Now What?

09.21.13

In Syria, Rebels Without a Plan

Now that it seems unlikely the U.S. will hit Syria militarily, the rebels need a new strategy. Jamie Dettmer reports on the tough odds facing the opposition.

President Obama’s acceptance of a Russian-brokered proposal to strip Syrian president Bashar al-Assad of his chemical weapons, and to pull back from launching airstrikes on the country, has left Western-favored rebels floundering to develop a new strategy for the next phase of a civil war—a war that in recent months has seen momentum on the battlefield shift to the Syrian autocrat.

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A Free Syrian Army fighter takes aim in Al-Zibdeh, Aleppo, Syria, on September 18, 2013. (Aref Hretani/Reuters)

The rebels concede that they had banked on U.S. strikes, developing plans to take advantage by launching offensives on Republican Guard barracks in Damascus that they had been tipped off by U.S. officials to expect to be targeted. Among the Republican Guard units was the 104th brigade, whose base north of Damascus was likely the launch point for the sarin-laden missiles fired at rebellious suburbs on August 21, according to flight-path trajectories calculated by Human Rights Watch using United Nations data.

Politically, opposition leaders hoped U.S. intervention would trigger a flurry of high-level and military defections from the regime—a hope shared by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that airstrikes would encourage many to defect. The rebels hoped those defections would start to chip away at the wider support Assad still enjoys from many affluent urban Sunnis in Damascus and Aleppo, and among the Christian minority that has cleaved to Assad out of fear of the upsurge in Islamic fundamentalism in rebel ranks—an upsurge that Assad has deftly exploited for propaganda purposes.

It was hoped that even the Alawi, Assad’s own Muslim sect, might start to have second thoughts once U.S. cruise missiles started to rock intelligence buildings, military bases, and even an Assad palace or two.

Now, though, the rebels are back to square one—or to nowhere at all. And recriminations within the opposition are starting, especially between Free Syrian Army commanders and the political arm of the rebellion, the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition. Even before the Russian deal, fighters distrusted the coalition, dismissing it as a “hotel government,” a reference to the fact that the opposition politicians are not based inside Syria but mainly in Turkey and Egypt.

FSA commanders like Abu Hadi, a former high school teacher who led the rebellion against Assad in the town of Iaziz, near the Turkish border, have always harbored skepticism for the coalition, seeing it as “an agent of the West and the Qataris.” “We don’t trust the leaders,” he told The Daily Beast earlier this year. “Most are exiles, and they are not here fighting. We’ll go along with the coalition for now.”

Developing a strategy when the rebels are becoming more divided isn’t easy.

Going along hasn’t got them the supplies of anti-aircraft weaponry they need to defend themselves and civilians in their territory from indiscriminate Assad airstrikes. And in the wake of the U.S.-Russian deal, they blame not only Obama but also the coalition politicians who they see as having failed them and having been out-maneuvered by Assad and the Russians. Their distrust has turned to disdain, auguring badly for any improvement in coordination between the politics of the rebellion and military tactics, something analysts believe is sorely lacking.

Last week, when it became clear that U.S. airstrikes wouldn’t happen, Abdul Jabar Al-Akidi, an FSA commander in Aleppo, was dismissive of the coalition on Al-Arabiya TV. Asked what coordination he had with the Syrian National Coalition, he responded, “None,” arguing that he and his men got nothing from the politicians. Asked what he wanted from them, he retorted curtly, “Nothing whatsoever.”

Analysts say that in many ways the U.S. intervention would have gone some way toward making up for the shortcomings of a rebellion that has been dogged by tactical missteps on the battlefield, an absence of effective command and control over an uprising made up of more than 1,000 fragmented and localized rebel units and brigades, and a lack of political leadership and strategy.

Now all those shortcomings are back, and at a time when distrust is increasing within rebel ranks and as sporadic clashes increase in tempo and severity between jihadists and more moderate brigades.

Infighting between rebel groups worsened on Wednesday with al Qaeda affiliates expelling FSA fighters from Azaz, a northern town close to Turkey, after fierce gun battles. Rebel sources said jihadists were moving on to the nearby border crossing at Bab al-Salameh, which has been controlled by FSA brigades, and were also attacking non-jihadists in eastern Syria in Deir Ezzour and Raqaa.

“What they have failed to do is to develop a political strategy for defeating the regime,” says Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center. He says that what is needed is a strategy that “involves breaking off segments of Assad’s supporters from him by telling them that we are not simply offering you a beautiful, rosy future in a wonderful post-Assad Syria of democracy and human rights and all the rest, which sounds wonderful, but is pie in the sky for most Alawis or Christians or all the people who have refused to break away formally from the Assad regime.”

He adds: “What the opposition has not done is tell them, ‘We are willing to sit down with you and your representatives—including army generals or Baath party leaders or Alawi elders, whether we like them or not—to sit down and work out modalities, what it actually means to have transitional government, how do we assure you this is not going to turn into a wholesale purge, into a wholesale dismissal of tens or hundreds of thousands of people whose jobs and livelihoods rely on government employment.’”

Other analysts also believe the coalition politicians demonstrate a lack of political sophistication; they are not offering viable alternatives to those still standing by Assad. Their main response now is just to insist that Assad can’t be trusted over the chemical weapons deal and is just stalling. That may be true, but it isn’t a proactive strategy.

But developing a strategy when the rebels are becoming more divided isn’t easy.

Militarily, there often seems little true strategic thought behind rebel attacks and offensives. Aram Nerguizian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.–based think tank, say they seem to have “resorted to the tactic of one kill, one kill, one kill, hoping that will wear down Assad’s forces.”