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Syria is Rapidly Heading for De Facto Long-Term Partition: Idlib, the Stalemate and the Grand Bargain

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There are clearer signs now that Syria is heading for a long term de facto partition. Several factors lead to that prediction: The emergence of an increasing trend towards unification among the Syrian opposition groups; the mounting coordination between Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the UAE to work out a common ground for their different policies towards Syria; Iran’s intensification of aid to the regime of Bashar Al Assad; the expected failure of next month’s Moscow conference; and the total paralysis of the international community.

 The general logic that molds the movements of the main elements in this picture is the direction tending to put the whole of North Syria under the control of the opposition with direct assistance from Turkey and the Sunni Gulf Arab states. The recent deal reached between Ankara and Riyadh to adopt one common policy on Syria resulted in profound changes in the positions of the rebel groups. Competition between the different regional players played a negative role in the past as many opposition groups were moving chaotically and often fighting each other.

 The most substantial development in Syria, for quite a bit of time, is the merger of twelve opposition groups in the North of Syria. This might have sealed the fate of Idlib, as we predict that it will fall in the hands of the opposition shortly (This report was written shortly before the fall of Idlib). What is remarkable in this merger is the important role played by Suqur Al Sham (SAS), which is mainly a Muslim Brotherhood (MB) organization backed by the Turks, in accomplishing it.  Ahrar Al Sham, a Salafi Jihadi organization was receptive to the idea. All the leadership of Ahrar Al Sham (AAS) was killed in a mysterious explosion in one of its bunkers while they were meeting last September. 

The explosion weakened AAS. At the same time, SAS was already getting weaker due to other factors (mainly the expansion of Al Nusra Front).  Al Nusra, which is a substantial force in the North, joined the merger and agreed to form a unified military command and one single army to the new entity. This new organization called itself Jabhat Al Sham (JAS) or the Syrian Front. It selected Hashim Al Sheikh (aka Abu Jaber) as its leader and considers its forces to be part of the Free Syrian Army. The main areas of the merging twelve groups are Aleppo, Hama and Idlib, and its first test will be the battle of Idlib. Many opposition figures talk about the new force as the nucleus for the future Syrian army.

 The position of this new group towards ISIL is kind of a mixture between neutrality and hostility. The current leader of JAS is known to be radical—but without any grandiose plans such as those of ISIL. The new JAS Front is determined to be active exclusively within the Syrian borders.

 The news of the merger of the Northern groups is echoing loudly in the South as well. Unified forces of several groups are advancing towards Dara’a after cutting the supply routes of the regime’s forces in the town. The situation in the South is different from that in the North because Hezbollah and Iranian units have a strong presence in the Southwest.

 This trend is expected to galvanize the opposition in two camps, the ISIL and the non-ISIL blocks. The non-ISIL block should not be expected to fight an all-out war against ISIL unless it clearly sees the endgame of the whole crisis. Yet, the formation of the non-ISIL block is an indication that the Turks will play a larger role in the North as the spearhead of the regional Sunni powers. It is not clear yet if the Jordanians will play a parallel role in the South in view of the proximity of a threatening Iranian and Hezbollah military presence in that area.

 As for the conference of Moscow, it is understood that about 25 opposition representatives, mostly from the non-armed groups will be present. The conference does not have the potential to develop into a qualitative step for several reasons. The most important of these reasons is Al Assad’s rejection of the idea that his regime was the cause of the destruction of Syria and his belief that he can win with the help of the Iranians and of the same country that is hosting the conference.

 The determination of both Iran and Russia to back Al Assad till the end and the contrasting determination of the Arab countries and Turkey to back the opposition till the end, suggest a long term stalemate.

Theoretically speaking, such a stalemate requires a game changer. In this case we have two parties which can potentially play that role: the international community and ISIL.  Still theoretically, ISIL has less room to maneuver compared with the West. The US, for example, can accept the non-ISIL bargain which is: Help us—seriously—to get rid of Al Assad and in return we will get rid of ISIL.  On the other hand, ISIL cannot and does not want to be involved in any bargain. But it does not even have similar strategic space to alter its position—even if it were willing.

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