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Jul 25, 2016 | 09:30 GMT

Syria's Rebels Lose Support When They Need It Most

Syria's Rebels Lose Support When They Need It Most
(GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • The aftermath of the coup in Turkey will distract Ankara from its efforts in Syria.
  • The United States, seeking greater cooperation with Russia, is unlikely to follow through on an increase in aid to the Syrian rebels.
  • As loyalist offensives mount and outside support falters, the rebels will be forced to go on the defensive in the months ahead.

Shifts in momentum have marked the Syrian civil war since it began in 2011. At different times, the rebels and the loyalists have each held the upper hand on the battlefield. But lately, the most decisive element determining who maintains the advantage has been the degree of outside assistance each side receives. Consequently, flagging support for the rebellion at a time of unwavering aid for the Syrian government bodes ill for the rebels' prospects in the months ahead.

Diverted Allies

For the Syrian rebels, Turkey has been a major benefactor, if not their most important. The chaos in Turkey, however, in the aftermath of its failed coup is likely to distract the government in Ankara from the conflict in Syria. From the rebels' perspective, the timing could not be worse: At the moment, they are both heavily dependent on Turkish aid and under extreme pressure from their foes.

Nowhere is this clearer than in and around the city of Aleppo, where a decisive battle is taking place. Loyalist forces have effectively besieged opposition-held parts of the city, and rebel efforts to relieve units there are underway. Most of these units receive weapons, ammunition and supplies from nearby Turkey. As Turkey reorganizes itself, these flows could be disrupted, hampering rebel operations throughout northern Syria. Already there are unconfirmed reports that Turkish logistics officers coordinating supplies in Syria have been summoned home as Ankara attempts to gauge the loyalty of its troops and weed out dissenters.

Another dark cloud on the horizon for the rebel cause is the growing coordination of action in Syria between the United States and Russia, which is problematic for the rebellion for two reasons. First, Washington and Moscow's coordination is focused on targeting one of the rebellion's most effective and deadly groups, Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda's branch in Syria. Despite significant differences in outlook and ideology with other rebel outfits, Jabhat al-Nusra cooperates extensively with them against loyalist forces. The weakening of the group without a simultaneous strengthening of other rebel units will ultimately work to the Syrian government's advantage. Second, the United States' increased coordination with Russia means that rebel expectations of more U.S. aid and weapons, which Washington promised to send if talks in Geneva on ending the civil war fail, will likely go unfulfilled. In sending a proposal to Moscow for greater collaboration, Washington showed that it is keen to avoid escalating tension with Russia and with loyalist forces, since doing so could undermine its wider military effort to weaken the Islamic State.

Even worse for the rebels, fractures among them could spread if Jabhat al-Nusra strikes back against U.S.-backed rebels in retaliation for U.S. attacks on its units. There is also a chance that if more U.S. aid does not materialize, members of the Free Syrian Army, seeking the most capable rebel units, will defect to the more extremist wings of the rebellion in an effort to continue the fight against their increasingly advantaged enemies.

Some rebel allies, principally Qatar and Turkey, have been trying to persuade Jabhat al-Nusra to dissociate itself from al Qaeda. These efforts, which can be expected to continue despite Turkey's disarray, have reportedly accelerated as the United States' mobilization against the group has become more apparent. If Qatar and Turkey succeed, Washington might reconsider its agreement with Moscow to target Jabhat al-Nusra. But given the group's ideological makeup and historically close ties to al Qaeda, the chances of success are slim.

A Well-Supported Enemy

Compounding the rebels' problem is the sustained support their loyalist enemies are receiving from their allies. Over the past few months, Iran, Hezbollah and Russia all have maintained their direct aid, and in some places, increased it. In southern Aleppo province, for instance, Iran has all but taken charge of the front lines, while Russian airstrikes have figured prominently in the loyalist effort to besiege the rebel-held parts of Aleppo city. As Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah promised in a speech in late June, his group has also bolstered its presence across Syria, including in the prominent battlefields of Aleppo.

The rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al Assad's rule can keep relying on outside assistance from countries in and outside the region, but as Washington shifts its policy and Ankara remains preoccupied, that help is at serious risk of weakening. If it does, the rebels' momentum in areas of northern Syria (for example, in southern Aleppo province and northern Latakia) would be difficult to sustain, since limited resources would have to be prioritized for the defense of key areas threatened by the loyalist offensives. Faced with uncertain levels of foreign support and heavily backed, advancing loyalists, the Syrian rebels no doubt have several challenging months ahead of them.

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