Hey, that went well

On Tuesday, leaders from most of the Syrian rebel groups–excluding ISIS, which isn’t really a “rebel” group per se, and the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra–got together in Riyadh for a set of Saudi-led talks aimed at bringing them together in a common bloc ahead of peace talks with Bashar al-Assad’s government. This was supposed to be an important opportunity for the broad spectrum of Syrian opposition groups–from exiles to militias, from secularists to hard-core Islamists–to talk through their differences so that negotiations with Assad could proceed as smoothly as possible. Today, the opposition groups announced that they’d all agreed on a “framework” for peace talks, calling for a “pluralistic” Syria and demanding that Assad be removed from power in advance of a political transition. Well, almost all of them agreed.

One of the rebel groups, Ahrar al-Sham (Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyah, or “The Islamic Movement of the Free Men of Syria”), pulled out of the talks in advance of the agreement being announced, saying that too much power was being given to “supporters of the regime” (i.e., secular moderates) and that the conference had “refused to emphasize the Muslim identity” of the Syrian people. That last part is code for “the conference didn’t decide to turn Syria into an Islamist theocracy,” and you have to figure that the revelation about the “Muslim identity” of the Syrian people is going to come as a shock to Syrian Christians, Druze, and maybe even Alawites, who consider themselves Muslims but are not generally not considered Muslims by Sunni Islamists like the fine folks at Ahrar al-Sham.

Flag of Ahrar ash-Sham
Ahrar al-Sham’s flag

It’s hard to see how Ahrar ever could have acclimated itself to a broad rebel coalition alongside secularists and Muslim Brotherhood-type Islamists (i.e., conservatives who nonetheless adhere to the political process). This is a group whose ideology is only marginally distinguishable from ISIS or Nusra, and mostly at the tactical level. The group grew out of the Salafi-jihadi tradition, and at one time had ties to al-Qaeda, but lately it’s been signaling some kind of ideological shift away from the core tenets of that tradition. That shift, though, seems to be entirely in the area of tactics–where ISIS brands any group that doesn’t support it as kafir and tries to destroy it, Ahrar wants to accommodate and work with those groups, at least for now. Ahrar’s leadership has offered no hint that its vision for the future Syria includes any semblance of pluralism, and in fact its decision to abandon the Riyadh talks makes its position pretty clear.

While this move changes nothing on the ground in Syria right now, Ahrar’s decision to walk out will become a pretty big problem if the peace talks with Assad go anywhere. With estimates of around 20,000 fighters in the field, Ahrar is the second-largest Syrian rebel force (I’m excluding ISIS because I don’t consider it a “rebel” force) after the Free Syrian Army, whose exact size and strength changes depending on the day of the week or the mood of its component elements. And Ahrar has been the more effective fighting force. It was Ahrar, for example, along with Nusra, that formed the bulk of the “Army of Conquest” force that captured Idlib Province from the regime earlier this year, likely the biggest rebel success in the war to date.

Projecting ahead, having Ahrar inside the tent would make it much easier for a transitional Syrian government, whatever it looks like, to deal with Nusra, which it will have to do, and then to deal with ISIS–even though some Ahrar fighters would undoubtedly have gone over to Nusra and/or ISIS rather than participate in a transition to pluralistic democracy. Basically, there won’t be an end to the civil war unless Ahrar is either brought back into the fold or defeated militarily, and neither of those things is going to be easy.

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