It has happened.
After heavy bombardments and intense fighting, al-Bab has finally fallen to the ‘Free Syrian Army’ (FSA) (1). This comes after months of shelling from Turkish artillery on the city and fighting between FSA troops, under the oversight of Ankara, and ISIS militants—battling for an area that is 30 square kilometres(2). Dozens dead and wounded, ISIS withdrew from al-Bab and FSA managed to take the area before ‘Syrian Arab Army’ (SAA) forces could advance.
Storming the city with Turkish armour, troops of ‘Ahrar al-Sham’ (AaS) were amidst the ranks of FSA fighters that took al-Bab. These troops are among the many Islamist forces that are fighting in ‘Operation Euphrates Shield‘ that Turkey started in August of last year (3). Armed and extremely zealous, these fighters rushed into al-Bab and had no hesitation in claiming its ‘liberation’ (4).
However, the inclusion of Ahrar al-Sham and other Islamist organisations such as ‘Tahrir al-Sham’ (HTS) in the ranks of FSA, demonstrate a rather darker aspect of the current Syrian opposition; namely, its domination by Islamist factions(5). This domination is because of infighting amongst FSA that has been going on since 2012. Fights between Salafist and Jihadist factions (collectively Islamist factions) and “moderate” (secular) factions have forced FSA in splintering(6).
Once a centralised and organised opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian dictatorship, and an opposition that I once previously supported, now has become a disorganised and splintered opposition(7). Al-Qaeda (AQ) and Sunni Islamist groups have come into the fray—gathering support over the years. Fuelled by a desire to replace Assad’s tyranny with the tyranny of Salafist jihadism, AQ affiliates fight against SAA and those who deny their ideology(8).
When Eastern Aleppo fell in December, many Syrians from moderate factions of FSA defected to Islamist factions. Desperate and afraid of reprisals from SAA, many either fled to Turkish protection or joined HTS and began fighting (9). Those still hanging on against both SAA and HTS, such as ‘Free Idlib Army’ (FIA), now fight on multiple fronts. Helpless and outmanned compared to jihadists(10).
This is convenient for both Russia and Assad, as Kremlin now has more justification to keep its airstrike campaign going in Syria. Kremlin and Damascus have claimed that airstrikes in prior months have only targeted ‘terrorists’(11). However, airstrikes have targeted more than just ‘terrorists’. Many hospitals, schools and civilian areas have faced barrel bombs, airstrikes and chemical weapons by both Russia and SAA forces (12,13). Thousands of civilians have died in Aleppo alone, during its siege.
An influx of jihadists in opposition ranks allows Kremlin now to move more swiftly in changing the narrative of Assad in Syria. Helping reclaim land for Assad is one thing, but to prevent further uprising and to secure Assad’s position as a ‘hero to the Syrian people’, Kremlin has started to increase propaganda around him and has pushed the narrative of ‘buffer to terrorists’ even more (14).
Moreover, by saying that all of the opposition that opposes Assad are Islamists, Russia forces west into a dichotomy: Assad or Islamists(15). In prior months, one could argue against opposition being entirely Islamists, but with current infighting and splintering amongst opposition, the propaganda view is starting to become more dominant.
Turkish-backed Islamists, who now desire to further an advance to capture Manbij, did the capturing of al-Bab with a desired goal in mind. Unlike Kurdish and Arab fighters in Syrian Democratic forces (SDF), as well as other Rojava forces (YPG and YPJ), these Islamists do not have liberty and democracy in mind. What they have in mind is the desire to create an Islamic State. When AaS’ fighters entered al-Bab, waving their index fingers in the air in the ‘Tawhid salute’ (oneness of god) and chanting Islamist slogans, the religious zeal was evident(16).
US forces and previous backers of FSA have halted their support, instead demanding that moderate factions regain control of opposition or risk being abandoned. This is very sad news, as many prior FSA supporters now watch the heart of Syrian revolution succumb to its wounds. With SAA tiger forces moving to cut off Euphrates Shield advancement, Turkish-backed Islamists and ‘Turkish armed forces’ (TSK) now scramble to continue offensive(17).
Nevertheless, despite the erosion of FSA to Islamist domination, there is an unseen benefit in this conflict. That benefit comes from a possible securing of Rojava cantons in Northern Syria, especially Afrin Canton with Kobani canton. If FSA is bogged down battling SAA, then YPG may have chance to push against FSA and relink the cantons. In addition to this, if the cantons are linked and Rojava is secured, then it will give Rojava forces a better chance in negotiating the future of Syria.
However, before that can happen, YPG will have to defend Manbij from FSA advancement. President Erdogan has claimed the region to be in control of Arabs, implying that Kurdish militias are to abandon area or be forced out(18). YPG will refuse this and thus there will be future conflict to come.
As for me, I watch these series of events on the sidelines.
Writing new observations in my journal.
Written By: Anthony Avice Du Buisson