The Syrian Civil War may still have a long hard slog ahead of it, but the Syrian Revolution is definitely over and the “moderate fighters” are now commanded by the religious extremists (not “moderate civilian leaders”), according to new reporting by The New York Times:
In northern and eastern Syria, where Mr. Assad’s opponents won early victories and once dreamed of building self-government, the nationalist rebel groups calling themselves the Free Syrian Army are forced to operate under the extremists’ umbrellas, to go underground or to flee, according to Syrian insurgents, activists and two top commanders of the American-financed F.S.A. groups.
The recent Nusra Front victory at the besieged Syrian military base at Wadi al-Deif — which had held out against rebels for two years on the primary north-south artery in Western Syria — seemed to crystallize the entire situation in one place, according to the Times sources:
The fall of the army base at Wadi al-Deif, which straddles an important supply route in Idlib Province, proved the Nusra Front’s dominance, they said. Other insurgents had long besieged the base without victory. Nusra succeeded after seizing much of the province from Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, two of several groups that until recently, American officials were calling the opposition’s new hope.
Back in November I noted a story about Nusra Front crushing the CIA-backed Harakat Hazm rebel group and stealing their weapons, which was believed to include some pretty heavy hardware. That seems to have played a role in the Nusra Front victory at Wadi al-Deif:
Those groups had received sophisticated American-made TOW antitank missiles, and their commanders expected to act as the ground force in the American-led campaign against ISIS. But lately they say the flow of American aid has dwindled as Washington’s strategy shifts to building a new force from scratch.
How exactly the Wadi al-Deif battle unfolded remains murky, with different commanders giving different versions. But reports and images from the operation make two things clear: antitank missiles were used, and Nusra claimed the victory. That means that the American-backed fighters could advance only by working with the Nusra Front, which the United States government lists as a terrorist group, or that they have lost the weapons to the Nusra fighters, effectively joined the group or been forced to follow its orders.
One commander of a group that received antitank missiles said that some F.S.A. fighters were forced to operate them in the battle on behalf of the Nusra Front, which had captured them from American-backed groups — a turn of events that he worried would lead the United States to cut off support.
Earlier this month I was also reading a whole bunch of articles about how miserable life under the Syrian rebels is (in stark contrast with how normal things have returned to under regime-held areas). Based on those reports, the rebels spend most of their time attacking each other, looting their own occupied zones down to the studs, profiteering from the populace, and generally causing mayhem and misery. In some communities, such as Douma, residents are openly staging protests against the rebel authorities and counting down the days until “liberation” by the government they once opposed.
Maybe I’m biased in favor of seeing what I want to see (because I’ve been opposed to intervention and as opposed to the rebels as the regime for 2.5 years now) or maybe I’m just reading slanted sources. But the more I keep reading about what’s going on in Western Syria, the more open I am to considering that the regime might actually be the real lesser-of-two-evils at this point, even if they didn’t start out that way.
Is the regime criminal and horrific? Yes absolutely. But probably not more so than the rebels, who at this point are the ones really dragging out the misery for civilians, through direct cruelty and indirectly by refusing to concede a severely lost cause. Did the regime wildly mishandle the first year-plus of the war, to everyone’s detriment and pain? Agreed. Is the regime viscously sectarian, as critics still maintain? Yes, but so are the opponents.
It doesn’t help, either, that so many rebels are foreign fighters. It’s hard to get exact statistics on the ratio of foreign to domestic, but the Times report quoted above seems to indicate that at the very least many domestic commanders have been trapped outside the country or relegated to the sidelines of battles, while foreign commanders control the rebel forces, including both Syrians and foreigners. Unfortunately, foreign fighters and leaders care even less about the welfare of the populations they are allegedly there to liberate than their local counterparts. People were miserable before the war, but they were alive. Now they are dying horribly (often by starvation) under siege in the war.
(Technically Assad could lift these sieges too, but would you surrender to Nusra Front and ISIS if you were winning a war? And if he doesn’t stop fighting, and the rebel groups keep holding people inside cities he’s trying to recapture, obviously he’s going to wind up killing a lot of people as an unavoidable side effect. Which is not an excuse I’d probably extend to other governments, but this is also one of the biggest and most heavily balanced civil wars we’ve seen in years, whereas most contemporary conflicts tend to be highly asymmetrical and thus more responsibility to show restraint is placed upon the stronger side.)
Perhaps this is all pro-regime propaganda and apologism — even I’m not entirely comfortable with the arguments I’m making here — but the closer I look (and with all things considered after 3 years of brutal block-by-block combat), the regime actually starts looking like a not entirely unreasonable entity that might be the better winner in the end. It really doesn’t seem all that likely that Assad is going to just straight-up murder everyone if the rebels stop fighting and end the war. I’m sure there will be retributions of various kinds, as there usually are after bitter wars, but if he starts wholesale slaughters, everyone will just pick their guns right back up again and re-start the war. There’s a built-in incentive for Assad to show some restraint after the war.
And the other thing to remember right now is that there is really no one left with whom to negotiate peace, even Assad were more open to that. The UN is able to broker localized ceasefire-and-surrender agreements with minor rebel groups, but that’s about it. The Western-supported opposition leaders don’t want to participate in peace talks, but, even if they did, the above evidence demonstrates pretty compellingly that they wouldn’t have the functional authority on the ground to impose any agreement successfully anyway. And it’s not like Nusra Front or ISIS show up to international diplomatic gatherings. So who’s left to talk to?
That means that there is probably effectively no alternative but for the regime to continue the war it is more or less currently (slowly) winning. And the quicker that ends and the rule of foreign extremists is ended, the quicker life can return to peace for average Syrian civilians.