At Large

Syrian Scramble

A state of total confusion is the best way to describe the situation.

By 10.24.13

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The civil war in Syria has undergone an amoeba-like fission. Those rebels who are committed to the Islamic revolutionary concept of al Qaeda have both hardened their sense of purpose and, at the same time, subdivided into separate fighting groups. In truth the entire anti-regime structure operates through different entities. No longer can there be simple characterizations of the opposition to the Assad government. Even the regime supporters are becoming increasingly divided in political terms.

From the beginning it was recognized that the country long had been fractured along numerous lines. Initially the most obvious were the Kurds and the separate elements within what foreign analysts tend to consider a cohesive ethnic body. Kurds in Syria are now broadly divided among those who wish to associate their entities with the now effectively autonomous region of Kurdistan within Iraq and those who do not. The larger group among the Kurds of Syria desire to remain Syrian but have autonomy within that state. Another Kurdish group wants a totally independent state partnered with its Iraqi cousins and eventually Turkey’s Kurd-dominated east. In any case, reports indicate that in terms of the actual Syrian rebellion, Kurds generally have not been a major factor in the fighting.

The division among the anti-regime rebels includes at least seven separate organizations, each with subsets based on ideology, geography and current political orientation. The al Nusra Front that reportedly is an al Qaeda franchise has been credited with being the most aggressive opponent against the regime, though it periodically also has challenged other al Qaeda elements for leadership. The result has been not only competition among the al Qaeda-related groups, but also the various cell leaders personally. Of course all these al Qaeda groupings are rivaled by independent Sunni units such as the European trained Farouk Brigade sponsored by Qatar.

Bashar al-Assad’s forces -- more accurately characterized as his younger brother, Maher al-Assad’s forces -- include five different commands. Officially Maher commands the elite Fourth Armored Division and the Republican Guards, but all observers agree he is the brutal muscle behind Bashar’s rule. Among pro-regime units in the field, the Hezbollah volunteers may be among the most effective. They too are directed by several commands: Liaison with the regular Syrian Army (again Maher’s chain of command), the central Hezbollah command in Lebanon, and the separate Hezbollah field commanders operating in Syria. The longest serving Assad family paramilitary asset (also under Maher’s command) is the mainly Alawite group known as “Shabiha.” These toughs have grown from a regime strong-arm gang into what is now a very brutal and loyal group of urban street fighters specializing in intimidating the civilian population.

Apparently the Saudis are more than a little annoyed at Washington for what they believe is at the very least inconsistent handling of the Syrian affair. The Saudis, in addition to their financial and materiel assistance to the Syrian rebel movement -- especially those with close religious ties to their compatriots in Riyadh -- have been a major source of intelligence for the Americans. The White House proclamation of a “red line” was strongly supported by the Saudi Royal Family. The dissolution of that “red line” and the willingness of the Obama Administration to defer to the Russian /UN negotiations attempting to exercise control of Syrian chemical stores and weapons has been taken by the Saudis as a direct slight.

While all this is going on, there came a report that Deputy PM Qadril Jamil of Bashar al-Assad’s cabinet gave “exclusive “ interviews to several news outlets that indicated the Assad government would soon urge peace talks in Geneva based initially on a ceasefire. Jamil is said to have offered his personal view that the ceasefire was not only essential politically but also militarily as neither the rebels nor the government was strong enough to attain a clear victory.

How much Qadril Jamil’s comments can be trusted is open to question. His own party actually had joined the anti-government demonstrations only six months before. Seeking to show loyalty to Bashar, it came out this past September with a statement that Jamil’s views on a possible ceasefire connected to potential peace talks were not consistent with current Assad government views. In the meantime Bashar’s uncle, Rifaat al-Assad, currently living in exile in Paris and always lobbying to replace his nephew, is trying to develop support in the West for his return to Syria and his family’s leadership.

All of which adds up to the view offered by many diplomats that there is nothing going on in or with Syria that can be accurately analyzed and evaluated. By way of explanation of that remark, it has been said that even the Russians are fed up with Damascus. Only the Iranians are walking around with smiles on their faces. Confusion is equal to winning as far as Tehran is concerned. One way or the other, with Moscow’s help, the Persians expect to have their unobstructed political pathway to the Mediterranean.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.