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Jan 15, 2013 | 18:16 GMT

In Syria, Disputes Threaten Rebel Unity

In Syria, Disputes Threaten Rebel Unity
PHIL MOORE/AFP/GettyImages
Summary

As fighting in Syria presses on, the various groups that propagate the conflict, ever more confident that they will bring about the fall of President Bashar al Assad, eventually will succumb to political and ideological rivalries. In fact, already there have been instances of violence among rival groups jockeying for power, territory and supplies in hopes that their respective ideologies will prevail in a post-al Assad Syria. But for now, the rebels will avoid serious disputes as best they can to militate against their own defeat. Al Assad's forces remain a potent threat in the country, and the rebels know that disunity among their ranks would be detrimental to their ultimate objective of removing the president. 

On Jan. 9, the leader of the al Farouq brigade's northern command, Thaer al-Waqqas, was shot to death on the Syria-Turkey border. Prior to his assassination, al-Waqqas was suspected of having been involved in the murder of Firas al Absi, a leader of the rebel group Jabhat al Nusra. Al Absi's brother, a commander in the city of Homs, vowed revenge for the death, and some members of the al- Farouq brigade believe elements of Jabhat al Nusra were complicit in al-Waqqas' assassination. However, other members blame the regime for his death and have stated that military cooperation with the group will continue. It is possible that such a measured response stems from a desire to forsake retribution for unity against the regime.

Disparate Groups, Ideologies

The al-Farouq brigade and Jabhat al Nusra are major players on the Syrian battlefield. Both have demonstrated tactical efficiency and military prowess in operations against the regime forces. Boasting scores of military defectors in its ranks, the al-Farouq brigade officially was formed in Homs in mid-2011. Since then, it has expanded its operations south toward Daraa and as far north as the Syria-Turkey border. More advanced than other rebel brigades, al-Farouq has its own media arm, through which it claims that its fighters are neither jihadist nor Salafist jihadists. Rather, they are pious Muslims fighting to liberate Syria, according to the media arm. The al-Farouq brigade also apparently is supported and funded by the Muslim Brotherhood, which espouses a similar ideology.

map of Syria

121206 Syria map

Jabhat al Nusra, its ranks composed of Salafist jihadists, maintains a more extremist ideology. The group, which likewise has its own media wing, announced its formation in January 2012. The group is well funded and well equipped, but unlike the al-Farouq brigade, al-Nusra receives support from Salafist jihadists in Persian Gulf states, and much of its expertise comes from foreign fighters and Syrians who previously fought in Iraq.

Just as ideological differences exist between these two major players, similar differences exist among less prominent groups. There are hundreds of groups, varying in size and mission, composed of jihadists and non-jihadists alike, operating in Syria. Some of these groups do not identify themselves strictly along these ideological lines; many include a mix of Islamist and Salafist jihadists, radical Muslims, non-religious local and foreign fighters and al Qaeda remnants — each with their own visions and goals for a post-al Assad government.

Irreconcilable Differences

The al-Farouq brigade and Jabhat al Nusra understand that the strength of the rebel cause lies in the unity of the disparate and often extemporaneously assembled rebel groups. Any serious rift among the rebels, especially the prominent groups, would undermine the entire war effort and expose the rebels to regime forces and al Assad loyalists. Given that the al-Farouq brigade and Jabhat al Nusra are among the most effective rebel groups in Syria — and as stated, they sometimes work together — a full, drawn-out conflict seems unlikely for now. In fact, their rivalry remains largely contained in the Bab al-Hawa crossing with Turkey — an essential area for supplies — where both groups maintain a large presence.

Motivated by their own interests, the rebels will set aside the differences — a tactic that is not without precedent. In previous rebel disputes, such as the operation to take Wadi Deif, rebel groups stopped working with one another (they balmed one another for the operation's failure) but eschewed open hostilities. Even now Jabhat al Nusra, the al-Farouq brigade, and the Ahrar al-Sham Birgades continue to cooperate in Hama region despite their grievances with one another.

If al Assad's forces continue to suffer defeats, the rebels will become more confident in their eventual success. In such a scenario, the underlying differences of these rebel groups would come to the fore as they decide who will assume power in a post-al Assad Syria. Jabhat al Nusra is determined to form an Islamic state. The al-Farouq brigade favors a more democratic state heavily influenced by Islamic principles. Other groups want an entirely secular state.

Some of these ideals will be difficult to reconcile once al Assad is gone, making eventual clashes nearly inevitable. The subsequent conflict certainly will prolong the political transition — if not the civil war. But while infighting is bound to escalate, the broader rebel imperative to defeat Alawite forces for control of Damascus will mitigate their rivalry in the short term.

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