International Security

Assad Loses Ground, But Rebels Remain Split



June 26, 2015 19:13 EDT

What is the state of the Syrian rebellion?

This week saw several key developments in the Syrian Civil War. Kurdish-led forces announced that they have captured a military base and a nearby town from the Islamic State (IS), only 50 kilometers from the group’s “capital” Raqqa in northern Syria. Additionally, a rebel alliance, including hard-line Islamist groups and fighters belonging to the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), said that it had begun an offensive to retake the city of Aleppo; this came only a few months after reports spoke of pro-government forces encircling the divided city.

In southern Syria, members of the FSA announced via social media that they will not cooperate with the powerful Jaysh al-Fateh (Army of Conquest) coalition, which includes al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra.

While IS continues to receive most of the attention, who are some of the other main players in the Syrian rebellion?

The Kurds

Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, and the Kurdish People Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), have been a major ally of the US-led coalition in the fight against the Islamic State. The symbolic retaking of the border town of Kobane earlier this year after intense, months-long battles backed by US-led airstrikes, as well as recent victories in Tal Abyad and Ain Issa, all attest to the Kurdish-led forces’ strength and increasing momentum in the fight against IS.

The YPG often cooperates with members of the FSA in northern Syria, despite armed clashes in the past. Tensions between the two sides revolve around FSA accusations that the Kurds are allied to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and want to carve out an independent Kurdish state, while the Kurds fear they would be left out in a post-Assad Syria dominated by mainly Arab FSA factions.

While the YPG is backed by US-led airstrikes, Turkey views the Kurds’ increasing influence across the border with suspicion. The YPG has ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which for decades fought for Kurdish self-rule in southeastern Turkey and is seen as a terrorist organization by Turkey and Western states such as the US. Turkish officials have, in the past, repeatedly expressed their fears of the PKK dominating northern Syria, while US support for the YPG continues to complicate US-Turkish relations.

After Syrian government troops withdrew from key areas in the north, Kurds were able to carve out a de-facto autonomous sphere in Rojava, also known as Western Kurdistan, and have created what many hail as a democratic experiment, which does not only include Kurds. Elements of this model are popular assemblies as decision-making bodies—councils selected in a manner that ensures an ethnic and gender balance and the establishment of women and youth councils.

After the liberation of Tal Abyad, reports surfaced that Kurdish forces had burned down houses and fields of Arab families living in the area. The YPG denied those accusations. Human Rights Watch accused the Kurdish authorities in northern Syria in a June 2014 report of arbitrarily arresting people, violating due process and leaving disappearances and murders unsolved. “The Kurdish-run areas of Syria are quieter than war-torn parts of the country, but serious abuses are still taking place,” Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director, said at the time.

A written statement by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units from October 2014 reads: “We will work to consolidate the concept of true partnership for the administration of this country and commensurate with the aspirations of the Syrian people with all its ethnic, religious and social classes.”

Army of Conquest

Jaysh al-Fateh, the Army of Conquest, has risen to prominence with its string of victories against the Syrian government in northern Syria. This series of battlefield successes only months after it was formed in March 2015 included the capture of almost all of Idlib province, which borders the ancestral home of the Assad family in Latakia. Jaysh al-Fateh includes most Islamist rebel groups with the exception of IS, Syria analyst Wladimir van Wilgenburg wrote for The Jamestown Foundation.

A crucial player in the alliance is al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, while other members include Ahrar al-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa and Liwa al-Haqq. It is not entirely clear to what extent Jaysh al-Fateh receives foreign support, but there are indications that Turkey and Saudi Arabia have lent support to members of the coalition, van Wilgenburg argued.

Jabhat al-Nusra has a track record of cooperating with various local rebel forces, as the spectacular attack on a Syrian Air Force intelligence headquarters in Aleppo in March demonstrated. The group has also cooperated with the main rebel faction in Aleppo, Jabhat al-Shamiya, but it has fought against and in some cases neutralized moderate US-backed rebel brigades in Idlib and Aleppo provinces; the forced dissolution of the Hazzm movement in March serves as an example here.

Van Wilgenburg highlights that Jaysh al-Fateh is “likely to continue to expand in Sunni areas around Idlib and other parts of northern Syria due to Jabhat al-Nusra’s relative pragmatism, its coordination with other groups, the Syrian government’s lack of manpower, increased regional cooperation to stop Iranian expansion and its newly acquired weapons.” He pointed out, however, that the coalition faces challenges from IS and could also fragment because of pressure from outside players to “contain” Jabhat al-Nusra’s influence.

Free Syrian Army

Founded by Syrian army deserters in 2011, the FSA became the face of the moderate rebellion and continues to be the main player directly supported by the West in efforts to oust President Assad.

After initial successes, but lacking proper military equipment and suffering from fragmentation and disorganization from the start, the FSA was soon marginalized by better armed and financed groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra. During this process, many FSA brigades were dissolved and fighters joined Islamist or jihadist groups to continue to fight the government and receive a salary. Other fighters fled the country.

US-led efforts to train moderate Syrian rebels outside the country are ongoing, but have encountered problems over the vetting process and the transportation of fighters from the Syrian battlefield to training sites.

“There is no such thing as the Free Syrian Army,” Rami Jarrah, a prominent Syrian activist and co-founder of the Syrian news outlet ANA Press, said in March. “People still use the term in Syria to make it seem like the rebels have some sort of structure. But there really isn’t.”

In February 2014, a group of 49 secular and moderate religious rebel groups formed the so-called Southern Front of the FSA. While some analysts have doubted the group’s moderate character, several units have rejected cooperation with Jaysh al-Fateh due to the presence of “takfiri” fighters, mainly a reference to Jabhat al-Nusra. Jaysh al-Fateh recently launched a southern region in the provinces of Daraa and Quneitra. Not all Southern Front members followed suit and at least one unit vowed to join Jaysh al-Fateh.

The Southern Front reacted angrily to the recently reported killing of 20 Druze people by Jabhat al-Nusra in Idlib province.

Future prospects for rebels in the moderate camp will depend on the success of the US-led training program, but whatever happens, multiple obstacles abound for the FSA.


While IS continues to be successfully challenged on multiple fronts as the events of recent weeks have shown, the group is far from being defeated, and any operation to retake Raqqa will be a complicated endeavor. As a sign of the difficulties ahead, the militant group has re-entered the city of Kobane—with fighting there ongoing at the time of writing—and it also seized parts of the important northeastern city of Hassakeh. In a similar vein, recent battlefield losses for the Syrian government are significant, but Assad’s main partners, Iran and Russia, remain steadfast in their support.

A key development to watch will be the stance of the minority Druze community, among whom discontent continues to brew. The Assad government has long relied on the support of minority groups, such as the Druze, Christians and the president’s co-religionists, the Alawites, to shore up support inside and outside the country, Syria expert Hassan Hassan wrote in The Daily Beast. An important Druze religious figure recently declared that Druze no longer have to serve in the Syrian Arab Army.

Additionally, Kurdish moves will be closely watched not only on the borders of Turkey, but also by people inside Syria, who might be wary of the potential establishment of a Kurdish state. Given the deep involvement of Islamist and jihadist forces in almost all battlegrounds in Syria, it will be difficult for the West to insert a moderate force strong enough to take on the Syrian army and its various allies as well as addressing the key Western priority of tackling IS.

*[This article was originally published by The World Weekly.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Freedom House / Flickr 

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