Simultaneously with the emergence of a new coalition of rebel groups, the Syrian regime has suffered major loses in the past two months. The notable advancement of Jaish Al-Fatah (“Army of Conquest”), a newly-founded operational unification of Islamist rebel factions in north-western Syria, has caused the Assad forces to lose strategic territory and key military sites.
Since its formation in early March, Jaish Al-Fatah has gained public support and made significant advancements on the ground. It has taken control of several positions in Idlib province, including the provincial capital, and has expanded to the strategic town of Jisr Al-Shughor and the Al-Qarmied and Al-Mastomeh military bases.
This assembly of hardline rebels includes Jabhat Al-Nusra (“Nusra Front”), the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria. Nusra is considered to be a significant contributor to the coalition’s operations, with its valuable US anti-aircraft TOW missiles that were seized from the dissolved secular Hazm Movement, a rebel faction that was funded and equipped mainly by the United States. Earlier in March, Hazm declared its own dissolution after being defeated in a fight against Nusra.
The member groups of Jaish Al-Fatah have received funds and support from multiple sources, reportedly including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. The Saudis and Turks, moreover, have recently engaged in coordination on a mutual-interest alliance in Syria.
Amid the international and regional competition of interests, questions remain unanswered about the role and intention of Jaish Al-Fatah in Syria. It is essential to assess how long this armed group will be able to last without gaining support from the Western powers. It is also important to consider whether it has formed as a result of the newly-enriched Saudi-Turkey alliance and will be used as a tool to put pressure on Western powers to reconsider their policies toward the conflict.
The US has designated Nusra as a “terrorist” group, and the US-led coalition against ISIS has also targeted Nusra in a number of airstrikes. The dissolution of the US-favoured Hazm Movement, however, has left the Obama administration’s policy for Syria in a quandary, lacking future options of “moderate” groups.
One significant actor in the coalition of Jaish Al-Fatah is Ahrar Al-Sham, the most prominent group in northern Syria, in addition to Faylaq Al-Sham, a faction linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. These groups have worked collaboratively with other “moderate” rebel groups, such as Fursan Al-Haq, a group that previously received weapons support from the US. All of the groups within Jaish Al-Fatah have declared opposition to ISIS and have fought fiercely against ISIS in the past year.
As the Obama administration reassesses its options for groups to whom it can provide backing on the ground, some are beginning to question the necessity of Western support in Syria. Proponents of Jaish Al-Fatah have witnessed the recent advancements of the coalition and expressed doubt about the need for US weapons and support. The alleged link between Western support and political agendas further strengthens this doubt.
“The role of Jabhat Al-Nusra will remain problematic and challenging for the future,” Samir Nashar, a member of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, told MEMO by telephone. He believes that there is a sort of insurance for the US guaranteed by regional powers for events to stay under control. He explained that regional powers are trying to “contain” the situation with Nusra to the extent where it will not go beyond what he called “the internationally and regionally mutually-agreed framework.”
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia’s new foreign policy has demonstrated its ability to influence events on the ground in Syria, particularly through its coordination with Turkey. Changes to Saudi policy emerged in response to the US decision to forgo airstrikes in Syria and commit instead to the nuclear negotiations with Iran.
For Riyadh and most of the Gulf capitals, the Iranian threat to the region’s stability and their national securities is present and direct. The kingdom seems to be moving forward with or without the support of the US.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday that his country and its NATO ally America “have not reached a mutual agreement on a no-fly zone”, a strategy that Turkey has called for continuously. Instead, he declared that Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have agreed on the “necessity” of enforcing a no-fly zone in Syria’s north to provide air cover to opposition fighters.
The leader of the Turkey-based Syrian political opposition praised Ankara’s coordination with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, saying that it resulted in effective military aid to the rebels. Such support enabled the recent rebel gains in Idlib.
After Jaish Al-Fatah captured Idlib’s capital in late March, the BBC reported that there were concerns among the public that the group will implement strict interpretations of Islamic law in the city. According to the report, though, the group instead established civil councils to provide public services.
In an op-ed published in the Atlantic Council’s blog, Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, a senior political adviser and government relations director at the Washington-based Syrian American Council, identified the rebels’ advancements in Idlib as an opportunity to support the pro-democratic forces.
Ghanem argues that the US has the opportunity to support local civil society groups and organisations in the newly-captured province; this, he claims, will ensure that pro-democratic order is able to counter the possibility of radicalisation from Al-Qaeda’s Jabhat Al-Nusra. Despite Nusra’s significant contribution to the group, he noted that it is not the dominant actor. “What the United States should not do now is give up on the north due to the prominence of Jabhat Al-Nusra and other hardline groups,” he added.
Abdulrahman Al-Masri is an independent journalist based in Canada. He covers politics and news in the Middle East, and Syria in particular. Follow him on twitter at @AbdulrhmanMasri.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.