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Syria’s moderate fighting forces? It doesn’t exist

In the runup to the vote on airstrikes in Syria, controversy revolved around David Cameron’s claim to parliament that “about 70,000” Syrian opposition fighters on the ground who do not belong to extremist groups could help fight Islamic State.

That figure, produced by the joint intelligence committee, has since proved unverifiable, but Cameron’s problem isn’t mathematical. It’s conceptual.

There may be fewer than 70,000 fighters; there may be more. The flaw is to rely on the existence and participation of “moderates”

According to intelligence committee officials “moderate fighters” are those who “renounce terrorism”, which is supposed to mean that they are not members of either of the jihadi groups Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaida’s franchise in Syria) or Isis. These are broad criteria.

Andrew Bossone shared this link

“Most rebel fighters’ main goal is to topple Bashar al-Assad.

As a result, they will make a rational decision to join groups that are mainly fighting Assad’s regime, particularly those that equip them with the best weapons to do so.

Other fighters may have more immediate livelihood concerns, such as supporting their families.

They will be keener on joining groups that are active in relatively stable areas and offer a decent salary, not those involved in heavy clashes on a day to day basis.”

Those in the west who assume there is a coherent anti-Isis alliance are deluded. Reality is far messier|By Mowaffaq Safadi

As a Syrian who lives abroad but still closely follows the dynamics of the civil war in my country of birth, it has became clear to me that for many young men being a fighter has become more of a job than a calling – a career path they feel they have to follow for lack of alternatives.

As in any job market, employers will compete for the biggest talent by providing different benefits.

Many rebel fighters simply do not care about the affiliation of the group they are joining – whether it is with al-Qaida, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, the international coalition, the British government or anyone else.

The international geopolitical situation simply isn’t the first thing on a rebel fighters’ mind when considering joining this group or that one.

Of course there also are ideologically driven fighters – Syrian Islamists, cross-national Islamists, Kurds, or even pro-Assad Alawites – who will join groups that line up closest with their ideological belief system.

The point is that it is virtually impossible to bracket these fighters into distinct moderate or non-moderate categories. Fighters join and quit groups depending on the changing status quo. Today’s “moderate fighters” may not be moderate for ever

The intelligence committee speaks hopefully of moderate fighters committed to a “pluralistic Syria”.

But to many Syrians, who have no significant role in the debates about their future, Syria as a country does not exist any more. It is unlikely to come back into existence in the future, and if it does, it is unlikely to do so as a pluralistic Syria.

Talk of such a nation at this point is therefore one of the few jokes Syrians of all stripes can currently laugh about together – which is to say pluralistically (Talking of those outside the zone under the total control of the government)

Even if there were groups vouching to fight for a pluralistic state, one wouldn’t necessarily take them at their word.

For the last 50 years, the totalitarian Ba’ath regime has managed to suppress historical disputes among different ethnic and religious communities.

With the civil war, all these conflicts have re-emerged and will be manifest for years and years to come. No group that vows itself committed to it has a clue what a pluralistic Syria would look like. They would work with the British government only because it would be practically beneficial to do so.

Many issues involved in working with these groups seem to have been disregarded.

One such is the fact that several groups that may look moderate from a distance are already at war with each other.

Two alliances have recently emerged in northern Aleppo. The Democratic Syria forces, which mainly consist of international-coalition-backed Kurdish Democratic Union party forces (PYD), and Jaish al-Thowar, of which the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forms the majority.

On 27 October, these two groups raided Aleppo’s Sheikh Maqsoud neighbourhood and the city council, following Russian airstrikes that targeted the Free Syrian Army – which had, until that point, controlled the area. As a result the “moderate” Free Syrian Army has accused the “moderate” Democratic Syria Forces and Jaish al-Thowar of being in cahoots with the Russians and now it is actively engaged in battles against them.

Jabhat al-Nusra shows just how Eurocentric is the intelligence committee’s definition of “moderate fighters”. From a Syrian perspective, Jabhat al-Nusra seems fairly moderate compared to Isis at the moment. It is arguably quite popular locally – maybe because, unlike Isis, Jabhat al-Nusra is mainly made up of native Syrians. (Not so)

And despite having its own “national project” (Jabhat al-Nusra’s slogan), it rules with a lighter touch than other controlling groups, and provides much needed services: a basic judiciary, policing, and even its own bakeries.

When Jabhat al-Nusra decided to attack the US-backed secular Hazm movement in March, after accusing it of being an “agent of the west”, Hazm decided to disband rather than retaliate, and the majority of its fighters joined the Shamiya Front.

Which raises the question: what will David Cameron’s moderate fighters do when Jabhat al-Nusra in turn brands them “agents of the west”? Will they fight back?

Or will they disband, as Hazm did, to spare “the blood of the mujahideen”? We don’t know.

Worryingly for David Cameron, neither does he.






August 2022

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