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Who Are the Syrian Rebels? A Basic Intelligence Briefing On the Assad Resistance

The early predictions of the Syrian revolution have proven to be unfounded. We know that our journalist's constant comparisons with the speedy downfalls of Ben Ali's Tunisia and Mubarak's Egypt were irrelevant in a country as complex as Syria.

The opposition — despite remarkable resilience against an enemy that can outnumber, outgun, and outmanoeuvre — still exhibits a chronic lack of resources and little central organization between factions. In its current form, the Assad government looks safe for some time to come.

Numbering 50,000 men, the Free Syrian Army, a self-declared non-sectarian group of early army defectors, remains the largest opposition group in the country. But during the past year other factions have entered the fray. If their numbers, as well as their political views are anything to go by, the possibility of a united front seems remote. 

The Syrian Liberation Front, numbering 37,000 fighters, and the Syrian Islamic Front, numbering 13,000 fighters, operate in Syria's southeast and northeast respectively. Both of these groups espouse an Islamist ideology, in contrast to the self-declared non-sectarianism of the Free Syrian Army.

However the real challenge to the unity of the Syrian opposition lies in Jabhat al-Nusra, to whom thousands of Free Syrian army fighters have apparently defected. Numbering only 5,000 fighters as of January, but now perhaps many more, al-Nusra's core fighters come from Iraq's post-war insurgency and have recently pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Thanks to the supply lines and experience they forged in this period, Al-Nusra are far more organised and better than their counterparts in the Free Syrian Army, a mixture of ex-military and civilian fighters.

The lack of organizational structure both within the Free Syrian Army and between rival groups has allowed human rights abuses, such as the recent confirmation of rebel commander Khaled al-Hamad eating a dead man's heart, as well as many other alleged abuses, to become common and go unpunished.

This gives Assad an advantage in the propaganda war, in which he portrays all rebels as thugs and terrorists.  As well as undermining their support on the international stage, this mobilises Assad's Alawite base and allows his ruthless crackdown to continue with impunity.

Even though support for the opposition has been forthcoming, with France and Britain pushing to ease EU arms sanctions and the U.S. looking to send $100m dollars in aid, the kind of military support that allowed the Libyan rebels to topple Gaddafi does not look likely.

The opposition's lack of organisational coherence and the Islamist element makes many in the West nervous about pledging anything more than token support. It is clear that a Libyan-style intervention remains politically difficult, and an Iraq-style occupation is economically impossible. Since Western wars are rarely, if ever, based on humanitarian rather than political concern, this civil war looks likely to remain in stalemate. 

However the intentions of the West are, in the long run, largely unimportant to the fate of the average Syrian. If the great powers choose to abandon the rebels and allow Assad's reign to continue, he will no doubt continue to abuse and oppress those who have opposed him. Even if the Baathists leave Syria tomorrow, those left on the ground will be left to fight over what a future Syria will look like.

While the Free Syrian Army and al-Nusra are on the same side now, will they remain so friendly when the reins of power become available? And how will this new government handle the Alawites after decades of favoritism from the Baathist regime? While it is too early to make predictions, history tells us that wars such as this rarely come to a clean end.

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