GAZIANTEP, TURKEY - Russia’s military intervention in Syria is pushing disparate rebel groups to work together more on the battlefield to confront ground offensives unleashed this week by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the center and northwest of the war-wracked country.
The trend is likely to increase in the coming weeks, say commanders of Western-favored insurgent battalions and political activists, as Syrian government soldiers and irregulars from the Iranian-trained National Defense Forces shrug off for the first time in months their defensive crouch to go on the attack with the support of coordinated Russian airstrikes.
Midweek, Syrian ground forces started three distinct ground campaigns — in the countryside around Hama, in Latakia, which is aimed at clearing insurgents near government strongholds on the coast, and Idlib.
The ground assaults have been met with stiff resistance and in rural Hama over the past two days 20 regime tanks have been destroyed by rebels using TOW anti-tank missiles, General Salim Idris of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) told VOA. He said, however, that the anti-Assad insurgents are running low on the missiles and are in urgent need of resupply.
Field commanders of militias aligned with the Western-backed FSA are more closely coordinating their defenses and counterattacks with the Islamist-dominated Jaish al-Fatah, or Army of Conquest, an alliance that includes al-Qaida’s affiliate in the country, Jabhat al-Nusra. And they are working together in joint operation rooms in Idlib and Aleppo, several commanders and fighters contacted by phone told VOA.
The increasing collaboration will likely displease Washington, which has refused in the past to work with powerful Islamist militias such as Ahrar al-Sham. Earlier this week, 41 insurgent groups issued a joint statement vowing to attack Russian forces in retaliation for Moscow’s air offensive in a rare display of unity among the usually fractious rebels.
In the statement, the insurgent groups, including the U.S.-backed Division 101 and Tajammu Alezza, said, “All Syrian armed revolutionary factions must realize we are in a war to push an aggressor, a war that makes unifying ranks and word a duty on all brothers …Any occupation force to our beloved country is a legitimate target.”
Washington dropped from its list of approved brigades earlier this year several previously U.S.-funded and supplied militias that chose to work in besieged Aleppo with Islamist brigades or who backed a successful Army of Conquest offensive in Idlib province in March; but, field commanders said then — and are saying even more emphatically now - that they have no choice but to throw in their lot together as they combat a common enemy.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, raised the U.S. worry this week that more moderate FSA rebels “might make common cause with extremists” because of the Russian military intervention.
Publicly, top leaders of the main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, or SNC, frown on cooperation between FSA militias and the Army of Conquest and say they won’t work with any militia that doesn’t subscribe to a democratic vision for a post-Assad Syria.
When asked about the possibility of collaboration with the Army of Conquest, Ahmad Tu’mah, the prime minister of the Syrian Interim Government which was set up by the SNC, replied: “We only work and coordinate with moderate brigades and we don’t coordinate with extremist groups;” but, he complained, “The international community has not supported the moderates enough. I have asked them to escalate help for the moderates.”
The SNC doesn’t control the dozens of FSA militias. The relationship between the political and armed wings of the Syrian revolution has always been fraught - militias are fiercely independent and over the course of the four-year-long civil war have fallen in and out of alliances as circumstances on the ground dictate. The loosely constituted nature of the FSA has prompted some pro-Assad commentators to claim that it doesn’t really exist.
According to Idris, the skeptics got their answer with the successful defense of rebel-held territory in the Hama countryside.
“The last few days there has been a very good defense in Hama and I am very happy to tell you that all those groups fighting in the northern suburbs of Hama are FSA, moderate groups," he said. "The last two days show that the FSA exists; they are fighting and they are good fighters.”
Idris, who defected in 2012 from Assad’s army, acknowledged that in some engagements elsewhere Ahrar al-Sham was involved. He added, however, there are now two factions in Ahrar al-Sham, one closer in thinking to the FSA.
He added, “The situation now is very complicated with the Russian involvement.” He indicated, but didn’t state outright, that increased collaboration between FSA militias and more militant groups can only be prevented, if the West provides the arms supplies needed.
Doubts persist among rebels and political activists about the West’s intentions, now that the Russians have intervened. They are fueled by recent comments by U.S. and Western officials suggesting that there is little appetite to be drawn into a Cold War-style proxy war in Syria and none to confront Moscow. Western officials insist in the end Russia will become embroiled in an Afghanistan-style quagmire and the Western powers can do little to dissuade the Kremlin from its adventure.
A week ago, U.S. President Barack Obama said, “An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won't work.”
That may be so, say political activists, but they question where that leaves the Syrian revolution.
“People care less about what the Americans want because for four or five years they have been saying they won’t support extremist groups but they have not been supporting moderate groups sufficiently,” says Bassam al-Kuwaiti, managing director of RM Team, a monitoring and evaluation research organization that works with local and international NGOs on projects in Syria.
On the collaboration among disparate rebel groups, he expects it will increase. He agrees that Moscow propagandists are likely to pounce on the trend of less radical militias working with harder line Islamist armed groups - and that they will argue falsely that it proves there are no moderates on the rebel side.
Al-Kuwaiti says, “People don’t have a choice: they have to fight with whomever is standing with them. It is about survival - it is simple as that.”
The Russian military intervention is shaking up the dynamics not only of the armed wing of the Syrian revolution but the political opposition, bringing rival politicians with a history of squabbling closer together.
“Everyone feels the urgency,” says al-Kuwaiti. “Everyone feels we have to do something together. People see the threat of a foreign occupier and are concluding they have to fight it together and join forces - and that is good.”