Monday, 27 January 2014

In Syria, regime looks to divide opposition in clever gamble

The situation on the ground in Syria has evolved from a polarised civil war with roughly two clear sides, into a fractious, multi-country covert intelligence war with a whole spectrum of belligerents. With the rise of ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) in Syria and northern Iraq, the jihadists have added a dangerous dimension to the conflict. ISIL and other jihadist groups are connected to al Qaeda. The Syrian regime will try to play the jihadists off against their rebel brethren in order to weaken both sides and create a winner. Isolating a particular group would allow the regime to crush the opposition much quicker than if it were combatting multiple groups.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
Complicating the narrative over what to do about the jihadists in Syria is the clashing view of Syria's future in the international community. The opposition in Syria and their Western supporters want to move to a political transition, while the regime and its supporters in Iran and Russia say the discussions are about fighting the Islamist insurgency. Neither the West nor the Russians would like to see Islamist militants take control of the country, but their views on how to deal with the various groups are starkly different. Syrian President Bashar al Assad has noticed this and is moving to mould his own outcome.

Already, anonymous Western intelligence sources suggested in the Telegraph that the Syrian regime is cooperating with al-Qaeda groups even as these forces attack the Syrian military. Two groups, Jabhat al-Nusra and the more extreme Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS), have apparently both been helped in financing their arms purchases and operations by selling oil and gas from wells under their control back to the regime. While this tactic may be ideal in the short run, it is unknown how long Mr al Assad and his controllers in Tehran and Moscow can keep up the charade of proclaiming loudly that they are fighting “terrorism” in Syria, when evidence is emerging of blatant cooperation with al Qaeda groups.

The regime’s goal here is threefold. First it serves to divide opposition forces by cancelling the option for Sunnis jihadists to join the more secular and moderate groups of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Groups such as the FSA - which is composed largely of defected Syrian troops - report that al Qaeda militants in Syria are making their goals less achievable because they must spilt their focus to fight both the regime and the jihadists on two fronts. Also reported by rebels and defectors is that Syrian President Bashar al Assad released jihadist prisoners from Syrian jails in an effort to swell the ranks of ISIS, ISIL, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other groups.

Their second goal is in reinforcing the public message to the West painting the rebel forces as infected with al Qaeda-backed fighters who have stated an intent to create a new Islamic Caliphate in based in Syria. Russian and Iranian spokespeople have already said publicly that the conflict in Syria is now a matter of stemming the tide of Islamic extremism, rather than just a strict civil war. Supporting the jihadists plays into the narrative of both the anti-war West who do not want to boost the groups (as well as the majority of those pushing for limited intervention), and the Russian and Iranian view.

Aside from being a good propaganda trick, cooperating with al Qaeda is a shrewd tactical move from Mr al Assad.

If the al Qaeda groups can be lifted above the FSA groups in terms of capability, this might have a further strategic effect down the line. As soon as ISIS or ISIL look to be gaining the advantage over smaller opposition forces, the United States may curtail its covert support of the moderate rebel groups for fear that the weapons and materiel may fall into the hands of al Qaeda. That would be a safe assumption on the part of the Pentagon given that jihadist groups are both more ferocious and experienced.

At this point, without assistance from the West, the moderate rebel groups would be in a weakened position and could be overwhelmed by both al Qaeda fighters and regime troops - potentially permanently. From the Syrian regime’s point of view, throwing a few bones to the al Qaeda fighters now does little tactical harm to their current strong control in the west of Syria, where they must ensure control at all costs. Regime troops have withstood al Qaeda offensives numerous times and it is conceivable this will be the case in the future should the jihadists gain military advantage over the other groups.

Tactically, if this were to happen, the fighting will have shifted into a new phase. Mr al Assad would have both stopped assistance from the West while also destroying a sizable chunk of the opposition. He would be left with a dangerous, but manageable al Qaeda insurgency. Iran and Russia would then be emboldened and vindicated in their initial assessment and may even be authorised by the international community to send their own military assistance to quell the jihadists on behalf of the al Assad regime. The regime would be both legitimate and strengthened, as much as the opposition would be weakened and maligned.

Ironically, if this scenario were to play out, the Syrian regime could turn around and request military assistance from the United States and NATO to help fight al Qaeda forces in Syria. Also, if the regime can isolate and negate the FSA and other moderate groups, and put a ring around the al Qaeda forces, it could feasibly be in a position to both stay in power and put pressure on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries to publicly proclaim an end to supporting al Qaeda groups, which they presently do via covert means.

At this point, any public indication that a Gulf country is supporting al Qaeda would become too politically unpalatable for Riyadh to withstand, and their only move would be to cease assistance. Russia is very astute at leaking intelligence information to the world press and wouldn’t hesitate to loudly expose Saudi Arabia’s involvement in arming al Qaeda. Russian President Vladimir Putin  successfully tried similar tactics of divide and conquer in the North Caucasus in the late 1990s. Of course, this would in turn weaken the jihadist groups in Syria as their Saudi patron dries up or military assistance becomes more difficult to obtain.

As the negotiations continue between Iran and the US, and agreement towards a balance of power in the region and an agreed Iranian sphere of influence could assist Syria’s leverage to pressure the Sunni Arab states in the Saudi peninsula. Saudi Arabia is already worried that a d├ętente between Washington and Tehran places them directly under a new and growing Iranian sphere of influence.

A third goal for assisting the al Qaeda rebels is to force the remaining non-Alawite Syrians to align with the regime rather than the opposition. Convincing the world that al Qaeda is pulling the strings among the rebels is a complex game, but convincing Syria’s citizens that jihadist fighters are operating is probably an easier sell. Citizens can observe directly the impact that al Qaeda fighters have on towns and cities when they capture them. Sharia law especially can be a bitter pill to swallow for moderate and non-aligned Syrians used to secular law handed down from Damascus, and Jabhat al-Nusra are known to introduce cruel forms of control early in a takeover. Mr al Assad will be looking to convince these civilians through underhanded means that his protection is permanent and robust and a better option that al Qaeda's.

To an extent, the rest of the world sees the conflict similarly, which makes this path easier for the regime. The number one priority for the United States in the Middle East for 2014 will be the fluctuating talks with Iran. Washington would like to get more involved in Syria, but there are significant constraints on doing so. There is no more room to maneuver to intervene on a military basis, and the casus belli for invasion - Syria’s chemical weapons - is also disappearing quickly, which in itself is linked to the emergence of al Qaeda groups in Syria.

While the chemical weapons allegedly used midway through 2013 against a Syrian neighbourhood did cross US President Barack Obama’s self-imposed “redline” - apparently justifying ground invasion - the international community did not commit any overt military assets to the conflict. Threats of sea-based cruise missiles and airstrikes might have severely weakened regime forces, allowing rebel groups to gain the tactical advantage.

However, a major factor in the West’s decision not to intervene was the known presence of these multiple Sunni Salafist jihadist groups, linked to al Qaeda, operating on the ground in Syria. Weakening regime positions would open the way for both groups to take better control of the country. But this would likely result in only one winner. The al Qaeda groups have already shown themselves to be more competent and coherent fighters than most rebel groups. So essentially handing an entire country over to a jihadist militia was both strategically and tactically considered a bad move for NATO.

The West has its hands tied in Syria but will continue to send covert assistance to moderate rebel forces. This will become difficult and potentially dangerous if al Qaeda groups gain the upper hand. Syria’s President Bashar al Assad is trying to bring about a scenario in which he remains in power fighting a single coherent enemy, rather than multiple, while retaining links to power patrons in Russia and Iran.

Assisting al Qaeda fighters is one step towards this goal, but how effective it will be relies on whether he can limit the amount of destruction those fighters inflict on an already battle-weary - but loyal - Syrian military. Right now, the goal for the regime is to direct al Qaeda’s focus back on their fellow rebels, and vice versa. Ultimately, the more of these fighters that are killed battling each other, the better it will be for the regime.

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