Syrian rebel infighting could take dangerous turn if Assad falls

If President Bashar al-Assad falls and the disparate Syrian opposition groups lose their common enemy, their ranks will likely fracture – perhaps violently. 

Narciso Contreras/AP
Earlier this month, Free Syrian Army fighters aim their weapons as they chant religious slogans during heavy clashes with government forces at a military academy besieged by the rebels north of Aleppo, Syria.

In recent weeks, a number of opposition fighters in Aleppo have come to see the fall of the Assad government as only a matter of time. But bringing down the unpopular president may be easy in comparison to unifying an opposition that at times seems held together by little more than members' shared hatred of President Bashar al-Assad.

Without him, it's often unclear what will hold the disparate armed and civilian rebel groups together.

Last month, that much-needed moment of unity seemed to be on the not-so-distant horizon with the creation of the new Syrian opposition council in Qatar. Inside Syria, a number of Free Syrian Army fighters and civilians living in opposition controlled areas welcomed the news, praising the appointment of coalition leaders with recent time on the ground inside Syria.

But like many moments of optimism inside wartime Syria, it was short-lived. A week after the announcement of the new coalition, a group of Free Syrian Army commanders in Aleppo came together to announce that they rejected it and had decided to create their own coalition that was now calling for the creation of an Islamic state in Syria.

“The real Islam is based on human rights and justice so what we want in a new state is justice. We want the shariah to be the constitution and apply shariah law, such as cutting off the hand of thieves,” says Mohammad Abdu, a leader of Liwa Towheed, one of the largest FSA units in Aleppo in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor the day after the meeting.

Civilians working with the opposition inside Syria had not been represented in the meeting, but Mr. Abdu says he was “certain” they would agree. They did not. Muthana al Naser, spokesman for the Free Lawyers of Aleppo called it a “hasty decision” that did not “represent the revolution.”

The moment of unity that many had hoped for seemed to have slipped away before it ever had a chance to take hold. And the fracturing continued.

Today's brigades are tomorrow's militias 

In the days that followed, the many commanders at the meeting calling for an Islamic state said they’d been duped by Islamists at the meeting into making the statement and did not actually agree with the new announcement.

“It was a meeting to talk about strategy and at the last minute Jabhat al-Nusra asked everyone if they wanted an Islamic state. We had to say yes because we’re Muslims,” says Abu Mohammad, commander of the opposition’s Dar al-Wafa Battalion and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. “It was a wrong step. Many of the battalions denounced the statement afterward.”

The creation of the Qatar coalition, followed by the reactionary response from the Aleppo commanders and the disagreement among the commanders about the statement, underscores the difficulty of creating a unified leadership capable of outlining a path for the future of Syria.

This is likely to prove exceedingly problematic if the uprising succeeds in removing Assad from power. The country must then create a plan for reintegrating those who fought in the FSA. Many fighters say they will return to civilian life once Assad falls, but with no clear goal for a post-Assad Syria, it remains unclear if that will happen. It’s possible that some fighters could feel disenfranchised in a new state and once again pick up arms.

“We’re very happy to call them brigades and battalions today, but tomorrow they’ll be militias,” says Aram Nerguizian, a Syria expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “When the dust settles they will still have to question what their fortunes will look like and, in some cases, the remaining part of the armed groups in what will be a country filled with warlordism and fiefdoms and new networks of patronage along communal, geographic, and tribal lines.”

Tainting the ranks of the FSA

Among civilians in Aleppo, there are already concerns that some FSA units take unilateral actions while claiming to represent a population that has no say in the making of the rebel groups’ plans or policies. This behavior has triggered fears about what will happen after the fall of Assad and whether FSA leaders and their men will be ready to willingly put down their weapons when that time comes.

Regular protests against the Assad regime now also target corrupt elements of the FSA, says activist Wael Abu Mariam.

The group is still widely granted hero status throughout rebel-controlled parts of Syria, but many say ill-intentioned individuals have crept into its ranks since the uprising began.

There is also some concern that FSA groups may start to turn against one another as they gain a larger share of control and are confronted with the challenges of rebuilding the state, causing more squabbles like the recent one over who controls the border. In his neighborhood in Aleppo alone, Mr. Mariam counts at least 11 different FSA groups.

“Each one of them is trying to make itself bigger and bigger without any concern for who they recruit,” he says. “I think they’re getting bigger to fight each other in the future.”

Despite such concerns, most Syrians say its still to early to despair about a post-Assad future. Though a number of ideological disagreements persist without any apparent solution, activists and rebel military leaders stress that at this point they’re still just theoretical disagreements, and ultimately a democratic vote will be what determines the future of a new government in Syria.

“For 40 years the Assad regime has tried to suppress Islam and now we want people to have a choice,” says Abu Ahmad the leader of an FSA unit in Aleppo. “Any person who is honest should lead this country. I want justice and democracy and an election to choose the new leader. Me and the rest of this battalion are okay with whatever democracy brings us, whether it’s a Christian leader, a Kurdish leader, or whoever.”

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