Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Aron Lund -- The Non-State Militant Landscape in Syria

This is by far the most scholarly look at the Syrian conflict I have found. No one can read this research paper and imagine for a moment there is any quick way to resolve what may be the most convoluted matrix of challenges in the Middle East. There is a saying, attributed to Henry Kissinger, that in the Middle East there can be no war without Egypt and no peace without Syria. This paper helps explain that enigmatic remark. 

Aron Lund is a Swedish freelance journalist and researcher working on Middle Eastern affairs. He is the author of several books and reports on Syria, including Drömmen om Damaskus (The Dream of Damascus), a political history of Syria and its opposition movements.
The Non-State Militant Landscape in Syria
Aug 27, 2013
Author: Aron Lund

The uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that began in 2011 has always been disorganized, and it has become increasingly reliant on foreign support. It has grown large enough, however, to push regime forces out of vast areas of Syria’s north and east. According to a recent estimate by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, an estimated 1,200 rebel groups are currently fighting against the al-Assad government. 
Most of these factions first emerged out of a narrow local context, typically in a rural Sunni Arab village or neighborhood. With the passage of time, however, many have merged into bigger formations and connected across provincial boundaries, creating a web of interlocking alliances. These unity efforts have typically been initiated and sustained by foreign actors, including states, exiled Syrian businessmen and activists, and Islamist aid groups, which thereby gained leverage over their ideological and political agendas. The result is an extraordinarily complex insurgency, trapped in a political dynamic shaped by parochial roots on the one hand and international influences on the other, but seemingly unable to develop effective national actors. 
This article identifies and profiles some of the most important non-state actors in Syria. It finds that the opposition remains severely fragmented. Although foreign-backed efforts to realize the long-standing goal of a central “Free Syrian Army” leadership for the mainstream insurgency have achieved some progress recently, the resulting Supreme Military Command has little internal cohesion and is held together almost entirely by outside funding. The Syrian regime has also begun to experience a fragmentation of its security apparatus, caused by its increased reliance on local and foreign militia forces, although these problems are still in their early stages.
Go to the link for a detailed listing of the principal groups, together with descriptions of their makeup, aims, leadership and convoluted loyalties. 
Syria’s insurgent movement remains extraordinarily fractured, even after two years of warfare. The December 2012 creation of the SMC seems to have facilitated cooperation among the insurgents and established a framework for more effective unification, but it is still far from a functioning rebel leadership. Complicating matters further, several of the insurgency’s strongest factions—including the SIF, both al-Qa`ida wings, and the Kurdish YPG—actively oppose the SMC. The SMC’s influence is likely to grow only if it receives unified and sustained foreign support, including more advanced weapons, but the success of such a strategy depends on the uncertainties of American, European and Arab politics.  
Thus far, major infighting among Syria’s rebel groups has been relatively rare, but time will inevitably chip away at the insurgents’ original unity of purpose. Factional power struggles, economic interests, ethnic or tribal divides, and foreign-instigated proxy rivalries are all likely to trigger rebel-on-rebel fighting. Ideology also plays a part, but the media narrative of a looming war between al-Qa`ida and other rebels has likely overstated the role of doctrinal issues. Western and Gulf pressure on the SMC to confront al-Qa`ida is likely to be a more important cause of such conflict, if it eventually erupts. 
Bashar al-Assad’s government is also becoming increasingly dependent on paramilitary groups, including autonomous or foreign-led militias. Their support has improved al-Assad’s staying power in many areas, but it also underlines the regime’s gradual loss of sovereignty and cohesion. The Ba`ath government’s strict messaging discipline and the centrality of Bashar al-Assad himself has delayed and obfuscated this slow unwinding of the state, but not stayed it. If the war drags on long enough, the al-Assad regime is likely to devolve into a decentralized patchwork of sectarian and client militias, only superficially resembling Syria’s pre-2011 dictatorship.

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