of rival Islamist and extremist factions, but of its own internal divisions, byzantine leadership structure (based in Turkey) and rampant corruption. Over the period of time the moderates have gotten weaker, and are facing a regime that has adapted its military and political tactics. Their morale has gone down and the structural problems have become much more problematic in terms of organizing against the regime. Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State have done a great job at leveraging opposition weaknesses and attracting fighters from other groups into their ranks. It will be true to say that moderate rebel groups inside Syria are facing the prospect of complete annihilation. Moderate opposition groups were never going to survive if they didn’t address some of the core structural issues and challenges it faces in terms of fighting the Assad regime and extremists.
(Author is a columnist for Middle-East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geo-political news agency www.viewsaround.com can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)