BEIRUT: One year after the death of a popular Free Syrian Army commander who urged interrebel unity, the mainstream armed opposition is still struggling to get its house in order – although the ranks of the Islamist rebels are also far from being unified.
The latest alliance of FSA-affiliated units was unveiled last week as the “Syrian Rebel Front,” representing 14 different groups.
The move is being interpreted as a reaction to the earlier formation of the Islamic Front by seven leading Islamist militias, but few people are expecting radical change in the FSA’s fortunes as a result.
The announcement of the birth of the Syrian Rebel Front comes in the wake of a huge setback for the mainstream FSA on the border with Turkey. Early this month, the Islamic Front’s fighters seized warehouses and headquarters belonging to the FSA, under the control of its Turkey-based Supreme Military Council.
Both the SMC and the Islamic Front denied reports that the incident represented infighting; they said it took place when the SMC asked for help to fend off an attack by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the hard-line Al-Qaeda militia. In this version of events, the FSA was unable to defend the depots and voluntarily handed control over to the Islamic Front.
The incident had sharp political repercussions for the SMC, as Britain and the United States quickly announced they were suspending shipments of nonlethal aid as they tried to determine whether the mainstream rebels would be able to secure their own supply lines and facilities.
However, a pushback against the Islamic Front – whether in terms of its mere formation or the warehouses debacle – came almost immediately in the form of the new Syrian Rebel Front, according to Aron Lund, a Swedish researcher who follows Syria’s rebel groups.
In a report on the new alliance for the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lund said although the members of the Syria Rebel Front are “second-tier actors ... real unity between them could create a significant force on the ground, especially if backed by strong foreign funding. But there’s little to indicate that the SRF’s creation is underpinned by any real ideological or political agenda. Instead, it seems very much to be a case of coming together against a common enemy – the Islamist surge in general and the Islamic Front in particular.”
“That the SRF was declared almost immediately after the warehouses were taken over is probably no coincidence,” Lund wrote. “If that was ‘a complete coup’ against the SMC, then cobbling together the SRF is a countercoup.”
Although many such announcements of new rebel alliances fail to produce any results on the ground, the Syrian Rebel Front has already clashed with the Islamic Front.
The spearhead in this development seems to be Jamal Maarouf, who heads the Idlib-based Syria Martyrs Brigade, one of the 14 members of the SRF.
Maarouf’s militia took an unspecified number of fighters from the Islamic Front captive this month in Idlib and the two sides have reportedly resorted to mediation by the jihadist Nusra Front to sort out their differences.
Maarouf released a statement over the weekend saying that he was amenable to a prisoner exchange with his rivals, and seeing their disputes submitted to religious arbitration.
Many FSA units have long claimed that they are under assault by two enemies – the regime, and the Islamist militias with their announced goal of establishing an Islamic state.
Ironically, a prominent member of the Islamic Front, Hassan Abboud of the Ahrar al-Sham movement, made the same claim in the wake of the latest developments.
He said, “the gangs of Jamal Maarouf” had been attacking Islamic Front members at the same time that the Islamic Front was engaged in clashes with jihadists from ISIS in the Aleppo town of Maskana.
And fighters in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus finally broke their silence Monday about a long series of battles and skirmishes that have taken place in recent weeks.
However, the “victories” in small towns and villages weren’t claimed in the name of the Islamic Front, which was supposedly a merger of seven militias into a single, cohesive unit. One of its members – the Islam Army – took part in the Ghouta battles, but it was joined by half a dozen other units, not seen as members of the Islamic Front.
All of the infighting and haphazard nature of rebel alliances has left analysts and policymakers puzzled, while rebel figures can only repeat their urgent pleas for “unity.”
Louay Moqdad, the spokesman for the FSA leadership based in Turkey, told The Daily Star that disputes over the future of Syria continued to hamper attempts at joining forces.
“All of the rebels believe that they’re acting in the right way, and some believe that they are ‘more right’ than others,” he said.
The dispute over what a future should look like – and specifically the question of whether an Islamic state should be established – is one of the major hurdles, Moqdad said.
“Only the Syrian people can decide this. We have to delay these questions until later on,” Moqdad said.
Col. Abdel-Jabbar Ukaidi, a leading FSA commander who resigned his post in Aleppo in early November to protest the infighting in rebel ranks, released a video statement Sunday in which he reiterated the call for unity.
“When we rose up in rebellion we had only one enemy,” Ukaidi said.
“Any rifle pointed elsewhere represents a rifle pointed at the chest of the revolution,” he added.
“This is no time for [new] designations, and posts,” Ukaidi said, perhaps referring to the steady series of announcements of new alliances.
Meanwhile, pro-opposition activists have been busy paying tribute to Col. Youssef Jader, aka “Abu Furat,” a defected officer who was killed in battle in Aleppo one year ago.
Abu Furat became a symbol of the uprising due to footage of him on the battlefield, pleading for cooperation among rebel units.
But he also gained respect for expressing sadness over the loss of life on both sides of the conflict, and for staunchly criticizing sectarianism.
Viewing the footage of his interviews one year on, as the uprising’s supporters regularly use ugly terms to refer to enemy dead and wounded, only highlights how the conflict has slipped from the control of mainstream FSA figures such Abu Furat.
Moqdad said that “in order to honor the martyrs, like Abu Furat, or Yasser Abboud [of Deraa], or Abdel-Qader Saleh [of Aleppo] ... We must put off our differences until tomorrow.”
“The last thing that Abu Furat said before his death was that he wanted to see the rebels unify, and that all Syrians are brothers, and family. These are the values that 150,000 people have sacrificed their lives for.”