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Last chance saloon for Syria's rebels

The divisions and infighting that have long plagued rebel groups is reaching a critical point - it's time to merge or resign to weakness

The intense Russian bombing of eastern Aleppo and the significant numbers of Iranian-backed militias allowed the Syrian regime to capture the entire city last month after four years of fighting.

Recent merger talks are perceived by many rebel groups as a last resort to upscale their military performance and have a strong presence at the negotiation table

However, the regime's advance also received a major boost from the internal divisions among rebel groups in eastern Aleppo, their infighting and, consequently, their poor military performance during the offensive.

As a result of the rebel's failure to protect the city, protests erupted in many rebel-held areas condemning their mistakes and demanding that the groups unite to strengthen their power.

The groups are also facing external challenges from regional and international backers like the US and Saudi Arabia who are pulling back their support.

A syrian man rides a motorbike past a cemetery in rebel-held Douma, on the eastern outskirts of Damascus on 3 January 2017 (AFP)
Other backers, namely Turkey, have changed their priorities in Syria and no longer insist on a regime change, which stands in stark contrast from the demands of Syrian rebel and opposition groups.

These merger talks are perceived by many rebel groups as a last resort to improve their military performance and ensure a strong presence at a future negotiation table.

Come together?

The divisions within and among the rebels that caused so many problems during the Aleppo offensive have only deepened in recent weeks, further hindering their ability to reverse their dwindling support.

Yet public pressure for a large scale merger that would end these divisions has only led to more fighting over how to achieve that.

Unity talks among rebel groups have been ongoing for years, however ideological differences and worries over the reaction of Western-backers have hindered many initiatives.

READ: Why Ahrar al-Sham is fighting itself - and how this impacts the battle for Syria 

While mergers among rebel groups in the past have been widely welcomed in opposition circles because they strengthen rebel unity, any possible unification with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the rebranded former al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, remains a highly divisive issue.

Hardline factions within various groups have always been in favour of a merger with Fatah al-Sham, but pragmatists and moderates, within the same groups, have refused for fear of being labelled as terrorist groups and losing critical support from backers.

Syrian rebels are evacuated from Aleppo on 22 December 2016 (AFP)
Another issue dividing rebel groups is related to blindly following the policy and orders of rebel backers without any regards for the interests of locals. The Western countries and even Turkey demand that rebel groups prioritise fighting Islamic State (IS) over fighting the Syrian regime.

While fighting IS is more important for some rebel groups, most agree that fighting IS should not come at the expense of fighting the Syrian regime.

These disagreements have not only intensified divisions and polarisation between different groups, but have also led to an internal existential crisis within some groups, namely the strong Islamist movement Ahrar al-Sham.

Competing mergers

The fall of Aleppo and the continued decrease of support channelled toward rebel groups have seen the revival of merger talks between Fateh al-Sham and several rebel groups.

Fateh al-Sham has proposed a merger which would make the group's leader the general military commander of the new unified group. The commander would have the authority to appoint a political leader. Ahrar al-Sham’s leader, according to the proposal, would be the group's overall head, while Harakat Nureddin al-Zinki's leader would head the Sharia Council.

According to a recordered statement released by Soqour al-Sham's leader, Fateh al-Sham's proposal had a better chance to succeed, but the group's insistence that it was a take-it-or-leave-it deal with no room for negotiations led to its failure.

A parallel Free Syrian Army (FSA)-led unity initiative was also circulated at the same time. Viewed as a counter-proposal to isolate Fateh al-Sham by only bringing together pragmatic and moderate rebel groups, its chances of success increased when Fateh al-Sham's proposal faced deadlock.

Although the FSA initiative has not succeeded in uniting these groups, on 28 December, 10 rebel groups with a total of 18,000 fighters announced that they had started to take practical steps to strengthen their coordination as a milestone towards a complete merger.

Fear of assassination

The FSA-led initiative seems to have a better chance of success as it has more support from opposition backers, but that doesn't mean it will be easy.

During and after recent merger talks, an increase in assassinations of rebel leaders who opposed a merger with Fateh al-Sham has made many involved in the talks suspicious of hardliners who they believe may be behind these attacks.

The fear of large defections of hardliners within different groups who oppose such an initiative will also likely prevent some groups from joining. 

The results of these merger talks remain to be seen. But if the FSA-led initiative succeeds, then it will likely deepen the division among hardliners. Some hardliners within the merged groups will likely defect to join like-minded groups, namely Fateh al-Sham. Assassination attacks between rebel groups will also likely increase. It will, however, allow FSA groups to forge a clear identity which could increase their chances of getting more support from Western backers. 

The failure of both of the two merger attempts, on the other hand, will likely lead to more fragmentation and infighting among rebel groups and the further weakening of forces fighting the regime on the ground. 

Change of allies

Since the start of the armed conflict in late 2011, Syrian rebel groups in northern Syria and their backers have relied entirely on Turkey to channel support into Syria. But Turkey’s recent shift in strategy towards Syria has complicated this set up.

If the rebels and their backers fail to pull themselves together, this conflict will be prolonged formore years to come and extremist groups, namely Fateh al-Sham and IS, will gain more power

Increased threats from both IS and Syrian Kurdish forces, which are considered a threat to Turkey because of their affiliation with the outlawed PKK, pushed Turkey to intervene militarily in Syria in August 2016.

The Turkish-backed offensive was preceded by a rapprochement with Russia after an eight-month rift triggered by Turkey's downing of a Russian fighter jet in late 2015.

According to Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Washington DC-based Middle East Institute, Turkey restored its relations with Russia to position itself more sustainably as a flexible and powerful regional player. In exchange, Turkey ceased its direct military assistance to Aleppo’s rebels and the city to be handed to Russia.

Turkey has also recently reached an agreement with Russia and Iran to start political negotiations between different Syrian actors including the Syrian regime in Astana, Kazakhstan.

Lack of strategy

This deal tries to isolate the US, the EU and even the UN, which is further complicating bringing international actors to work together on Syria. It also further divides the Syrian opposition by not allowing the Syrian Opposition High Negotiations Committee, which is named as the main representative of the Syrian opposition and backed by many countries including the US, the UK, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to select the members of the opposition delegation. Turkey and Russia have already agreed on who who should attend and vetoed those who should not.

It's still not clear how many groups will attend the Astana talks as the Syrian regime and its allies have been violating the ongoing, yet fragile ceasefire preceeding the talks. As a result, rebel groups have suspended their participation in the talks until the ceasefire violations stop. Russia, however, seems unable to pressure the Syrian regime to comply with the deal it brokered.

Without a clear strategy to deal with internal and external challenges, Syrian rebel groups will likely continue to clash and fragment. But the lack of strategy is not only the fault of Syrian rebels alone. Regional and international actors also share the responsibility of not having a clear and a joint strategy towards Syria and of not using their influence on their Syrian rebel allies to bring them together instead of further dividing them.

If the rebels and their backers fail to pull themselves together, this conflict will be prolonged for even more years to come and extremist groups, namely Fateh al-Sham and IS, will gain more power. 

Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist and researcher and a Chatham House Associate Fellow. Focus: Security policy, conflict resolution, Kurds and Islamist movements. He tweets @HaidHaid22.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Image: In August 2016, four months before the government recaptured eastern Aleppo, fighters from Fatah al-Sham rest after seizing key positions south of the city in a major offensive to break the siege (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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