Over the weekend, opposition Free Syrian Army fighters clashed with al-Qaeda backed extremist rebels in the Bustan al-Qasr district of Aleppo, where a single checkpoint links the rebel-occupied territory of the city’s east with the government-held areas to the west. The clashes were the latest in the increasingly violent infighting that stands to threaten the opposition’s wider anti-government movement. We asked Charles Lister, analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre in London, why the tension has increased in the last three weeks and what it could mean for the opposition’s future.
Syria Deeply: Why now?
Charles Lister: It’s important to introduce a line of caution in emphasizing that most reports of clashes have not been entirely verified, and almost all reports of clashes have come from [FSA umbrella organization] the Supreme Military Council (SMC). It’s important because it suggests there’s a political move being made by the moderate opposition to present others as a negative influence within the wider opposition, and as a threat to Western interests as well. Take [a recent] reported clash in Aleppo City that was subsequently denied by the SMC’s chief in Aleppo. It was also denied by the Aleppo Media Center and, predictably, the Islamic state. So it’s important to qualify this whole subject. It still remains unclear to what extent clashes have taken place.
What is clear is that there’s very hostile tensions between groups within the moderate opposition and the Islamic state, and that’s been simmering away for a few weeks now. It’s largely blamed on the fact that the Islamic state and other allies have been slowly taking over areas previously controlled by the more moderate opposition. That seizing of control has largely been peaceful – they’ve largely been arriving in villages and towns and assuming control. But there is an increasing perception, especially in the north, that the moderate opposition is slowly losing control and losing influence in areas it previously held. And as a result of that, we’re seeing an effort by the moderate opposition’s leadership to present the jihadis in the north as a threat to the opposition [as a whole].
SD: What are the factors that led to the sudden increase in hostility?
CL: A number of factors is playing against the opposition as a whole, and it can be said that the government has made strategic advances in the last couple of months, mostly in areas where the moderate opposition had maintained a strong amount of control. As such, a lot of (negative) pressure has been placed on the moderate opposition rather than the Islamists.
The opposition has had small but strategic losses elsewhere, including areas of Homs and Damascus. Combined with the increasing influence of Islamist groups in northern parts of the country, this has seen the moderate opposition put under a large and increasing amount of pressure.
The moderate opposition is also keen to secure military assistance from the West, and that appears not to have occurred yet. This can at least partially be explained by the fact that there is continued coordination between Islamist groups and the moderate opposition in various parts of the country, which has led to a real fear [on the part of the West] that weapons could end up in hands of jihadists.
SD: Where is the coordination strongest between the two sides?
CL: Coordination has been successful in Deraa, and in Aleppo. There are FSA groups active in Raqqa, which is now almost entirely controlled by jihadi groups. There are other examples across the country, but these are the top three examples of where the coordination is the most strategically notable.
SD: What can we expect to see in the next month?
CL: We can expect to see the government continue its offensive in Homs, where opposition control is increasingly under threat, and also in areas surrounding Damascus. There’s certainly a concerted military move right now into districts north of the capital, particularly focusing on Jobar and Qaboun, which are crucial for sustaining rebel supply lines into East Ghouta.
Meanwhile I expect Islamist and jihadi groups to keep expanding their political influence in the north of the country. It’s possible we’ll continue to see sporadic reports of clashes, but I don’t expect the scope of these clashes to escalate that much further because there is … the realization that coordination between Islamists and the moderate opposition is still needed is some parts of the country if [the moderate opposition] is to maintain and expand its control. Meanwhile, it’s likely we’ll keep seeing the moderate opposition’s political leadership making statements [against jihadis], but I don’t expect there to be a huge nationwide split between the moderate opposition and the Islamists. Dynamics on the ground just don’t make that a likely scenario right now, at least in my opinion.