Can the Syrian Rebels Unite?
The small Turkish city of Kilis, on the border with Syria, hums quietly with rebel activity from the neighboring civil war. On a recent chilly night, inside a local ice-cream parlor, Abdul Qader Saleh, one of the Syrian rebellion’s most famous fighters, sat solemnly before a plate of Turkish pastries. The tall, imposing rebel was recovering from battle wounds that he’d sustained to great fanfare weeks earlier—he’d released a YouTube video from his hospital bed to silence rumors that he’d been killed—and his baggy hooded sweatshirt hid a bandaged left arm.
In Aleppo, the war’s main theater, Saleh often greets visitors with an entourage of armed guards. Now, he was flanked by a mural of pastel-colored ice-cream cones. “This will be my first picture in a restaurant,” he said, nodding at the camera one of his guests had brought along.
As Saleh prepared to rejoin his men in Aleppo, there had been an important new development in the fight to oust President Bashar al-Assad. More than 1,000 miles away, in the Qatari capital of Doha, members of Syria’s notoriously fractured political opposition had come together under the banner of a new unity coalition. The move had been hailed a major step toward building an opposition leadership that the international community could back. But the good news out of Doha came with a caveat: to succeed, the coalition would need to get the myriad and disorganized rebel forces fighting inside Syria to join its fold. Getting rebel leaders like Saleh on board was key to the plan.
For his part, Saleh—who commands Aleppo’s most influential fighting group, Liwa al-Tawhid—seemed cautiously optimistic about the new coalition. “Anything that brings unity, I am for,” he stressed. “As long as it has effects on the ground.”
But rebel unification, Saleh continued, would hinge on one thing that had eluded the opposition from the conflict’s start—a steady and significant supply of weapons, including surface-to-air missiles to counter the Syrian army’s merciless warplane assaults. Western governments, led by the United States, have long cited the rebels’ disunity when arguing that it’s too difficult and dangerous to arm them. Rebel leaders, meanwhile, have countered that if they can’t channel weapons and resources to the troops, it will be impossible to get the fighters to fall into line.
“If there are no weapons, there’s no point to this,” Saleh said.
Since its founding last month, the new opposition coalition—officially called the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces—has made strides toward the kind of widespread international acceptance that eluded its failed predecessor, the Syrian National Council. This week, the U.K. welcomed an official ambassador from the coalition, following the lead of France. The coalition on Wednesday opened its inaugural session in Cairo, and U.S. officials have announced that President Obama’s administration is preparing to recognize it as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people at a conference in Morocco on December 12. If the council can manage to put together an opposition government-in-exile, as it hopes to do, that might pave the way for even more high-level support, and it could make the prospect of arming the rebels seem more palatable to wary governments.
Inside Syria, meanwhile, rebels have made significant progress against the government in recent weeks. They’ve overrun key military bases, including airfields, and made off with massive stockpiles of arms, which reportedly included anti-aircraft missiles—rebels posted videos to the Web this week that appeared to show them using these weapons to bring down government aircraft. At the same time, the rebels have pushed deeper into Damascus, the heavily secured capital that was once considered untouchable. On Thursday, heavy fighting shut down the city’s main airport, dealing the Assad government a major psychological blow. The government, meanwhile, cut Internet across the country and phone service in the capital in what many rebels and analysts interpreted as a sign that it was planning a major assault.
Citing anonymous U.S. government officials, The New York Times reported this week that the opposition’s recent military and diplomatic successes have prompted the Obama administration to step up considerations of more aggressive assistance to the opposition—including what the report called the “distant option” of directly arming the rebels. Speaking at a humanitarian aid conference on Thursday, Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria who was forced to leave the country in October 2011, said Obama “has never taken arms off the table” in discussions of helping the Syrian opposition, but stressed that politics came first. “Syria needs a political solution,” he said. “Do arms help achieve that political solution, or will they make it harder? That is the question that we are considering."
Michael Weiss, the research director at the Henry Jackson Society, a foreign-policy think tank in London, cautioned that the new political push embodied by the Doha coalition won’t win legitimacy inside Syria unless it can help rebels on the front lines get the weapons they want. “The rules of the game haven’t changed,” said Weiss, who added that the United States is at risk of being overtaken by shifting events inside Syria. “If the new opposition still fails to bring the rebels relief in terms of military aid, then fighters on the ground will reject it. They won’t care about international recognition.”
Many rebel leaders say they’re tired of waiting for the United States and its allies to act. In an apartment near Turkey’s border with Syria, Abdul Razzaq Tlass—another high-profile rebel who until recently commanded the formidable Farouk brigade, and who was decked out in a black Adidas tracksuit with a sideways baseball cap—sipped tea and expressed his doubts about America’s intentions. The stated reasons behind America’s hesitance to help the rebels—such as disunity and creeping extremism in the rebel ranks—were being used, he said, to mask the fact that America didn’t plan on helping the rebels at all.
“Obviously these are all just excuses for the fact that they don’t want to be on the side of the Syrians,” he said. “If the United States wanted Assad to be gone, he would be gone by now.”
Tlass laid out what he called a long line of U.S. “excuses” for not helping the rebels in their struggle. “There was protecting minorities. Then there was the lack of unity in the political opposition,” he said. “Now we have unity, so they use extremism. And the fact that they talk about extremism brings about extremism. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Asking for a piece of paper, Tlass drew a map of Homs, a stronghold of the Farouk brigade and a city considered key to the revolution’s struggle, where he now runs his own opposition force. Homs remains caught in a vicious stalemate between rebel fighters and government forces, with both sides desperate to win more territory. “Without outside help” for the rebels, Tlass said, “it’s not going to happen.”
The rebels have tried to unite to win outside help before. In the summer of 2011, the Free Syrian Army—founded by defected officers from the national army—aimed to create a national structure that would bring together all the different armed opposition groups. The FSA set up shop in the heavily-guarded refugee camp of Apaydin, near the Turkish border city of Reyhanli, which became a de facto court-in-exile for soldiers and officers who had fled the Syrian army. Now, more than a year later, the organization carries on, but some of its leaders long ago admitted that they have little control over fighters inside Syria.
In late July, even as the rebellion enjoyed a surge of momentum—with the armed opposition making a surprise push into Aleppo and assassinating four members of Assad’s inner circle in Damascus—Mustafa Sheikh, the defected general who heads the FSA military council, cautioned that the fight against Assad would be much longer and harder than many people thought. The rebels remained badly outgunned, he said. And without a serious source of funds and weapons, he stressed, he had little means of exerting control over his troops across the border. “The reality is not like it appears,” Sheikh said. “Everyone works on his own. We are not a collective group.”
Complicating matters, the streams of funding and weapons that have reached the rebels—reportedly from the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as independent Salafist donors spread throughout the Gulf—have served to further fracture the opposition. Some rebels, hoping to attract the support of wealthy Salafist patrons, have hewed to a harder Islamist line, while others have admitted to playing up their religious airs in order to drum up funds. And rebel leaders admit that the number of extremists in their ranks, including foreign jihadis, continues to rise, something they routinely blame on the lack of support for more moderate fighters. Saleh, the Liwa Tawhid rebel commander from Aleppo, said that while the issue of extremism has been overblown by Western governments and media, it is getting worse. “The longer this goes on, the more people are going to enter this war,” he said.
Rebel infighting is indicative that many groups feel tension both with each other, and within their own ranks, said Anwar Saadedine, a defected general who worked with the FSA council before becoming spokesman of the Syrian National Army—another unification attempt that has since fallen by the wayside. Of the new coalition formed in Doha, Saadedine said, “They’re just trying to unite with words.”
Ammar al-Wawi, another early FSA official who commands a battalion in Aleppo, said that the United States shoulders much of the blame for rebel disunity. America was like a “sorcerer,” he said, holding other nations under its powerful spell to keep them from supporting the rebels. “All the other countries can’t take a firm stance without the United States doing something. So their lack of action is their action,” he said.
“The only thing the United States has been doing is gathering information,” he continued. “And statements by Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama saying that Assad’s days are numbered. It’s been months and months that his days have been numbered.”
Such criticism of the United States may be a tactical move by rebel leaders, says Shashank Joshi of the Royal United Services Institute in London. Hoping to spur America and its allies to action, opposition leaders are pressing home the notion that the lack of international military support is crippling their cause. “They have an incentive to say they are fed up with the United States and that time is running out. They've been saying this for over a year,” Joshi said.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Joshi said, rebel leaders recognize that they need to get their house in order and that the international community, too, could be losing patience. “They don’t want to be spoilers,” he said of commanders such as Saleh, who are weighing whether to support the new Doha coalition.
But Weiss of the Henry Jackson Society said the United States risks losing influence inside Syria if it continues to withhold concrete military support. “It’s a problem of being seen as turning a blind eye to people suffering for 20 months now,” he said. “It’s a problem for U.S. influence going forward in the region.”
“The guys with guns,” he added, “Are the only guys who really matter in this conflict.”
The sentiment was echoed by Saleh as he sat inside the Turkish ice-cream shop. “History is being written,” he said, and it would show that America had kept “quiet” in the face of Syria’s tragedy. “Their silence is the same thing as acting.”