There is a general perception that rebel backers have total control over their Syrian allies. Rebel groups are even viewed as mere proxies. This led, among other reasons, to direct negotiations, on multiple occasions, between the relevant regional and international players without the presence of any Syrian.
Nonetheless, the recent merger of rebel groups with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the rebranded former al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, in northern Syria and the ongoing anti-regime offensive in Daraa happened against the will of their regional patrons, namely Turkey and Jordan. These developments indicate the limits of regional sponsors’ influence.
The fragmentation among local actors and their total dependence on outside support had, until recently, given their backers the upper hand. The rebel patrons largely shaped their military strategies, their priorities and even relations between rebel groups. They also influenced the insurgents’ participation in the political negotiations as well as selecting their negotiating teams. Because they shared the same strategic goal of overthrowing Assad, rebel groups were willing to put up with this state of affairs.
The Russian military intervention in Syria in September 2015 has dramatically transformed the Syrian conflict and its dynamics. It also shaped the approaches and the priorities of rebels’ donors. Jordan was among the first regional actors to reach with Russia, in late 2015, a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ to alleviate violence and destruction in southern Syria. Amman, in return, has been pushing for the de-escalation of the fight against the Assad regime. The new strategy aims to prioritize fighting radical groups along the Jordanian border to stabilize the area and control the flow of Syrian refugees.
Turkey also has restored its relations with Russia in the second half of 2016 to secure its border from both ISIS and the Syrian Kurds. The fall of Aleppo in December 2016 was widely perceived to have been coordinated with Turkey in exchange for a safe passage for its military-led operation in Syria. Some rebel groups were also pressured to prioritize fighting against ISIS alongside the Turkish offensive over fighting Assad.
These policy shifts made it clear to rebels, or at least to some of them, that the Syrian conflict has become a chess game against everyone. Those insurgents, as a result, started thinking about how to protect their interests from their allies.
The increased threats facing rebels in the south pushed them to defy their patron Jordan and launch an offensive against the regime in Daraa on 12 February. Syrian journalist Ahmed al-Hourani explains that the high stakes involved pushed many rebels, across the ideological spectrum, to work together to secure their positions. He also hints that what happened in Aleppo might be duplicated in the south. In other words, Jordan might allow the Syrian regime to restore its control over Daraa’s strategic rebel-held border crossing. Such a move would allow the regime to split rebel-controlled territories and potentially besiege them.
The large scale merger between Free Syrian Army groups (FSA) and hardliners, such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, in the newly formed alliance known as Hayʼat Taḥrir al-Sham (Levant Liberation Committee) was also done against the will of rebels’ sponsors. This merger is considered by all measures a big mistake, as it will make the groups involved a target for anti-radical campaigns, including by ISIS, and will terminate or reduce the outside assistance channelled to them. Yet it happened, as a means to protect the interests of the groups involved.
Both incidents could, therefore, be seen as the rebels’ last shot to establish new facts on the ground and block any deal behind their backs. If an international peace agreement tries to bypass them, they are prepared to play a deadly spoiler.
Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist and researcher who focuses on security policies, conflict resolution, Kurdish and Islamist movements. Prior to that, he was a programme manager on Syria and Iraq at the Heinrich Böll Stiftung-Middle East Office in Beirut.