One incredibly unsettling possibility for what happens next in Syria


Fighter Jabhat Al Nusra In Raqqa Province

Hamid Khatib/Reuters

A fighter from the Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra is seen in front of a burning vehicle, caused by what activists said were missiles fired by a Syrian Air Force fighter jet from forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, at their base in Raqqa province, east Syria, on May 12, 2013.

At times over the past month, it's looked like the Syria conflict might have finally broken out of a bloody two-year stalemate.


The regime of Bashar al Assad suffered a string of defeats, and fractures began to open up inside the government. Assad's military is running so short on manpower that Iran, the regime's most indispensable ally, has reportedly been forcing Afghan illegal immigrants to choose between prison and front-line service in Syria.

The events of the past month - which include the opposition takeover of the strategic city of Idlib, a potential coup plot, and the apparent lethal beating of Assad's former head of political intelligence over disagreements related to a suddenly flagging war effort - suggest that the conflict's momentum may have decisively shifted.

For the past two years, the Assad regime's hold on Syria's coastal region, along with the capital of Damascus and parts of Aleppo seemed relatively secure. ISIS controlled much of eastern Syria, while various other opposition groups, including the Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, held onto parts of the south. This balance seemed to be in serious danger as the rebels advanced and Assad's setbacks mounted.



Syrian government (red) Kurdish forces (Yellow) ISIS (black) Syrian Opposition (Green)


But there's another, far more ominous interpretation of the past month of the Syrian Civil War, one suggesting that the conflict's dynamics aren't changing as much as they might seem.

By this interpretation, the rebel advances are actually a sign of the Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra's growing influence and strength, along with its success in co-opting more secular rebel groups. And at the same time, Assad's grip on the territory he controls is actually stronger than it appears to be, meaning the conflict's three-way deadlock may not be in any serious danger of breaking.

Al Qaeda's gains - not the nationalist opposition's

As Waleed Rikab, a former captain in the Israel Defense Force's 8200 intelligence unit and head of the Strategic Research Department at the web intelligence firm Terrogence explained to Business Insider, Jabhat al Nusra has patiently ensnared its more secular competitors in the Syrian opposition.

"They do things in an inclusive way. They are actually doing what bin Laden recommended: To become an insurgency that's really embedded within a local struggle," Rikab said.

In a recent report Rikab shared with Business Insider, he tracked how Nusra had been taking advantage of other opposition groups and the Syrian civil war more generally.


"The group appears to have reinvented itself, recovering from tougher times when it was overshadowed by the Islamic State," writes Rikab.

Screen Shot 2015 05 15 at 12.34.46 PM

Waleed Rikab/Terrogence

Western-backed rebels cooperating with Jabhat al Nusra fighters in operating a TOW missile system

He notes that Nusra "has embarked on the implementation of an inclusive model for conducting jihadist activity, which is proving to be successful without alienating local populations or other rebel factions, and "appears to be more successful than ever at cooperating with other rebel groups and the execution of joint operations."

The group is effective on the battlefield, but have been careful to distinguish themselves from ISIS - even if they are cut from the same ideological cloth.

"They working in a much more subtle fashion," says Rikab. "They a have dawa [charity and outreach] institutions and they enforce Islamic law but right now they are developing in a gradual manner."

The group has made itself so indispensable that it's often the non-jihadist rebel groups that initiate contact and cooperation with Jabhat al-Nusra, Rikab says. It's just too powerful of a factor in the conflict for other organizations to ignore.


Nusra is also just more capable and better organized than the rest of the non-ISIS opposition.

"There is an alternative," Rikab says, referring to secular or non-jihadist rebel groups, "but they are too weak and there's no guaranteed tha they won't be absorbed by Jabhat al Nusra."

Jabhat al Nusra sanctuary map Syria

Institute for the Study of War

Jabhat al Nusra's sanctuary in Syria, as of March 30, 2015

The "alternatives" are so weak, in fact, that Rikab questions whether Israel should even be cooperating with Syrian opposition groups. There have been frequent reports of Israel providing aid to anti-Assad fighters, and even of meetings between opposition leaders and Israeli officials in towns in northern Israel.

Rikab says this could be a misguided policy: "I think that maybe they are making the same mistake as the US, thinking that there are something called 'moderate rebels."


Assad can survive

If Rikab is correct, then Assad's possible overthrow won't bring Syria to an ideal post-conflict scenario, in which an opposition coalition committed to a unified, national vision of the country's future brokers a transition to a secular government.

Instead, it means conflict between ISIS, Nusra, and an even weaker and more marginalized "moderate" rebel movement will dominate the post-Assad landscape.

But even that assumes Assad is about to fall. Rikab doesn't think that's happening any time soon.

Bashar al-Assad


Syria's President Bashar al-Assad greets a crowd while visiting Raqqa city in Eastern Syria, November 2011.

"The rebels are gradually taking bites out of Assad's land but they are still far away from actually defeating him," says Rikab. He thinks that Assad's fallback strategy is holding up, even with some territorial losses and occasional turbulence in Damascus.


"His whole tactic was directed towards protecting his regime and he decided very early on what were his hardcore priorities and what could he give up," says Rikab, who doesn't think Assad has lost any assets or territory that he can't afford to lose. "I think he's going to be around for awhile," says Rikab.

If Rikab is correct, then Syria isn't really reaching a turning point. Instead, the conditions that have made the conflict so deadly even during its stalemate period - namely the rise of violent jihadist groups, the marginalization of a secular and nationalist opposition, and the persistent survival of Assad in the country's coastal and urban areas - will only become more entrenched, without moving the war any closer to a resolution.

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