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Islamic Front Is Shifting the Parameters of the Syrian Crisis

In the last week, Turkey decided to sponsor a new Syrian opposition front called the “New Rebels Front” (NRF) that includes the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other non-Qaeda and non-Salafi Islamic organizations, with some presence of the Muslim Brotherhood. This group challenges the Saudi-sponsored Islamic Front (IF) and its Islamic Army (IA).

However, the IF has almost uncontested dominance in the areas under the Syrian opposition control—a fact that sent representatives of all the involved regional and opposition forces scrambling to Istanbul, Cairo, Riyadh and Doha in attempts to assess the situation, and contain the rift.  The new reality appears to be the de facto defeat of the FSA—but a defeat at the hands of the opposition, not the Al Assad regime.

The real message from Saudi Arabia in the formation of the IF was that Iran cannot be expected to maintain Syria in its camp without a fight, and that Riyadh should be given a proper role by the international powers in the implementation of new international strategies for the Middle East. Saudi sources indicated that there was surprise in Riyadh following the swift US decision to stop sending arms to the FSA and the consequences of the Islamic Front’s abrupt move against the FSA.  Some regional sources additionally indicated that Riyadh underestimated the US outrage that followed.

The counter move to the IF formation is becoming clearer: an expected invitation to Tehran to participate in the Geneva II conference and hints from the US that it might work openly with Al Assad to confront the IF and IA in the opposition-controlled areas. Former CIA director Michael Hayden said recently that one of the possible outcomes in Syria is an option that Al Assad wins and added, “And I must tell you at the moment, as ugly as it sounds, I’m kind of trending toward (that) option as the best out of (other) very ugly possible outcomes.”

MEB confirmed previously published reports that Gen Salim Idris left for Qatar, but he is expected to return to Turkey shortly if he is not already there by the time the report is printed.

Obviously, the Syria situation is heading towards a redrawing of its own parameters, whether regionally or on the ground in Syria. It is fair to say first that the Turkey-backed NRF does not have considerable presence in the North, but its irrelevance must not be seen as permanent or inevitable. The Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) will exert pressure on the IF, and it is not certain that the regional support that the IF receives will hold for long if enough pressure emerges.

The NRF should keep in mind that the enemies of today may become allies of tomorrow.

In Saudi Arabia there will be certainly questions about whether a hard blow against the FSA was a prudent step, particularly if such a blow results in pushing the US and the EU to ponder the idea of keeping Al Assad in power and changing the content of Geneva II to be held under the banner of fighting terrorism rather than solving the Syrian crisis by removing Al Assad from power.

On the ground, Al Assad released some 350 political prisoners in an attempt to encourage momentum based on creating the impression that he can indeed change his brutal methods of governing the country.  Al Assad’s assumption is that he can trade his continuation in power with a promise to really reform his regime. He is placing himself at the front of the assumed bargain by the release of prisoners, encouraged by statements attributed to the FSA’s Gen. Idris that he may be willing to work with the regime to fight Al Qaeda.

On the battlefield as well, Al Assad’s forces are making slow progress in the Qalamoun mountains and are consolidating their control of parts of Al Nabq after defeating the armed opposition in Dair Ateya and Qara. The three villages are important in the fight to control both the Damascus–Homs highway and the Syrian–Lebanese boarders. While the “Southern Front” flared more substantially in the last few weeks, the Northern Front was going through some important developments in terms of the changing structure of the opposition forces.

But the FSA is alive and kicking on the Southern front. Its troops waged a successful campaign in the Qunaitra province. Opposition forces control now a large portion of the Syrian–Israeli borders. Israel provides food and medical help to the variety of forces that are present on the other side of the border, regardless of their affiliation. The intent of the Israelis is to keep the borders calm and in many cases the Israeli supplies, mediated by the international peace keeping forces, go to supporters of the regime and the opposition alike.

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