After Years Of Fighting, Syria’s Rebels Face A Bleak Future

A shift in geopolitics opened the way to a deal that may end the war at the rebels' expense

Syria's rebel fighters face a bleak reality and fewer choices — REUTERS
Jan 09, 2017 at 7:07 AM ET

The latest peace effort in Syria’s nearly six-year civil war is beginning to follow a familiar script.

Activists say the ceasefire that went into effect nationwide last week is already “on the verge of collapse,” after a series of alleged regime strikes on rebel-held areas in the Barada valley and Damascus suburbs. Several rebel factions have responded by threatening to pull out of Russian-led peace talks in Kazakhstan slated for later this month. Meanwhile, the rebel Free Syrian Army is readying a violent response, activist Mazen al-Shami told Vocativ over Skype from his home in East Ghouta, just outside Damascus.

But if the posturing is familiar — sitting down for talks with, and thereby legitimizing the regime is always risky for the rebels — analysts say it belies a bleak reality for the Syrian opposition. Entering this latest diplomatic effort, they have fewer options and less leverage than ever before. After five grinding years, the battle over Syria’s commercial capital of Aleppo ended in an evacuation deal last month, leaving the rebels shut out of the country’s five largest cities. Even more concerning, however, is the geopolitical shift that underlies these latest developments, and which made the Aleppo deal possible: Turkey, the opposition’s most ardent backer and the linchpin in any peace process, appears at last to be eager for an end to the war.

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Under the agreement hammered out last month with Russia, the Syrian regime’s closest ally, Turkey agreed to evacuate east Aleppo of its final rebel holdouts and gave its blessing to a political negotiation in the Kazakh capital, Astana, between mainstream rebels and the regime. In so doing, “Turkey is now committed to something that was pretty unthinkable just a few months ago,” said Yezid Sayigh, a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “If Turkey is willing to settle on a concrete deal, then Russia has it in the bag because the opposition will not have another option. [The negotiation in] Astana would be a formality; things could move quite quickly.”

That appears to be the consensus among Syria watchers. Whether or not the ceasefire succeeds, the wider deal with Russia “signifies Turkey is turning its back on the rebels,” said Joshua Landis, a foremost Syria expert and the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “It has formally accepted the notion that the war is over, and that it has to fall in line with Russia and accept Assad’s enduring rule in Syria.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to publicly reject the regime’s survival, but the text of the agreement recognizes Syrian sovereignty, and therefore that of the regime. Erdogan is “moving ahead with negotiations anyway,” said Landis. “So it’s become more of an aspirational talking point than an objective.”

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The factors behind Turkey’s change are twofold. The first was underlined last month by the fall of Aleppo into regime hands: the rebels are losing on the ground, and badly. Aleppo capped a dramatic shift in momentum since 2015, when a timely Russian intervention helped the Assad regime claw its way back from the brink of collapse. Significantly, Aleppo was primarily a blow for the Free Syrian Army, the moderates once heralded by Turkey and the West as the best hope for a democratic, civil state in Syria. The FSA has been gutted across Syria’s major battlefields by lackluster U.S. support and a stream of defections to better-funded Islamist and Salafi-jihadist factions, namely al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS). But until last month, the FSA still held sway in the largely flattened neighborhoods of east Aleppo, where less than 10 percent of the 10,000 rebel fighters belonged to JFS, according to UN estimates. It is no coincidence, then, that the regime and its allies considered crushing east Aleppo to be an utmost strategic priority. Assad has aimed to eradicate the moderate armed elements of the Syrian uprising, thereby eliminating a “third way” for those who opposed both the regime and extremist factions like al-Qaeda or ISIS.

In that respect, the Russia-Turkey rapprochement shows that Assad’s war strategy is working on a geopolitical level, too. The Obama administration has lost hope it might transform the FSA into an army that could combat the combined forces of Syria and its allies — Russia, Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah. More recently, it has quietly diverted resources to another rebel coalition, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces that primarily fight ISIS. As a result, Turkey has found itself increasingly isolated in its singular opposition to Assad. That the U.S. was totally excluded from the deal to evacuate east Aleppo laid bare the fact that it has effectively stepped aside from the main event in Syria — the uprising against the Assad regime. Meanwhile, the rebel factions Washington half-heartedly supported for years were loaded onto green buses and carted towards the Idlib countryside, where they now face further bombardment.

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The second factor behind Turkey’s shift in policy is that, contrary to Erdogan’s noisemaking about Assad, Turkey’s foremost fear is actually the expansion of the Syrian Kurds, who Ankara considers an extension of the Kurdish PKK insurgency operating within its own borders. As its NATO ally Washington embraces the Kurds as a proven buffer against ISIS, Turkey has fronted its own military operation — Euphrates Shield — in Northern Syria, where it aims to drive a wedge between ISIS and the Kurds, preventing either from forming a contiguous state along the Turkish border. With incoming U.S. president Donald Trump openly embracing Russian military leadership in Syria — ostensibly against ISIS, though only a fraction of Russian strikes actually target the group — Turkey is under more pressure than ever to nip Kurdish expansion in the bud. Gaining the consent of Russia, which flies its warplanes over the territory in question, was reportedly a Turkish condition of the Aleppo deal.

Of course, Turkey’s hedging hardly means the war will end anytime soon. For one, it will be hard-pressed to convince the rebels to abandon the revolution’s central aim: ending 40 years of Assad family rule. And the “rebels” are hardly a united front. Significantly, the Russia-Turkey deal and Astana peace talks will not include the powerful, hardline factions that most foreign powers consider terrorists — most importantly, Al-Qaeda-led JFS (formerly al-Nusra Front). As analysts predicted, the regime has continued to assault JFS-held territory in Idlib and north of Hama this week, since JFS is exempt from the ceasefire. If the peace process stumbles, hardline elements on the ground, including among “middle of the road” Islamist factions like Ahrar al-Sham, could splinter off and join groups like JFS that are still actively engaged against the regime. Others will be lobbying Turkey to veer off its current course. If it does, “we go back to square one, and the opposition can hold out for 1-2 years and maybe longer,” said Sayigh of the Carnegie Center.

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Then again, the consequences that await the opposition if the peace process collapses are already painfully clear. Though regime and rebel supporters alike are war-weary after nearly six years and 400,000 deaths, by some metrics the latter are increasingly deflated.

In the aftermath of Aleppo, roughly two-thirds of evacuated residents reportedly opted to be resettled in regime territory (though there are doubts as to how freely those decisions were made). And for the regime, victory in Aleppo will vindicate the brutal tactics it has deployed against rebel-held pockets of Syria for over five years — what Noah Bonsey of the International Crisis Group describes as “an expanded version of their long-favored military approach: massive collective punishment, including siege tactics and relentless bombardment targeting civilians.” Even with the international outcry over Aleppo — fueled by the images circulating on social media of children’s bodies being pulled from rubble — Assad’s crackdown drew no meaningful intervention from the international community. It’s hard to see Idlib, where radical groups like JFS run the show, having better luck.

Still, it remains unclear what exactly Russia and the regime could be willing to offer in Kazakhstan. The most encouraging sign thus far for those who want the war to end at any cost is that Moscow has invited legitimate representatives of armed opposition groups to the conference. Previously, it has only been willing to tolerate the Western-backed political opposition-in-exile and the Damascus-based so-called “loyalist” opposition, who are largely discredited by the armed rebels. But if the Aleppo deal and others like it are any indication, the regime’s idea of political compromise is very different from what the rebels have in mind for Astana. “Every area Assad has taken control of has been by force,” after which deals are made with rebel backers to let residents and some fighters evacuate or seek asylum, Landis pointed out. Rather than offer concessions — for instance, the release of prisoners or meaningful political reform — Assad presents what the rebels call his “kneel or starve” policy — surrender to stay alive.

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Though Russia will apply pressure — surely Moscow wants to end its costly intervention in Syria as soon as possible — there is still no evidence the regime is any closer to yielding on the fundamental questions at the center of this conflict: who should govern post-war Syria, and how.

“Whether there should be sharia or secular rule, what position the Alawites [Assad’s sect, which dominates the regime] should have — these questions have in no way been answered,” Landis said. “Anybody observing this has to fear that that’s going to come back to haunt everybody. It’s a little bit like Hafez al-Assad in 1982 destroying the Muslim Brotherhood; you can put the lid on top of the pot, but won’t it just blow off again at some later date?”