By Chris Solomon for Global Risk Insights
With the growing pressure of the Middle East’s regional forces against the Islamic State (IS), another group seems poised to become the most powerful non-state actor in the Syrian Civil War.
The last few months have seen rebel forces in Syria make significant military gains. At the end of February, Hezbollah and regime troops sustained a high number of casualties and failed to completely encircle and cut off rebel-held Aleppo. Near the border with Jordan, Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Islamist fighters captured the town of Busra al-Sham, along with its Roman UNESCO World Heritage site. The biggest victory for the Islamist rebel factions was the seizure of Jisr al-Shughour and Idlib city this April.
At the forefront of these victories is the Al-Qaeda (AQ) linked group, the al-Nusra Front. While the group has the dubious honor of being AQ’s official branch in Syria, the reality on the ground is far more nuanced. The group’s fluctuating partnership with the FSA and local moderate support makes it politically difficult for the West to give them the full Islamic State treatment.
Al-Nusra Front is made up primarily of Syrians. Support from Qatar early in the war did not discriminate against the variety of Islamist rebel factions. The group is also seen as the most effective rebel faction able to take on the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and Hezbollah.
The group has distinguished itself with Sunnis by creating a reputation of pragmatism and not being as brutal as IS. However, it was the emergence of al-Nusra Front as one of the first Islamist rebel movements in the early days of the revolt that turned many of the pro-democracy activists against the revolution. Though al-Nusra Front is not on the same level as IS, it has its own history of human rights abuses.
The slow and sporadic flow of weapons to Western favored militias allowed al-Nusra Front to thrive early in the war. The US often withheld arms as a punitive measure for rebel groups that fought alongside al-Nusra Front and the tactic has only driven other Islamist leaning groups towards al-Nusra Front as a result. It is al-Nusra Front’s strategic alliances with the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham and other temporary coalitions such as with the Islamic Front that have led them to become a dominant rebel force in Northwestern Syria.
Assad regime’s political and economic troubles
The regime’s strength comes from the fact that, despite the shrinking territory, at least 72% of the Syrian population still resides inside its zone of control. Many people still prefer the regime over the many opposition groups and long for the days of stability.
Syria’s Central Bank reported that Iran has granted an additional $1 billion to Assad’s regime. Staffan de Mistura, the UN diplomat to Syria, has suggested the amount coming from Iran is as high as $35 billion a year. The government is continuing to raise taxes on basic goods and commodities for more money. Military recruitment is also becoming more difficult.
There appears to be an escalating attempt by rebel factions around Damascus to put more pressure on the capital. Assad’s strategy of “an army in all corners” appears to be faltering.
The coming months could see the SAA and Hezbollah pull back from their isolated outposts to the regime friendly areas. SAA field commanders are increasingly short on ammunition and supplies.
Islamic State is weakened
Since the Battle of Kobani, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) are leading the offensive against IS in eastern Syria. The Syrian Kurdish force has even taken villages within close distance of IS’s capital city of Raqqa. In April, Kurdish forces cleared the town of Sinjar from IS, a crucial move for the planned recapture of Mosul later this year.
However, Islamic State still has business fronts and banking connections in Turkey, allowing the group access to financing. Most of the oil refineries in Syria have been destroyed, but IS still has hidden facilities for manufacturing and selling oil to the regime through intermediaries. It is estimated that the group still has about $2 billion. Despite the recapture of the Beiji refinery in Iraq, a year of repairs is needed to make the facility fully operational.
Al-Nusra Front could emerge as the strongest force
Today, greater coordination and support is emerging between Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia under King Salman’s new efforts to stem Iran’s regional influence. The disbandment of the CIA-favored Hazm Movement and subsequent defection to al-Nusra Front also signals al-Nusra Front’s power and influence. The same anti-tank TOW missiles supplied to Hazm are now seen in al-Nusra Front’s propaganda.
Across the region, IS has risen while AQ’s local branches have waned in influence. This could be why some rumors hint that al-Nusra Front may break from AQ. The group may have more to achieve by championing itself as the protector of Syria’s Sunnis than an affiliation with an aging and declining international terrorist organization. However, al-Nusra Front has denied the rumors.
The true test will be if al-Nusra Front can take the crucial Qalamoun mountain region that borders Hezbollah’s stronghold in Baalbek, Lebanon. Fighting in the area has recently intensified and reports are emerging that senior Hezbollah leaders have been killed.
As al-Nusra Front takes on the Islamic State and Hezbollah, it could risk overstretching itself. But as the other Sunni factions continue to align themselves with al-Nusra Front, the group looks increasingly set to become the dominant force in Syria. The group’s territorial ambitions and plans to expand into Lebanon are well documented. This will be very troubling as the Assad regime continues to weaken and contract.