On the eve of the international Middle East peace conference scheduled to take place January 22 in Geneva, the situation in Syria has again abruptly taken a turn for the worse. Various groups of Islamists have entered into a fierce armed conflict. Casualties on both sides have already greatly exceeded 1000 people. The troublemaker was the Islamic Front (IF), formed around two months ago from several groups and numbering approximately 50,000-60,000 fighters. On January 3 its troops attacked armed groups from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has proclaimed itself part of al-Qaeda and is estimated to number up to 22,500 fighters, in several places…
It was immediately obvious that it was on the IF that the West had placed its bets in the Syrian civil war after the Free Syrian Army (FSA) lost its fighting effectiveness in conflicts with government troops. In early December 2013 the leaders of the IF met with U.S. and British representatives in Ankara, mediated by Qatar; here, in the opinion of experts, they were promised military assistance and participation in the division of power in exchange for forcing “open al-Qaedaites” out of the country. The IF began by seizing the FSA’s largest weapons storage facilities along the Turkish border, supposedly without the Americans’ knowledge, but with no condemnation from them either. It was awkward for them to openly acknowledge the transfer of weapons to Islamists, to whom they had previously promised not to supply arms. It seems that the “unauthorized seizure” was agreed upon in advance, and the Americans, as usual, simply “dumped” their “democratic allies” from the FSA.
After that the IF began their attack on ISIS. Apparently the White House was counting on these forces attaining a decisive success by the beginning of Geneva II so that they could be presented there as an “alternative” to President Bashar al-Asad. In the first week of January everything was going as planned. Islamic Front troops forced the ISIS fighters out of many parts of Aleppo, Idlib, Homs, Hama and ar-Raqqah, deprived them of important crossings on the Syrian-Turkish border, and advanced toward the Iraqi border. It should be noted that with regard to ideology there is no difference between the adversaries; both organizations have the goal of building a fundamentalist Sunni state based on sharia law. The difference is that the IF is made up mostly of Syrians and does not consider it necessary to spread the jihad beyond Syria’s borders or quarrel with Western powers.
The IF sympathizes with al-Qaeda, but does not openly identify itself with it. It is in ISIS, on the other hand, that foreign mujahedeens are concentrated, and its core is made up of natives of the Iraqi Sunni province of Anbar. This anti-Western organization is especially disliked in the U.S. because it stole the American idea of the “greater Middle East.” ISIS has proclaimed itself the authorized representative of al-Qaeda in that part of the world, which is corroborated by the latter’s chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Iraqi part of ISIS, which dominates in the Anbar province neighboring Syria and recently captured the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah from Baghdad, is headed by Shaker Wahib, while the Syrian part is headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The al-Qaeda-oriented al-Nusra Front also occupies a special position. In the fight which has broken out among the various Islamist groups, it either remains neutral or also fights with ISIS, as, since it is made up mostly of Syrians, it is concerned that if ISIS dominates, the capital of the future Syrian-Iraqi state will more likely be somewhere in Fallujah than in Damascus.
The situation changed abruptly about a week ago. ISIS regrouped its forces and received serious reinforcements from Iraq. In just one day 1700 fighters arrived in Syria from there. In the end ISIS regained almost all of its lost ground, in a number of places advancing onto territory which before the conflict was occupied by the Islamic Front, and it continues to counterattack. America’s new ally in Syria, like its predecessor the FSA, has also been crushed. The fact that many “jihad warriors” from the Islamic Front considered it wrong to attack their “brothers in faith” to please the West also played into the hands of ISIS.
Opposition sources assert that foreign mercenaries have played a decisive role in ISIS operations. The Chechen Omar al-Shishani (Tarkhan Batirashvili), who leads the vanguard, is mentioned in particular. In the Aleppo Governorate ISIS has occupied the cities of Harithan, Basratun, Bab al-Hawa and al-Bab, where enemy fighters are being rounded up and shot en masse. The IF has met with success only in the city of Saraqib. After the “Islamic State” captured the Tel Abyad border crossing, the Turkish authorities closed the crossing from their side and withdrew all customs equipment and personnel from there. At the moment ISIS fighters have taken control of all the most important positions in ar-Raqqah Governorate. The only sites which they have yet to capture are the government military bases of the 17th division, 93rd regiment near Ayn Isa and the at-Tabqah air base.
As Israeli experts note, these conflicts not only give President al-Asad a much-needed rest, but allow him to present himself as the only secular alternative to the Islamists. The government forces occupied a number of new regions around Aleppo and Damascus with no particular trouble. The official authorities are devoting special attention to cease-fire agreements. In two large suburbs of the capital, Barzeh and Moadamiyah, such agreements have already been reached, and in another seven negotiations are in progress with the participation of groups from the National Reconciliation Committee. It is worth noting that the main mediator between the authorities and the opposition in Moadamiyah, for example, was the abbess of one of the Orthodox convents, Mother Agnes Mariam, who became famous for her accusations that a chemical attack in the same region had been falsified. It turns out that the local residents know better whom to trust. At the Geneva II conference Damascus intends to put forward an initiative to establish a cease-fire throughout the Greater Aleppo area.
Serious experts, for example, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council Ilan Berman, believe that “great hope is being placed in… the Syrian regime, which once was considered illegitimate… And the reason for this is precisely the problem of foreign fighters, who, if they are not beaten in Syria, could make problems at home.”
The conclusions of the independent report “Possible Implications of Faulty U.S. Technical Intelligence in the Damascus Nerve Agent Attack of August 21, 2013” by two American experts, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Theodore Postol and former UN weapons inspector Richard Lloyd, also threw cold water on the American administration on the threshold of Geneva II. These well-known specialists established that the range of the sarin-loaded missiles used in August in East Ghouta near Damascus shows that they could not have been launched by the Syrian armed forces.
According to the experts’ findings, the missiles used in East Ghouta were improvised ones rather than standard chemical munitions. The range of the missiles, whose warheads contained receptacles with sarin, is only around two kilometers. That is, if those missiles had been used by the Syrian army, they simply would not have reached their targets. Postol and Lloyd assert that these missiles could not have been launched from the zone marked on the intelligence map produced by the White House August 30, 2013. The areas controlled by Syrian troops were substantially farther from the bombed quarters than two kilometers.
“Whatever the reasons for the egregious errors in the intelligence, the source of these errors needs to be explained,” declare the experts.
It was not without difficulty that Washington convinced the delegation from the National Syrian Coalition, which is based abroad (in Istanbul), to come to the peace conference in Switzerland. It has been reported that Great Britain and the U.S. warned the opposition of a possible end to support if it did not take part in the Geneva II conference. Out of 73 members who took part in the vote in Istanbul on January 18, 58 voted for participation in peace talks, and only 14 voted against. According to the preliminary plan, one of the influential commanders of the Islamic Front was supposed to participate in the work of the Istanbul assembly, apparently so that the National Syrian Coalition could declare that it had substantial military support within the country. However, a source in the opposition said that no IF representatives appeared at the assembly in Istanbul. The Islamic Front, which is collapsing before our eyes, has no trumps to play; its main priority is just to survive. Thus, essentially, no one from the opposition will be represented at the Geneva II conference except the émigré elite which has settled in Turkey.
It would seem that the failure of Washington’s latest plan in Syria wagering on “moderate Islam” should finally convince the White House that it is only possible to achieve peace in this country with the participation of all political forces, first and foremost official Damascus, which has proven its capability. However, for the U.S. administration to grasp that, it would probably take a revolution.
Reprinted with permission from Strategic Culture Foundation.