By Michael Karadjis
The defeat of and expulsion from much of Idlib province of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF), a component of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), by Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN) has led to vastly different responses among supporters of the Syrian revolution. This article will argue that it is an important setback for the Syrian revolution, though how significant remains to be seen as facts are unclouded.
Meanwhile, the subsequent US bombing of JaN in regions of northern Idlib not affected by the fighting, and the extension of US bombing to Ahrar al-Sham, a component of the Islamic Front (IF), which had opposed the in-fighting and had tried to separate the sides, further indicates the reactionary nature of the US intervention (indeed, as I will argue below, the US bombing was part of the background to JaN’s aggressive moves), while also highlighting again the long-term US strategy of trying to incite civil war within the ranks of the anti-Assad forces to bring about mutual suicide. However, the US push has been attempting to cajole the FSA into launching such a war, a push that has been entirely unsuccessful, whereas instead it is JaN that is, unwittingly, carrying out this strategy.
Meanwhile, this open US attack on non-ISIS and even non-JaN forces, along with the fact that regime warplanes have been attacking rebel positions in Idlib (eg Binnish) at the same time that US warplanes bombed northern Idib towns, only further underlines the fact that the US has intervened in Syria on the side of the Assad genocide-regime and against the revolution, as the latter coordinates with the US and steps up its own war on its people to simply incredible heights.
So what actually happened?
Regarding the specifics, it appears that a group of SRF cadre in the Idlib town al-Bara defected to Ahrar al-Sham (a nation-wide Salafist network which is the component of the Islamic Front (IF) considered closest to JaN). The SRF attempted to arrest them in order to make them return their weapons (which, as I understand, is the practice according to the local “sharia court”), and in response, JaN cadre present at the time attacked the SRF.
By and large, this course of events is the same described by JaN accounts, such as this widely spread version by a JaN cadre (http://justpaste.it/hr1m) and the JaN site http://eldorar.com/node/62246. The main differences are in emphasis, over who was more violent at the time and so on.
However, whatever the specifics of the incident in al-Bara, and whether or not the SRF were overzealous or violent in their initial skirmish, this cannot explain JaN’s further response, attacking the SRF right across Idlib with tanks and heavy weapons, attacking the village of SRF leader Jamal Maarouf, killing his body guards, his nephew and other leading SRF cadre (eg, commander Muhammad Ali Alloush, who had joined the revolution from the beginning), expelling the SRF from its stronghold in the Jabal al-Zawiya region, attacking other FSA units and trying to drive them out of Idlib.
Nor does it explain the fact that Ahrar al-Sham (AaS) itself, despite being the alleged victim of an overzealous SRF, did not attack the SRF, in fact it issued several statements calling for both sides to end the fighting (eg, https://twitter.com/charliewinter/status/527866467552071680). In one statement, Ahrar al-Sham “Shar’i” (religious leader) asks JaN “who are you to decide to terminate the presence of someone?” (https://twitter.com/MosaM94/status/530221698851688448).
According to the Lebanese Daily Star newspaper, a video statement by AaS commander Abu Bakr “argued that extremism wasn’t limited to ISIS, he criticized the Nusra Front for waging war against FSA groups for not being sufficiently religious,” while adding that FSA groups “were also guilty of “corrupt” behaviour,” including extorting money and “blasphemy,” so “both sides need to “purify” their ranks,” the Star quotes him as saying (http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2014/Nov-01/276158-syria-rebels-deploy-peacekeepers-in-idlib.ashx#ixzz3I39Ul6iz).
Likewise, Idlib’s local IF franchise, Suqour al-Sham, also officially stated it has no role in the hostilities, rejecting opposing assertions that it had either helped Maarouf escape or had arrested SRF men and handed them to JaN (https://pbs.twimg.com/media/B1ICD8MCYAElEDH.jpg).
Harakat Hazm, a large secularist FSA group in the region, also called for both sides to stop and claimed that it tried to mediate, but JaN rejected its arbitration (http://www.twitlonger.com/show/n_1sdloe4). Hazm then apparently refused to allow a JaN war party to cross a check-point as it was on the hunt for SRF cadre (a version of events also backed by JaN accounts), so JaN attacked Hazm as well, forcing it to retreat from its strongholds in Khan al-Sobol and Khan Batekh. JaN also arrested Hazm commander Mohammad Ghazi.
All the other organisations in Idlib also called for an end to the fighting. An agreement was made between 15 battalions in Idlib on October 31 to send “peace-keeping brigades” to separate fighting battalions. Carrying white flags they fanned out across the province and demanded both sides pull back to separate, nearby villages (http://syriahr.com/en/2014/10/an-agreement-between-15-islamic-battalions-in-idlib-to-form-forces-to-separate-between-the-fighting-battalions/). However, JaN prevented them entering al-Bara and refused to accept any arbitration.
Meanwhile, a group of religious scholars and students launched an initiative on social media and Arabic-language news sites called “Don’t Fight,” calling for the immediate cessation of combat and a mutual release of prisoners (https://www.facebook.com/idleep.m.a/posts/372489032905775), while the Friday demonstrations that week were held under the slogan of “United we stand, divided we fall” (http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2014/Nov-01/276158-syria-rebels-deploy-peacekeepers-in-idlib.ashx#ixzz3I39Ul6iz).
Even former deputy leader of JaN, Abu Mariya al-Qahtani warned both sides that the infighting was only implementing the wishes of the regime and the West to bury the Syrian revolution. Strikingly, while claiming there is western intrusion into some FSA factions, he also said it was undeniable that some jihadi groups (including JAN) are infiltrated by ISIS, and he criticised JaN for calling the SRF “apostates” (http://eldorar.com/node/62367).
JaN ignored all this and pressed its attack. According to some sources, JaN sent in reinforcements and attacked with tanks and heavy weaponry; some unconfirmed reports claim they received aid from ISIS.
Since then, JaN has also attacked other FSA units in the region. For example, JaN threatened to storm the town of Kafr Nab, forcing the FSA’s Fursan Haq (5th corps) to surrender and hand over its weaponry (https://7al.me/?p=6980); and a jihadist group allied to JaN captured fighters of the FSA’s Sinjar Martyr’s Brigade (https://twitter.com/uygaraktas/status/528907016857587712). Meanwhile, another FSA brigade, the Dawn of Freedom Brigades, gave JaN 72 hours to give the captured areas back to the SRF, threatening otherwise to attack JaN (Dawn of Freedom is also one of the FSA brigades fighting alongside the Kurdish YPG in defense of Kobani against ISIS). On November 7, JaN killed the Dawn of Freedom commander, Tamer Haj Omar (https://twitter.com/aleppomedia…/status/530805493309382657).
The only group actually joining JaN’s attack was Jund al-Aqsa, a militia of foreign (Chechen) jihadists, previously aligned to ISIS.
JaN and SRF apparently signed at least one ceasefire, allowing for exchange of prisoners and attendance at a sharia court (http://malcolmxtreme.wordpress.com/2014/11/02/1122014/), but JaN had already demanded that SRF and Hazm leaders face a “sharia court” led by Shaykh al-Muhaysini, an al-Qaeda Saudi cleric (http://t.co/AhHgPDuXna), who works to try to reunify JaN with ISIS (http://www.dailystar.com.lb/…/275838-al-qaeda-still…).
Importantly, despite some minor JaN-Hazm clashes in Aleppo, the two organisations got together with the other major forces in that region – major FSA units, Islamic Front organisations, Jaish Mujahedeen (moderately Islamist-leaning coalition), Ansar al-Dine, Authenticity Front and so on signed an agreement to prevent the infighting reaching Aleppo (https://twitter.com/archicivilians/status/528209765663399936/photo/1).
However, several days later JaN attacked the FSA’s Fursan Al Shimal brigade’s headquarters in Menagh in Aleppo. Fursan Al Shamal responded by accusing JaN of carrying out a criminal war on the FSA & of implementing the ISIS project.
This course of events, and JaN’s apparent drive to subdue as much of the FSA throughout the region as possible, suggests that other explanations for the events are at best irrelevant.
The most popular discourse is that Maarouf and his SRF are profiteers, are bandits, they extort money and so on. There is certainly enough circumstantial evidence of this, as there is for many FSA units starved of arms and money in comparison with flush jihadist groups like JaN. The widespread allegations against Maarouf are neither of the “worst case” variety yet nor are they benign; it may well be that he had alienated a section of the population, enough to not want to put up a defence. Evidence is mixed on this. However, while this may be interesting background, it appears to have nothing to do with the cause of the clashes, a JaN accounts of the actual events are largely in agreement with the above account – the attack was not set off by SRF extorting money etc, it was not in response to the populace calling on JaN to liberate them from the SRF, and JaN’s attack is far more general against FSA groups.
The other assertion, mainly on pro-JaN social media networks, is that the SRF stabbed JaN in the back during its very brief attempt to seize the Idlib government building from the regime two weeks ago, just before these events. However, JaN itself has not accused the SRF of this, merely claiming the SRF carried out its arrest operation while JaN was “distracted” by its adventure. In fact, the extent of the attack on the SRF shows it must have been pre-planned, and as such JaN’s attempt to seize central Idlib increasingly looks like a diversion to boost its credentials before going on to attack its real target.
Background: SRF and JaN
The SRF is a major coalition of secularist FSA militias in the northwest, based in Idlib, Aleppo, Hama and northern Latakia provinces, with an estimated 15-25,000 fighters; an organisationally separate Southern SRF is based in the south in Deraa. The SRF was formed in December 2013 by 14 FSA brigades in the northwest (http://carnegie-mec.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=53910). The largest was the Idlib-based Syrian Martyr’s Brigade, led by Jamal Maarouf, which then claimed about 10,000 fighters, one of the largest stand-alone FSA brigades in the country. Maarouf then became the main leader of the SRF.
Maarouf is a former construction worker who joined the revolution from the outset, and the allegations of profiteering and the like ought to be set next to the fact that he has lost a great deal of his family, immediate and extended, due to regime, ISIS and now JaN violence.
Importantly, equally large numbers of secularist FSA brigades in the north-west, for various reasons not entirely clear, did not join SRF, although appear to be generally aligned; many of these are associated with a looser coalition formed around the same time, the Free Syria Union (http://notgeorgesabra.wordpress.com/2013/11/25/for-a-civil-secular-state-100-groups-unite-in-the-union-of-free-syrians).
Thus, the SRF consists of brigades which, along with the other FSA brigades, had driven the Assad regime out of nearly all of Idlib and kept it as a preserve of the revolution; this occurred long before there was such a thing as JaN. Then in January 2014, the SRF led the attack on ISIS in coordination with other rebel brigades (both FSA and non-FSA) which drove ISIS right out of Idlib, Hama and Aleppo.
JaN of course is the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaida, but to date has been far more moderate in its practice than the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS), which was expelled from al-Qaida for being unnecessarily barbaric. Since JaN and ISIS separated in April 2013 (ISIS taking the more reactionary and most of the foreign fighters), JaN has largely fought on the side of the FSA and moderate Islamist forces against the Assad regime and ISIS, and by and large has not tried to forcibly impose extreme “Islamist” repression on populations the way ISIS does.
In addition, due to having lots of money and arms from the oppositionist bourgeoisie in the Gulf, JaN has been more effective than many FSA units, which, despite the media’s Orwellian obsession with calling them “Western-backed rebels,” have barely ever got a bone from “the West.” This has meant that many former FSA fighters, or fighters with little ideological commitment that would otherwise have been in the FSA, have joined JaN, without supporting its reactionary Sunni sectarian ideology.
This has also helped moderate the practice of JaN on the ground. For example, when JaN and AaS briefly liberated Raqqa from ISIS in January, they liberated two churches and removed the black jihadist flags that ISIS had put on their spires – because JaN in Raqqa was by then largely composed of FSA entryists (http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/01/rise-fall-isil-syria-201411572925799732.html).
All the above means that, for most of the year from mid-2013 to mid-2014, the SRF and JaN have largely fought on the same side; it also shows that the SRF is a very powerful coalition. The questions therefore arise: why has Nusra decided to launch all-out war on the SRF, its previous quasi-ally (or did the SRF launch war on Nusra?); how did Nusra seemingly defeat so quickly the powerful SRF; and what are the implications for the revolution.
Further background: The US push for Sawha and mutual rebel suicide
One important piece of background is the long-term US goal of turning any slavish sections of the FSA it can dupe into a “Sawha” that proves its worth to the US by attacking JaN (named after the movement the US and Saudi Arabia armed to defeat al-Qaida in Iraq in 2007-8). The US has been pushing the FSA into this since 2012 (http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/middle-east/americas-hidden-agenda-in-syrias-war); overwhelmingly, it is the main condition on which the US has offered to perhaps send a few guns to some select FSA units, and the US makes clear they want the FSA to do this before taking on Assad. In the circumstances, it is difficult to conceive of this as anything other than a US plan for mutual destruction of democratic and jihadist anti-Assad forces.
The FSA has always rejected this “advice”; according to FSA Colonel Akaidi, then heading the Aleppo military council, “if they [the US] help us so that we kill each other, then we don’t want their help” (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/71e492d0-acdd-11e2-9454-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2UPVgOFXt).
While the SRF and the rest of the FSA, and Islamic Front, launched their own attack, for their own reasons, on ISIS, this was simply not good enough for the US; two further conditions were demanded for serious US assistance: that they also attack JaN (even though JaN had joined the attack on ISIS), and that they use any weapons only against ISIS, but not the regime.
The question some are asking then is, did Maarouf and the SRF accept the US poisoned chalice and agree to launch an attack on JaN, or at least not work with it? Some of the anti-SRF propaganda around at the moment seems to suggest this. If it were true it would help explain the rout. Yet I have not seen a shred of evidence for this. In fact, to the question of whether he would fight JaN in an interview several months ago, Maarouf replied:
“It’s clear that I’m not fighting against al-Qa’ida. This is a problem outside of Syria’s border, so it’s not our problem. I don’t have a problem with anyone who fights against the regime inside Syria” (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/i-am-not-fighting-againstalqaida-itsnot-our-problem-says-wests-last-hope-in-syria-9233424.html). As the SRF had just driven ISIS out of Idlib, it was clear he was talking about JaN, and in fact he released a statement saying he had only referred to JaN and did not use the word “al-Qaida,” accusing the Independent of twisting his words.
The article maintained that Maarouf “admits to fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra” and he says:
“If the people who support us tell us to send weapons to another group, we send them. They asked us a month ago to send weapons to Yabroud [to JaN in a fight with the regime] so we sent a lot of weapons there. When they asked us to do this, we do it.”
While media has continually referred to the SRF as “western-backed” etc, and it is routinely claimed that it is one of the US-“vetted” groups that have received a handful of US TOW anti-tank weapons since April 2014, evidence is slim at best, and in that interview Maarouf claimed “We have received lots of promises from the US, but so far nothing more.”
In any case, the receipt of small numbers of TOWs was largely irrelevant: Hazm, which was the first group to openly receive US TOWs in April, declared later that it would not fight JaN, that the US weapons were few and far between (http://www.latimes.com/world/middleeast/la-fg-syria-harakat-hazm-20140907-story.html#page=1), and then, when the US attacked JaN, under the guise of attacking ISIS, Hazm issued one of the most powerful statements opposing the US bombing (https://pbs.twimg.com/media/ByPSsxMIYAQy2Wt.jpg). Likewise, the SRF joined a dozen or so other large FSA-linked or Islamist brigades and denounced the US air strikes as an aid to the Assad regime (https://pbs.twimg.com/media/ByUiHcTIMAAmTDF.jpg).
Therefore, my estimation is that these allegations have no substance, and, unless clear information is provided, they constitute little more than slander.
Jabhat al-Nusra’s evolution
But if the SRF didn’t walk into this US trap, what are some factors that have led to JaN’s power and purpose here?
On the question of purpose, it first needs to be understood that while JaN had clearly changed, and was no ISIS, it remained an anti-democratic, Sunni-sectarian organisation at the level of leadership and ideology. Revolutions have a way of making things appear not what they seem, or even turning organisations effectively into vehicles for movements they may theoretically have little to do with. The mass entry of non-jihadists into JaN, described above, is a case in point. Revolutionary forces on the ground have to relate to such realities, and make life and death choices. In the context of struggle against enemies as murderous as Assad and ISIS, the FSA and other rebels had every right to work with JaN as long as it worked against regime and ISIS. And western leftists who disapproved would rightfully be seen as less than an irrelevance to such decisions.
However, curiously, some supporters of the Syrian revolution who understood all this have lost their balance and come out supporting JaN. It is a strange phenomenon to confuse the above tactical life and death necessities for the FSA with getting oneself politically confused about the nature of a Sunni sectarian group when it attacks the secular FSA, whatever excuses about “corruption” it may cynically cite.
The fact is, JaN was never more than a fair-weather friend. Going back, in the first half of 2013, the FSA was already constantly, if sporadically, clashing with JaN to defend populations against religious repression or to defend themselves. While this largely disappeared following the JaN-ISIS split, JaN still remained in an elusive position outside the main bodies of the revolution. When the SRF first launched war on ISIS in January 2014, Idlib JaN declared neutrality. Soon after, JaN in Aleppo, Raqqa and Deir-Ezzor joined the united rebel attack on ISIS. The last to join the attack on ISIS, it was also the first to call for a ceasefire, just four days later (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/09/world/middleeast/syrian-rebels-said-to-oust-qaeda-linked-group-from-its-aleppo-headquarters.html?_r=0), though this did not eventuate.
Then when JaN leader Joulani gave ISIS an ultimatum in February to accept arbitration and end its “plague” against Syrian people or face getting wiped out, in the same breath he slammed the opposition exile-based Supreme Military Command of the FSA as “infidels” (http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/25/us-syria-crisis-islamists-idUSBREA1O0TN20140225).
In May, the major Islamic Front groups joined four other Islamist coalitions, including the prominent, moderate Jaish Mujahideen in Aleppo and the Ajnad Islamic Union in Damascus, and signed a “Revolutionary Covenant,” which pledged support for freedom and human rights and the rule of law in a “multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian” Syria “without any sort of pressure or dictations” (http://justpaste.it/fi2u), effectively nullifying the harder-sounding “Islamist” rhetoric of the original Islamic Front declaration 8 months earlier. Only JaN rejected and condemned this covenant (http://syriadirect.org/main/36-interviews/1387-nusra-rejects-trials-for-regime-figures-demands-death-by-sword). Then when nearly all the larger rebel formations, secular FSA and mainstream Islamist, formed the Syrian Revolutionary Command Council in August to coordinate their war on regime and ISIS, only JaN was not involved.
Factors propelling Nusra’s strength and actions
Thus this was the reality of JaN when two huge events, ISIS’ spectacular conquest of Mosul in June, and the US attack on ISIS and JaN in Syria in September, helped lead JaN into its new regressive turn.
The ISIS-led conquest of Mosul galvanised jihadists throughout the region. Suddenly ISIS, having been driven out of most of Syria, was again eclipsing JaN, indeed had shown jihadists what victory over “infidels” means. This had the effect of boosting the more jihadist forces within JaN at the expense of ex-FSA cadre and non-ideological recruits, while also forcing JaN’s leadership – always Sunni-sectarian despite its changed practice – to “compete” harder with ISIS for the jihadist “vote.” In fact, these latest events were not the first JaN provocation during this new period – several months ago JaN had attacked the SRF in Idlib, accusing its cadre of crimes such as insulting people, being infidels and drinking wine (http://justpaste.it/gbni).
This was uneven throughout the country, however – in Aleppo, JaN’s alliance with other rebels remained firm; in the south, it remained mostly firm, except for some JaN arrests of individual FSA leaders who they accused of collaborating with Jordan or Israel to sell out the struggle (with little evidence provided). In the east, in Deir Ezzor, JaN and its FSA and IF allies held on against a furious joint siege by ISIS backed by Assad bombs, but some JaN units in the east defected to ISIS.
According to analyst Paola Pisi, this defeat of the Deir Ezzor resistance was itself a major factor in JaN’s new strength in Idlib, as it led to the mass expulsion of JaN cadre from the east, mostly towards traditional FSA regions (north-west, south), greatly boosting their numbers vis a vis SRF and others.
Pisi also notes that, at the same time, JaN was flush with money to buy advanced weapons due to its engagement in the hostage business – it acquired, from Qatar, $25million ransom to free Golan peacekeepers and $100 million for US hostage Theo Curtis – all this on top of the fact that JaN has always had more money and arms from the Gulf than the miserable bunch of nothing much that “the West” has ever provided to the “western-backed rebels.”
Then when the US intervened and immediately massacred civilians, and bombed JaN along with ISIS even though JaN had not been acting like ISIS, and had been fighting ISIS, this had a number of effects. First, it boosted the view that this was a US “war on Islam,” and so tended to push the “anti-imperialist” jihadists (ie, those targeted by US air strikes) into the same camp, with various JaN cadre issuing pro-ISIS statements (though the leadership issued a statement warning against allowing the US strikes to breed illusions in ISIS); dozens of JaN cadre defected to ISIS, subjecting JaN to further pressure to compete.
Second, it led to a surge of support to both ISIS and JaN – that ISIS would gain any support was remarkable in and of itself, yet pro-ISIS demonstrations erupted as far west as Idlib, where no ISIS existed; but since most Syrians found this unpalatable even in these circumstances, the swing to “anti-imperialist” jihadism went mostly to JaN. In mass demonstrations throughout Aleppo (https://pbs.twimg.com/media/ByTcYjYCcAEeOnA.jpg:large), Idlib (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ww2LT-Wcpcc&feature=youtu.be) and Homs, demonstrators chanted “We are all Nusra” or “Jabhat al-Nusra came to support us when the world abandoned us” (https://pbs.twimg.com/media/ByTtNQkIYAETWtU.jpg:large).
Further, this also forced the rest of the FSA to take a stand; the US attack on JaN was mainly pressed the first week, and since then the US has focused more closely on ISIS, suggesting the aim was more to cause confusion, division and splits within the revolution camp rather than to militarily decimate JaN; in other words, the US was trying to force the FSA – especially those who had received a few TOWs – to show their worth by finally taking the US’ poisoned chalice. As my article showed (https://mkaradjis.wordpress.com/2014/09/25/syrian-rebels-overwhelmingly-condemn-us-bombing-as-an-attack-on-revolution), the rebels rightly overwhelmingly rejected this US trap and condemned the US attack as an attack in the revolution. This is probably the background to the more open declarations by US leaders in the last few weeks that the FSA is not part of its anti-ISIS strategy, that there is no coordination with the FSA, that the US does not trust the FSA, that the US plan to train “vetted” rebels to fight ISIS does not even mean the FSA, but rather the US will start from scratch, and that they must only fight ISIS and not the regime (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/10/14/no-syrian-rebels-allowed-at-isis-war-conference.html, http://www.businessinsider.com.au/the-us-has-officially-given-up-on-the-free-syrian-army-2014-10, http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2014/10/15/5244747/its-official-us-wont-be-working.html#.VESY0hZ0Yg9#storylink=cpy, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/syrians-to-be-trained-to-defend-territory-not-take-ground-from-jihadists-officials-say/2014/10/22/8ca13cf2-5a17-11e4-bd61-346aee66ba29_story.html).
The US had tested the FSA, and it has proudly failed this imperialist test (no doubt much to the chagrin of the pro-Genocide Regime sections of the western “anti-imperialist” left).
But this refusal of the FSA, including the SRF and Hazm, to be the Sawha would have made them safer from being painted as traitors by JaN. However, other factors militated against this. First, the opposition exile leadership (the Syrian Opposition Coalition) supported the US attack; second, even the mere fact that some FSA groups had received a few TOWs since April now opened them to accusations of being US agents, as was widely reported in the media, *despite their refusal to play this US game*. Especially since the US was so vocal about what it wanted to FSA groups to do with these weapons. In addition, their backers (the Saudis etc) were part of the US bombing coalition – ie, the US bombing-as-Assad’s-aircraft-coalition, as they see it.
In any case, another factor in JaN’s rapid victory was that the SRF did not really put up much of a fight. Maarouf explained that he withdrew from the villages in Jabal al-Zawiya to avoid massive civilian bloodshed all over Idlib. This suggests precisely that Maarouf still understood the disastrous nature of a full inter-rebel war (ie, he understood the poison of the US game which some accuse him of playing): an Idlib covered with inter-rebel blood will be the end of the revolution; and given JaN’s recent surge of power and obvious lust for conquest, such bloodshed was assured. Worse still, a frontal war may not have received broad rebel support (unlike the war on ISIS), and may also have led to a JaN-SRF war in Aleppo, Hama and the south.
On other hand, however, an Idlib turned into a Nusra emirate – as opposed to what it has been up to now, one of the strongest positions of the secularist FSA forces – is also a disaster. It would not be easy to be the ones making the tactical decisions about fight/no fight just now.
The US attack on Nusra and Islamic Front
On November 5, the US launched bombing raids on JaN and Ahrar Al-Sham throughout northern Idlib, on Harem, Sarmda, Kafer Darain, Bab al-Hawa, Rif Mahamyn, Binish, Basakba etc. These northern Idlib regions had not been involved in the Jan-SRF fighting in the south of the province.
The Pentagon claimed that these strikes “were not in response to the Nusrah Front’s clashes with the Syrian moderate opposition” in Idlib, and the “Khorasan” red-herring was again unearthed as the reason for the strikes on JaN (http://www.centcom.mil/en/news/articles/nov.-6-u.s.-military-forces-conduct-airstrikes-against-khorasan-group-terro).
However, one snag in that story is that Ahrar al-Sham was also bombed, even though no-one has connected them to “Khorasan,” and, for that matter, neither were they connected to the attack on SRF. Ahrar al-Sham said US strikes had levelled one of its bases near Bab al-Hawa, claiming 10 civilians, including children, were killed along with 16 AaS fighters, including the local commander, Abu- Taalha (http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2014/Nov-06/276728-syrias-ahrar-al-sham-says-coalition-strikes-on-it-killed-civilians-statement.ashx?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter#ixzz3IN0xFtGL).
As Syria expert Thomas Pierret tweeted, “No doubt left: Asad now has an extra airforce with F22s in it.”
So, just as the US used the excuse of attacking ISIS in September to attack JaN, which was then largely allied to the Syrian rebels against the regime and ISIS, so now the US uses the excuse of attacking JaN to attack the mainstream Islamist Front.
The aim appears precisely to push the IF towards JaN, while pushing JaN towards ISIS, so that then the US and Assad can jointly bomb hell out of all of the “Islamic terrorists” together, and further split the FSA along the lines of solidarity with Islamists getting bombed versus joining US camp due to being pushed into a corner. And then the US can say “see, as we’ve said for years, the moderates are so small and ineffective, there’s no alternative to Assad if we want to defeat jihadists” and so on, the same game for years.
And the exile-based Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) played right into this trap by “requesting coordinated air strikes” on JaN, when I didn’t even hear Maarouf calling for them (http://tinyurl.com/mya4w4h). The only problem with US Sawha strategy was that they had been unsuccessfully goading the FSA to attack JaN first (so they could kill each other), whereas it was not the FSA but JaN that unwittingly played their game. The bombing of JaN, and even the neutral AaS, just after the Idlib events appears aimed at further trying to exacerbate the conflict and further try to force the FSA into the US pocket.
Faysal Itani gives a reasonably good summary of the US policy:
“From the start, the US-led air campaign in Syria—and the accompanying chorus of official statements—have endangered Syrian moderates. US airstrikes on JAN positions (including in Idlib) in the campaign’s opening days were an early indication that actual US policy was directly at odds with claimed US support for the nationalist opposition. While JAN is a US-designated terrorist group, it is also a potent actor in the beleaguered anti-regime insurgency that has received little US support. Relations between JAN and the mainstream insurgency had varied from hostility to uneasy cooperation against ISIS and the regime. Because the moderates are aligned with the United States, US airstrikes on JAN immediately produced a new and powerful rival to already vulnerable moderate forces. By striking JAN without sufficiently strengthening its moderate counterparts first, and promising (publicly, no less) to use them to fight JAN and not the regime, the United States made the opposition appear just threatening enough to provoke JAN, but not so threatening as to deter the jihadist group. The results are on clear display in Idlib” (http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/what-went-wrong-in-idlib?utm_content=buffer5ecba&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer#.VFjjW_oeG2c.twitter).
Assad regime emboldened by US bombing
However, analysts need to get over the idea that the 4-year US policy is “misguided,” “ineffective” and so on. Taking into account the home truth that the US would in general much prefer the victory of a mega-capitalist tyranny over an armed revolutionary populace, the entire US strategy becomes very effective and deliberate.
As the regime bombs Idlib right at the same time as does the US, as has been occurring also in Aleppo, in Deir Ezzor and elsewhere; with appearances of US drones just before Assad bombings regularly reported; with statements by US and other western leaders daily becoming softer (ie, more honest) on Assad and his Iranian allies; as we read that “US officials are beginning to see Assad as a vital de facto ally in the fight” against ISIS (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/10/15/obama_turkey_islamic_state_terror_kurds_nato_invasion); as we read of the “belief in Washington that the fall of the Assad regime would be ill-conducive to what President Barack Obama views as the more urgent goal of defeating ISIS” and indeed “[The US] might even be nervous if the Assad regime were to go” (https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/reportsfeatures/564187-turkish-intervention-talk-more-bark-than-bite); as a workshop of imperialist strategists organised by the Rand Corporation decided that “regime collapse, while not considered a likely outcome, was perceived to be the worst possible outcome for U.S. strategic interests” (http://www.rand.org/pubs/perspectives/PE129.html); it seems only the most still deluded by “anti-imperialist” illusions in the genocide-regime can’t see the US has emerged as Assad’s new air-force.
Certainly Assad knows it; “with global attention focused on the fight against jihadists, Syria’s regime has in recent weeks stepped up its use of deadly barrel bomb strikes, killing civilians and wreaking devastation. In less than a fortnight, warplanes have dropped at least 401 barrel bombs on rebel areas in eight provinces, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime monitoring group based in Britain.”
The Observatory said at least 232 civilians have been killed in regime air strikes, including barrel bomb attacks, since Oct. 20 (http://tinyurl.com/ozktbos). Regime helicopters barrel bombed a refugee camp in Idlib last Wednesday, killing and wounding dozens of people; then on November 5, the airforce bombed a school in Qaboun in the rebel-controlled Damascus suburbs, murdering 17 children. The regime’s everyday practice of torturing prisoners to death continues apace: last week “74 bodies of detainees tortured to death by Syrian security forces have been delivered to their families in the eastern towns of Homs province in four days” (https://zamanalwsl.net/en/news/7357.html). Roughly one Palestinian from the regime-besieged Yarmouk camp is tortured to death each day, as the regime maintains a criminal starvation siege and has now cut off water. As the regime steps up sieges of other Damascus suburbs, there are reports of 103 children and 5 adults who have died in Douma due to lack of food/medicine from the blockade (http://www.twitlonger.com/show/n_1sds5f3 ). The regime is also carrying out a genocidal siege of the Homs region of al-Waer, where tens of thousands of people are trapped, and hundreds have died, all entirely ignored by the whole world (https://www.zamanalwsl.net/en/news/7062.html).
Many have said the regime has been able to step up its war on the revolution because the US is taking care of its other enemy, ISIS; the regime has its back free, so to speak. The problem with this analysis is that even before the US intervention, ISIS wasn’t bothering the regime at all; the regime diverted no energy away from suppressing the uprising towards fighting ISIS at all; on the contrary, often enough, Assad and ISIS jointly attacked and besieged the FSA and its allied rebels.
Rather, the explanation is worse than that; the actuality of US intervention, in coordination with regime intelligence, has demonstrated to the regime in practice that imperialism is its ally as both bomb its country simultaneously.
Finally, back to Idlib
A final note on the Idlib events. How big a setback is JaN’s aggression against the SRF? This of course is too early to say.
First, why should it be considered a setback? Some are saying they are just as bad as each other, it is just a fight among thugs, or even that it is good that the clean JaN has driven out the corrupt FSA. This is entirely misguided.
Whatever the errors of its various components, the FSA stands for a democratic, non-sectarian Syria. JaN, whatever its compromises in practice with the FSA over the last year, is opposed to this and stands openly for a clerical regime which is explicitly Sunni-sectarian. While it has not in practice shown an ISIS-like tendency to openly slaughter minorities (despite some unclear or disputed cases), its explicit view that Alawites and Shittes can only be offered oppression under its rule can only strengthen the attachment of these minorities to the regime, despite the growing disenchantment among the Alawites with the regime, which includes open anti-regime demonstrations.
There is thus a huge difference between a JaN that is largely subordinate to the overall rebel alliance and an overconfident, aggressive JaN that seeks to become the dominant element.
The same applies if an arrogant JaN ruling unchallenged feels confident enough to impose a state of religious repression, even if to date it has not acted like ISIS. Unfortunately, Idlib JaN in particular looks headed that way, with a JaN “Islamic court in Darkoush executing a man and woman through stoning (https://t.co/TlrKDkEZOt). This is opposite of the liberatory spirit of the Syrian revolution, and most strikingly in Idlib, the heart and soul of the revolution in many ways, full of towns with names like Kafranbel, Saraqueb, Tatanaz and so on that supporters of the revolution recognise, where the most liberatory messages of the revolution have been projected to the world.
On a larger scale, a decisive JaN victory over secular or other non-jihadist forces plays directly into the hands of the US and Assad, and their “anti-terrorist war” discourse as explained above.
If SRF corrupt practices contributed to their own defeat, that of course should be criticised, but that does not alter the fact that they have thereby contributed to a setback for the revolution.
Second, however, we also need to assess what the extent of the JaN victory is over the secular forces.
Maarouf claimed “we liberated [Idlib] from the regime, and from ISIS, and we will liberate it from you.” It is hard to say how realistic this is. While evidence of Maarouf’s corruption suggests it is significant and he may have burnt some of his bridges with locals, an overconfident JaN will likely also burn its bridges with the populace if it imposes religious repression. This will be even more so if the suggestions that Idlib JaN is closer to ISIS than elsewhere.
Also, with SRF forces largely intact, their flow out of Idlib into neighbouring Hama and Aleppo may now boost the struggle against the regime on those fronts. Much has been claimed about SRF and Hazm troops defecting to JaN, but very little concrete evidence has emerged. In Syrian conditions, even defectors may essentially be doing “entry” work, like the FSA’s Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigade, which spent some 8 months inside Raqqa JaN before re-emerging in April (it is now also fighting in Kobane alongside the YPG against ISIS).
In addition, the refusal of other Islamist brigades to join JaN’s attack and their attempts to negotiate show a positive degree of coordination; it also suggests that if JaN over-reaches, it may end up encouraging a rebel coalition against it. It is also important to remember that while JaN is attacking other FSA units in the region, it may have much less dirt on many of them than it apparently has on Maarouf’s group – it may be one thing to defeat a group with a reputation and another to successfully rule an Idlib emirate with the rest of the FSA and IF subordinate or crushed. Large numbers of non-SRF FSA groups also still cover north-west Syria, and it is uncertain that even the SRF has been expelled from the whole of Idlib – the battles occurred in the south.
Despite the overall grim situation, as defense against criminal regime sieges becomes paramount in Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Damascus suburbs, all just as critical and horrific, if not far more so, than the ISIS siege of Kobane, we should remember that the Syrian revolution has often had a way of showing extraordinary resilience and coming up with bewildering surprises.