The conflict in Syria is nothing if not complicated. Over the course of the conflict, which has now raged for two and a half years, the opposition to President Bashar Al-Assad has been splintered and multifaceted. It is difficult to speak about the rebels as a singular group, ranging as they do from secular revolutionaries seeking social justice, to Sunni sectarian fighters, to Islamist extremists.
It is that latter group which is arguably having the most significant effect on the course of the conflict. Since 3 January, fighting has broken out between the Al-Qaeda linked group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS – also known as ISIL and ISSI) and other rebels. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based opposition group tracking the conflict, at least 700 fighters and 100 civilians have been killed as a direct result of this in-fighting. ISIS has made gains on the ground, recently taking control of the town of Al-Bab, east of Aleppo from more moderate rebel factions, as well as recapturing the city of Raqqa. ISIS is also engaged in fighting with regional tribal powers over the border in Iraq, with its members regularly moving between Iraq’s Anbar province and the north of Syria as the country’s two insurgencies bleed into and exacerbate each other.
In the areas it holds in northern Syria, ISIS has imposed a strict interpretation of Islamic law. It has also been accused of kidnapping aid workers and journalists and committing atrocities such as torture. The original Syrian rebels have long avoided out and out confrontation with ISIS and other Al-Qaeda associated groups. In certain areas, these more moderate or secular rebels have reached a pragmatic battlefield accord with ISIS and other jihadist groups, which are better funded and organised. Yet as ISIS becomes stronger and larger, it is splintering the opposition.
In addition to worsening the already heavy loss of life, this in-fighting between different opposition groups is allowing the Assad regime to gain ground. Pro-regime forces have been able to consolidate recent gains in and around Aleppo, the northern city that, as Syria’s economic hub, has been the centre of fierce battles for 18 months. One example, reported by the Wall Street Journal, was the area of Naqareen, north-east of Aleppo. This month, moderate rebels successfully forced extremists from Naqareen, but that withdrawal enabled pro-regime forces to move in against the weakened rebel contingent a few days later.
It is highly likely that these gains on the battlefield will have an impact on peace talks, scheduled to open in Geneva next week. The regime – already buoyed by on-the-ground success since Lebanon’s Hezbollah started to fight on its side – has said that it will not attend peace talks to sign its own death warrant. This is a reference to the precondition demanded by the rebels, backed by western governments, for Assad to step down. A statement by 11 western and Arab countries, including the US, recently said that the Geneva talks would seek to end the “despotic regime” of “war criminal” Assad. A Syrian foreign ministry official said that this was “more fantasy than reality.” The Syrian National Coalition – the closest thing the rebels have to a representative committee – has yet to decide whether it will take part in talks at all. If the regime feels that a tipping point in its favour is coming, then it will be less inclined to offer compromises.
Of course, the presence of extremist organisations among the ranks of the rebels – particularly those affiliated to Al-Qaeda – has already complicated the international response to the crisis. The increased presence of jihadist groups is a cause of great concern internationally – for western countries like the US and the UK, as well as for Russia (one of the Assad regime’s few remaining allies). Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, recently told the BBC that western intelligence agencies had visited Damascus to discuss ways to combat these radical groups. He suggested that there is a schism between security officials and the politicians pushing for Assad’s resignation. This follows various reports that international powers are starting to think that Assad staying in power may be the best of a bad set of options. It has been reported that some of the Syrian rebel groups hope that the drive to defeat ISIS will encourage their western backers to continue giving support. But this does not appear to have been the case, with the US and other powers concerned that if they send more arms to the rebels, they might ultimately fall into the hands of extremists.
As the Geneva conference approaches, there is no sign of the violence abating between different rebel factions or between the opposition and the regime. Nor is there any sign of the kind of coherent international position that is needed to make peace talks a success and ease the suffering on the ground.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.