Report on relative strength of armed rebels in Syria

Report on relative strength of armed rebels in Syria

September 24, 2013 (partially updated January 25, 2014)

The September 15 Telegraph had an article summarising a very interesting report from IHS-Janes on the relative strengths of different parts of the Syrian armed opposition (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/10311007/Syria-nearly-half-rebel-fighters-are-jihadists-or-hardline-Islamists-says-IHS-Janes-report.html). As a report from the defense consultancy IHS Jane’s, it is probably reasonably accurate, but as expected, the Telegraph translation of it was less so.
Of course, the purpose for the Telegraph was to show how terrible the Syrian opposition is, because so many of them are dreaded “Islamists” of some stripe or another. As the article says, this report allegedly confirms what US and other western leaders have been saying about Syria forever, ie, that they hate the Syrian opposition, because so many of them are people the US doesn’t like, and this is the reason used forever for never sending them a single rifle.

The amusing thing, of course, is that much of the left used the report in the exact same way, to show how bad the opposition is, as there are so many “Islamists.” Amusingly, however, the left will claim that this is a different view to that of western leaders who agree with them.

Many will even more amusingly claim the Telegraph is finally admitting “the truth” that only the Islamophobic “left” knew along, perhaps that imperialists are finally seeing the light, and will mumble liberal stuff about “blowback” etc.

But let’s look at the Jane’s report at face value. Basically it says that the most hardened, outright counterrevolutionary section of the armed revolt – the Al-Qaida linked groups – account for about 10,000 troops, or 10% of the armed opposition. Then there are some 15,000-20,000 other “hard-line” Salafist groups (the Telegraph erroneously put the figure at 30,000), another 30,000-39,000 “moderates belonging to groups that have an Islamic character”, leaving therefore some 30,000-35,000 in outright democratic-secular formations, if the total figure for armed resistance fighters is correct at around 100,000.
The Telegraph puts its own special spin on the final figure, claiming it means “only a small minority of the rebels are linked to secular or purely nationalist groups”, a “stark assessment.”

So, 30-35,000 secular rebels, out of 100,000 are “only a small minority,” not a rather large one? And when we add a similar number of “moderates belonging to groups with an Islamic character”, meaning two thirds to three quarters of the armed rebels are not “hard-line” Islamists, this is “stark”, is it?
Perhaps from the point of view of imperialism, for whom all of those vaguely Islamist moderates would still be considered enemies of imperialist interests (would even “moderate Islamists” be as dedicated to protecting the Israeli annexation of the Golan as Assad has been? Would they likely make war on the Palestinians as often as Assad did?); but also, since for the US “moderate” doesn’t just mean secular, but rather pro-imperialist, the fact of 30% secular fighters also gives no clue one way or another whether they are prepared to serve imperialist interests. Why would any of these secular rebels, steeped in Syrian and Arab nationalist traditions, and heroically fighting for freedom, feel any more likely than the Islamists to betray the Palestinians or the Golan? As chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, stated on August 19, no-one in Syria represents US interests.

While some on the left may unrealistically believe that anything less than a vast majority of secular fighters means a hopeless situation, nevertheless the finding that over 30 percent of rebels are secular and at least two thirds are not “hard-line” Salafist/jihadist, is a vast improvement on the stark New York Times article from April, that the Islamophobic left quoted so widely back then, that laughably claimed “nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/28/world/middleeast/islamist-rebels-gains-in-syria-create-dilemma-for-us.html?pagewanted=all&_r=2&)ps).

And of course, it also depends on what is meant by the 30,000 “hard-line” Islamist rebels who share much of the ideology of Al Qaida without its global aims. While these leaderships are indeed hard-line, the evidence of many fighters slipping between groups, because some have better arms supplies (first the jihadists, due to the open Iraqi border with Al Qaida in Iraq, and oil deals with Assad, have the best arms and supplies, next other Islamists have more supplies from the Gulf than the secular rebels have), but with no real commitment to their ideology, is quite abundant. Indeed, this is also true in reverse, in a sense, of the Islamist groups in the category of “moderates belonging to groups with an Islamic character” – while this well defines the memberships and overall goals of the fighters, some of the leaderships may at times appear as “hard-line” as the groups classed that way. Below I will explain my understanding of the difference.

Indeed, we need to better understand what it means in many cases to be an “Islamist” in Syria and not judge everything by how often a fighter yells “Allah Akbar” (like how an angry western radical might yell “Jesus Christ!”). A great many “Islamists” on the ground are not necessarily “Islamists” in a political sense at all, but they adopt some of the religious phraseology of their culture in their struggle. In particular, given the fundamental class divide that characterises the Syrian revolution, the base of the revolution is the peasantry, devastated by Assad Junior’s neoliberal reforms, and the urban poor, first generation from the countryside with extensive links to country cousins; and in “secular” bourgeois nationalist Syria, like “secular” Egypt”, “secular’ Turkey, “secular” Iran in 1979, “secular” Palestine – the “secularism” only ever went as far as the bourgeois limitations of the process could take it, and remains a largely middle and upper class phenomenon. Thus it is not surprising that peasants and urban poor, when they began organising political and then military formations, often adopted religious names, to the vast horror of all kinds of crusading “left” exponents of “secular” chauvinism in the distant West.

Summary of strength of the armed components of the struggle

Below is my summary of what I understand about the relative sizes of these various parts of the secular and Islamist resistance groups, based on the Janes report but also on a variety of other sources (these were the existing formations before the formation of the Islamic Front in November 2003 out of some of these groups – while this does change some things, basically much of the outline still applies, with the new Front essentially a combination of major components of the SILF and the SIF fronts discussed here. See brief updates through this section and at the end):

1. The more or less secular armed struggle, that is the militias throughout Syria generally known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and which are theoretically loyal to the Supreme Military Command (SMC), the main exile-based military leadership body, based in Turkey and Jordan, and led by former Baathist officers who defected. Overwhelmingly, the FSA on the ground is simply the armed local people, and the soldiers who defected and refused to fire on the crowds. It is secular in as much as its goals are entirely secular and democratic, but naturally in composition it will reflect the norm of Syrian society, thus including everyone from atheists to the highly religious. Its loyalty to the SMC however is only nominal; in reality, the SMC has very little or no control over their operations. Estimates of its strength vary; IHS Janes study gives it over 30 percent of the armed opposition (or about 31,000 fighters, see good summary at http://www.businessinsider.com.au/graphic-the-most-accurate-breakdown-of-the-syrian-rebels-2013-9, and Charles Litser’s summary at http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/09/09/syrias_insurgency_beyond_good_guys_and_bad_guys#.Ui6lwS-cszh.twitter); another study by Ken Sofer and Juliana Shafroth of the Center for American Progress claimed 50,000 fighters, out of a total figure of 120-130,000 fighters (http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/security/report/2013/05/14/63221/the-structure-and-organization-of-the-syrian-opposition); Aron Lund quoted SMC chief, General Salim Idriss, claiming to command 80,000 troops, but this included 35-40,000 in the SILF (see next section), meaning about 40-45,000 for the FSA out of some 120,000 armed fighters (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/freedom-fighters-cannibals-the-truth-about-syrias-rebels-8662618.html). Based on the numbers for explicitly secular fighters provided by a rather through report by the Arab Reform Initiative (http://www.arab-reform.net/sites/default/files/Protecting%20the%20Syrian%20Resistance.pdf), a rough calculation of some 35,000 or more can be made, but this study unaccountably omitted the largest known secular fighting force in the FSA, the Syrian Martyrs Brigade, which is generally thought to have some 7-12,000 troops in Idlib (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/10/01/rebels_with_a_cause_but_not_much_consensus?page=full&wp_login_redirect=0), meaning a possible 45,000 FSA fighters if they are included.

However, as Nader Atassi explains, it is very difficult to definitely establish numbers of the real FSA on the ground: “Many Syrian villages and towns have civil defense militias, composed of locals from the neighbourhood, to fend off Assad forces, yet we don’t hear about them, because they are not trans-regional, we hear about Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, because they have the resources to be trans-regional, to travel around from place to place, whereas one militia, composed of 20 people from your neighbourhood, defending it, are never heard of” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxCICHpiL7A2). Therefore, even these numbers showing the secular FSA to be a significant minority may be understated.

(Shortly after the November 2013 formation of the Islamic Front (see below), the Syrian Revolutionaries Front was formed by some largely secular FSA militias in the northwest of the country (http://carnegie-mec.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=53910), including the Syrian Martyrs Brigade and sections of the formerly SILF-aligned Farouk Brigades, while 106 civil and armed secular opposition groups formed the Union of Free Syrians around the same time, http://notgeorgesabra.wordpress.com/2013/11/25/for-a-civil-secular-state-100-groups-unite-in-the-union-of-free-syrians/. These are just two of the criss-crossing formations formed n the ground by secular FSA groups, mostly based in the north and west; meanwhile, in the south, from Deraa up to the Damascus suburbs, secular FSA forces generally dominate the struggle and Islamism is a minority current).

2. The Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF), a large group of powerful militias which, in religious terms, stand between the secular FSA and the radical Salafists. While the Muslim Brotherhood is not much on the ground (as opposed to its role in the exile leadership), nevertheless these groups (the largest being the Farouk Brigade in Homs, Liwa al-Tawhid in Aleppo, Liwa al-Islam in Damascus, and Suqor al-Sham in Idlib) fill that kind of space, ie, they believe, like the Brotherhood (or the AKP), that they can slowly bring about more religious laws, a more “Islamist” regime, via bourgeois democracy or at least via persuasion and discussion, not by force. Their minimal program promises to protect minorities. The SILF lashed out at Al-Nusra when it declared its links to Al-Qaida, declaring “The relentless pursuit of power should not be one of our goals … We don’t need imported charters or a new understanding of the nation’s religion” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/13/world/middleeast/syrian-rebels-break-with-radical-group.html?_r=0). While vaguely grouped together as the SILF, they are also officially loyal to the SMC, and have representatives within it; indeed, these groups have often been lead players in FSA clashes with Al Qaida.

According to the Jane’s report, the SILF has some 39,000 fighters (though Charles Lister, from Jane’s is not sure whether one of the groups, Suquor al-Sham and its 8-9000 fighters, might be too hard-line for inclusion here, despite its formal adherence to SILF; and the leader of another group, Liwa al-Islam, Zahran Alloush, recently launched a blistering anti-Shia and anti-Alawi speech which was uncharacteristic of the group’s declarations in general, and certainly at odds with their actions). Most other reports tend to roughly agree on this size for the SILF, and the breakdown is usually given as around 14,000 (previously up to 20,000) for the Farouk Brigades, anywhere from 3500 to 10,000 for Liwa al-Tawhid, 8-9,000 for Suquor al-Sham and an unknown number of thousands for Liwa al-Islam). Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar (via its Muslim Brotherhood allies) are thought to have armed some of these groups (indeed, the paper-thin “Islamisation” of the initially secular-FSA Farouk Brigades is generally thought to have been a question of funding, Liwa al-Tawhid has apparently had some Qatari or MB funding, Liwa al-Islam has apparent Saudi connections), but there is no evidence of any specific external loyalty of these fiercely independent groups and even these funding claims are vague.

While the rhetoric of some leaders (eg Alloush) may at times compare to that of more “hard-line” groups such as the SIF below, two things stand out about these groups: first, none have been involved in any known or documented attacks on minorities (indeed, Liwa al-Tawhid explicitly protects Christians in Aleppo http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2013/Sep-21/232025-christian-hostel-in-aleppo-has-own-view-of-jihadist-rebels.ashx#axzz2gfb4z1J2), or on secular FSA forces, with whom they cooperate closely; and secondly, unlike both the SIF groups (eg Ahrar al-Sham) and the Al-Qaida connected groups, which are dedicated jihadist cadre groups with chapters spread across the country, all these major SILF groups are clearly attached to one region, demonstrating that their “Islamism” has a rather “organic” connection to the socially-conservative sectors of the rebellion (especially peasants) in their regions, and as such are more likely to be distorted vehicles of the masses democratic aspirations compared to the dedicated cadre groups.

2A. Ahfad al Rasul is an independent nation-wide front that is also loyal to the SMC and is ideologically very close to the SILF and the “soft-Islamist” viewpoint, and has also been an important player in clashes with Al-Qaida. It has allegedly been funded by both Qatar and Saudi Arabia, but does not show any obvious signs of specific loyalty to outside forces, and has a strong reputation as a genuine anti-regime fighting group, and has been a special target of the jihadist groups, especially ISIS. It is estimated to have 10-15,000 members.

2B. Commission of the Revolution’s Shields (CSR), is the semi-official militia wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, allegedly consisting of some 43 fighting units, but with altogether at most a few thousand fighters, with a very moderate Islamist program, loyal to the SMC and fighting alongside the FSA. Overwhelmingly, however, the Brotherhood is an exile-based political organisation, powerful in the Syrian National Congress wing of the Syrian Coalition, and its fighting strength on the ground is much smaller (http://carnegieendowment.org/2013/05/07/struggling-to-adapt-muslim-brotherhood-in-new-syria/g2qm#).

These three formations – the SILF, Ahfad al-Rasul and the CSR – may be considered Jane’s “moderates belonging to groups that have an Islamic character,” or are probably best referred to as mainstream Islamists.

2B. The Authenticity and Development Front (Jabhat Alassalah Wa Attanmyyah) is a smallish front (though claiming some 30 battalions or brigades, with no clear information on what this means in terms of size). It is a front of “non-political Salafists”, meaning they advocate a hard “Islamist” policy in the social field but have no claims to clerical rule in politics. This seems to fit well with the Saudi view, which maintains puitanical religious repression at home with the understanding from the Wahabbi order that the church is kept out of political rule, and thus is highly suspicious of revolutionary Islamist movements. Not surprisingly, the literature has it as a bonafide Saudi front. It seems to be a coalition the Saudis have consciously packed together, from split-offs from various SILF or SIF groups, defector officers, “quietist” Salafis and pro-Saudi tribal chiefs (http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/08/09/external_support_and_the_syrian_insurgency). Its small size is perhaps indicative of the difficulties Saudi Arabia faces in balancing these two aspects. It is politically loyal to the SMC, which is official Saudi policy.

Thus, the combined number of fighters in one way or another connected to the SMC, and covering secular and mainstream Islamist fighters, is according to differing estimates anywhere between 62,000-100,000, ie, anywhere from 60-80 percent of the armed opposition, depending again on the estimated total size of armed opposition.

3. The Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), a coalition of hard-line Salafists, or “national-jihadists,” completely dominated by the nation-wide cadre-based militia Ahrar al-Sham, who are fighting for an Islamic state, but unlike al-Qaida, their goals are entirely Syrian. They are completely outside the SMC, but tactically collaborate on the ground with FSA and SILF in operations against the regime, while also cooperating with Al-Nusra at this operational level. They actively denounce Al-Nusra’s ties to Al Qaida and global jihad, and even more ISIS’s role as an Iraqi-based front. While Salafists, they see the fight with the regime as paramount, and for the most part seem little implicated in any ‘theocratic’ repression in liberated zones; their “national” character, in a sense, tames their theocratic impulse in as much as it conflicts with Syrian society, and unlike Al-Qaida, they claim to only want to impose their reactionary vision after Assad is defeated, rather than now during the struggle. There have, however, been some unfortunate cases of such cooperation with al-Nusra or ISIS, most notoriously in Ahrar al-Sham’s mid-2013 collaboration with ISIS repression in Raqqa (where ISIS bombed Afhfad al-Rasoul and other FSA groups out of the city), which later backfired against it when ISIS began to viciously attack them more recently; and Ahrar al-Sham even took part in the ISIS and al-Nusra attack on Alawites in Latakia in August, though it denies any role in killing civilians (indeed, the HRC report into the events suggested the overwhelming majority of the gratuitous killing was carried out by ISIS and its small Chechen-led satellite militia, even al-Nusra coming off relatively lightly).

Jane’s report estimates the SIF has 15-20,000 fighters, while the other reports noted above give their strength as anywhere between 13,000 and 25,000 (the initial report on Jane’s report by the Telegraph claimed this tendency had some 30-35,000 fighters; it seems the Telegraph either made up the figure out of thin air, or added together the maximum alleged figures for the SIF with those of the two Al-Qaida groups). While some reports have claimed past Saudi support to Ahrar al-Sham (perhaps an attempt to find a “national” Salafist group as a wedge between the soft-line, Qatari backed Brotherhood on one side and the global-jihadist groups on the other), if true such a policy seems to have been dropped long ago, given Ahrar’s close coordination on the ground with Jabhat a-Nusra and its well-known support from certain anti-monarchial Kuwaiti clerics (http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/08/09/external_support_and_the_syrian_insurgency).

Update: The formation of the Islamic Front in November 2013 by seven Islamist militias (http://eaworldview.com/2013/11/syria-analysis-significant-insurgent-formation-islamic-front/) cannot be fully discussed here; see later blog articles. However, it is worth noting that the IF essentially joined together the three largest sections of the SILF (except the Farouk Brigades) with Ahrar al-Sham from the SIF, thereby dissolving these two former alliances into one. Some aspects of this suggest a radicalisation of the SILF groups while other aspects suggest a moderation of Ahrar al-Sham.

4. The two Al-Qaida linked groups, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), that is, the “Salafist/jihadis” who have a global agenda. Most foreign jihadis join these groups. Like the SIF, they are nation-wide cadre-based jihadists. They likewise aim for a theocracy, but are more hard-line in practice than the SIF, and in particular are explicitly sectarian, promising oppression to Alawites and Shiites (though Christians and Jews are allegedly to be respected, as long as they don’t expect to take part in Sunni Islamic state power). However, there is an important difference in practice; al-Nusra is largely Syrian, despite its global agenda, while ISIS is heavily Iraqi and foreign – while al-Nusra had plenty of Iraqi members and foreign recruits, nearly all went with ISIS when they split in April 2013. Al-Nusra has been overshadowed by ISIS in recent months, and most of the gruesome sectarian attacks on Alawi and Shia, which increased in the second half of 2013, are the handiwork of ISIS, which represents a counterrevolutionary mirror of the regime.

Al-Nusra has certainly also engaged in attacks on minorities, such as the massacre of 60 Shia in Halita in the east in June 2013; and while completely overshadowed by the bloodthirsty role in ISIS in the attack on the Latakia Alawites in August, al-Nusra’s role was hardly innocent either, and to even take part in such an attack demonstrates sectarian thinking even if there had been no victims. Al-Nusra’s own sectarian foray into the historic Christian town of Maaloula later in the year apparently did not result in massacres or attacks on churches (http://www.syrianobserver.com/News/News/Maaloula+Churches+Safe+Says+Nun), and while this may indicate a growing divergence with ISIS in practice, for a known jihadist group to even enter such a town further demonstrates a deeply sectarian view of the struggle (al-Nusra’s move was criticised not only by local non-Islamist FSA groups but even by Ahrar al-Sham: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-24148322). In practice, it stands between ISIS and other Islamists in the degree of theocratic repression or active sectarianism it dishes out; but to generalise, in the second half of 2013, its split with ISIS, its growing Syrianisation, a number of defeats by the regular FSA on the one hand and by ISIS on the other, and even the colonisation of some al-Nusra branches by former FSA cadres (due to resource issues, particularly in Raqqa), have tended to somewhat soften its penchant for “Islamic” repression, and by and large it focuses on fighting the regime.

ISIS has gone the other way, and by late 2013 was so associated with theocratic repression, murder and torture of FSA and mainstream Islamist fighters and civil resistance cadres, and gratuitous murder of minorities – while barely fighting the regime and vice versa – that it had alienated the entire spectrum of anti-Assad opposition, including al-Nusra. This was the background to the combined offensive of all other rebel groups to try to defeat ISIS in early 2014. ISIS should not be regarded as part of the movement in any form, but rather as the alternative pole of counterrevolution, and much evidence suggests a great deal more coordination between the regime and ISIS than meets the eye.

The estimates of their combined strength range from around 5000 to some 12,000 fighters (the higher figure according to Lister from Jane’s). Claims of Saudi support to such organisations by many western leftists, despite what may seem logical due to their shared “Wahabbi” philosophy, are in fact absurd and not supported by a shred of evidence; Al-Qaida sees the House of Saud as arch-apostates and its original raison-de’tre was precisely its overthrow. By all accounts, the Saudis measure their hostility to parts of the Syrian rebellion on the basis of closeness or distance from the Al-Qaida groups just as much as does the US.

To sum up, the following are the range of estimates of the size of various parts of the armed resistance:
a. FSA (ie, secular, directly loyal to SMC): 30-50,000
b. SILF (moderate-Islamist, indirectly loyal to SMC): 37-40,000
c. Ahfad al Rasul (moderate-Islamist, loyal to SMC): 10-15,000
d. CSR (moderate-Islamist, loyal to SMC, Muslim Brotherhood-linked): perhaps a few thousand
e. Authenticity and Development Front (“non-political” Salafist, loyal to SMC and to Saudis): perhaps a few thousand
f. SIF (hard-line “national” Salafist, not loyal to SMC): 13,000-25,000
f. Al-Qaida-connected (global-jihadist, hostile to SMC): 5000-12,000.

Total: 95,000 – 145,000

Comment on ‘secular’ and “Islamist’ division

Thus whether we take the lowest or highest estimates, the secular fighters account for about a third of the total fighting force, and the hard-line national and global Salafists for somewhere between one fifth and one quarter. Thus claims of “no secular fighters”, or of all the resistance between “jihadis”, are entirely fictional. However, the meaning of the large middle bloc of “mainstream-Islamists,” the nature and causes of religious naming in Syria, and the flexibility of membership between various groups, all need to be discussed, from a materialist point of view, but require a separate article.

As leftists, we do not support Islamism, even its moderate varieties, politically; we are opposed to an “Islamic state.” “Islamic fundamentalism” is a non-working class ideology. While this “Islamism” reflects the traditionalism of the peasantry and urban poor, excluded from the “secular” project Baath bourgeois-nationalist project, it also reflects that these layers lack their own leadership after decades of viciously repressive rule, and are led by the urban and rural petty-bourgeoisie and smaller bourgeois layers also excluded by the Baathist mega—capitalist elite. While fighting together against the regime, it would of course be wise for the FSA and other secular and democratic fighters and activists to watch their backs.

However, while it is important to know that some 60 percent of the rebels are either secular or “moderates in groups with an Islamic character,” and thus the whole rebellion has not become a giant jihadist plot, at the same time, leftists in the West need to get off the “secular” bandwagon of insisting that peasants and urban poor over in Syria trying to overthrow a monstrously brutal dictatorship have to first get a western-left, or western-liberal, or western-right, star of approval for their “secularism.” The momentum of the struggle against a regime that jails and tortures tens of thousands while dropping barrel bombs on cities, firing ballistic missiles at apartment blocks, strafing the country with MiG warplanes and helicopter gunships and besieging and starving countless population centres, is a democratic momentum and it is the original aims of the revolution which most are fighting for, including most within the Islamist formations, other than the most extreme. Leftists in the West should be concerned, but we cannot define their struggle, and dictate their necessary alliances, based on our conceptions and prejudices; and emphasising this grand ‘secularism” too much, at this stage of the struggle, would essentially exclude large sections of the urban and ruling poor.

By the same token, however, in a country where there are large non-Sunni minority populations (Alawi, Shia, Christians, Druze), if this “Islamism” is too Sunni-specific and sectarian, it will inevitably exclude these minorities from the struggle. And to the extent that Sunni extremist forces are involved, particularly the al-Qaida-linked groups, it encourage these minorities to stick with the regime as their best defense. A complete domination of the struggle by extreme Sunni sectarians would abolish the revolution and leave two anti-democratic formations facing each other. The revolutionary offensive against ISIS rule in January 2014 (see below) makes this outcome much less likely.

Nonetheless, much of the damage may have been done, and supporters of the revolution, while not at all neutral in the military struggle, may have to recognise that there is no ultimate military “solution” in these circumstances (any more than there is a diplomatic “solution” of the type they are attempting to stitch up at Geneva II); there is only a revolutionary solution, and military struggle is only one tactic within an ongoing revolutionary process, and ultimately subject to politics, including this major political weakness. Therefore I agree with the view of Darth Nader that the revolutionary forces should take advantage of any ceasefire, in the case it were possible to force the regime to agree to one, to re-ignite the mass civil struggle, even if this were the result of the corrupt and regime-saving process of Geneva II (http://darthnader.net/2014/01/22/how-geneva-2-can-help-syrians).

Update: The uprising against ISIS in January 2014: How this impacts on our analysis

While this piece was originally written in September 2013 and many changes have taken place, the fundamentals here remain the same as far as can see. On the one hand, there has undoubtedly been a further drift towards “Islamisation”, a further strengthening of Islamist elements versus secular elements, at least on paper. While this has tended to go towards the “centre (ie, the new Islamic Front) rather than the jihadist extremes, the program of the Islamic Front itself is arguably more radical than that of its largely former SILF components. It explicitly calls for an Islamic state, namely “establishing the state in which justice and development will prevail under Islam’s umbrella and Sharia’s dominion,” but on the other hand it stresses that “it does not consider itself as the national alternative” but rather a fighting force, in collaboration with others, to bring down the regime, and while it officially contrasts “democracy” with the rule of “God,” it immediately stresses that “this does not mean we want arbitrary and authoritarian regime, but national matters cannot be rectified except by consultation in principle and application” (http://notgeorgesabra.wordpress.com/2013/11/29/full-english-text-of-the-islamic-fronts-founding-declaration). What this highly contradictory formulations mean kin practice will be determined more by the momentum of the struggle than by the formulations themselves.
And this is where there is some hope, because on the other hand, the offensive launched in early 2014 against ISIS’s increasing imposition of a vicious theocratic dictatorship over large parts of Syria – an offensive launched jointly by the FSA, the Islamic Front, a new moderate Islamist formation called the Army of Mujahideen (less radical than IF) and by Jabhat al-Nusra – is a new upsurge of the revolution. Despite the role of the IF and even al-Nusra in this operation, it is false to see this as just a turf war between rival Islamists in which some just happen to be less vicious than others. Rather, this offensive was a response to a grass-roots upsurge against ISIS rule at the beginning of 2014, and this mobilisation against theocratic repression will make it much harder for any of the Islamist groups currently siding with the people to turn around an impose similar repression.

A very good specific example of this was the fact that in the northeastern city of Raqqa, a region where jihadist-leaning forces are more dominant than elsewhere (given its proximity to Iraq’s Anbar province), it was Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, rather than secular FSA, that liberated two churches from ISIS and removed the black flags that ISIS had flown from their spires. As Robin Yassin-Kassab explains, “this was because al-Nusra in Raqqa is manned by ex-Free Syrian Army fighters” (http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/01/rise-fall-isil-syria-201411572925799732.html). Yes, precisely: and this is the point.

Yet at the time that the FSA’s 11th Division in Raqqa “defected” to al-Nusra last September, it was generally interpreted as further evidence of this growing “Islamisation” of the struggle and the gradual collapse of the FSA. What this latest incident reveals is that this defection may be just as easily interpreted as an FSA “colonisation” of al-Nusra. The numbers further suggest that – according to an FSA commander in Raqqa at the time, the FSA had over 1000 fighters and al-Nusra only a few hundred, and were confronted by a murderous ISIS force of 400. ISIS was far more powerful due its money and arms, of course; as the FSA commander noted, “we have not received any support since the beginning of the revolution. Obama and Cameron are liars. If they had arms this never would have happened” (http://beta.syriadeeply.org/2013/09/raqqas-fsa-brigades-join-jabhat-al-nusra). Yet even then, if both confronted by ISIS, why did the more powerful-in-numbers FSA dissolve into the smaller al-Nusra rather than vice-versa? And it seems the answer would be the same as for the reason ISIS was more powerful than both: massively more Gulf money and arms will flow to something labelled “al-Nusra” than to something labelled FSA.

If an FSA-colonised “al-Nusra” can liberate Christian churches from ISIS, this needs to be borne in mind when assessing the role of the Islamic Front, which appease a paragion of moderation compared to a-Nusra generally.

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4 thoughts on “Report on relative strength of armed rebels in Syria

  1. But what is an “Islamic state”?

    Does Tunisia count as one?
    http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/01/27/us-tunisia-politics-idUSBREA0P0P220140127?irpc=932

    Is Libya, whose parliament recently voted to declare Islamic law the “only source for legislation in Libya” and “above the constitution,” an Islamic state?

    How about Assad’s Syria, where the Hafez constitution says the office of the president can only be held by a Muslim and where family laws and personal status issues were and are governed by sharia courts for Sunnis and Shia?

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