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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Un échec américain en Syrie

by Hassane Zerrouky

A US Defeat in Syria

Translated Friday 13 March 2015, by Isabelle Métral

The dissolution of the Hazem movement, upon which Washington was counting, is a set-back for Obama. The news almost went unnoticed. Yet the announcement, on March 11th, by the Hazem movement – an alliance between several so called moderate Islamist fighters), of its “dissolution and of the integration of its fighters into the Levant front » - a front dominated by Zahran Allouch’s Salafist group Djeich al-islam (the Army of Islam) – may well thwart Washington’s strategy in Syria : to build up a moderate opposition force.

This decision was made after Hazem was chased out of a former military base near Alep in the north by the Nosra Front (al-Kaeda’s Syrian branch) last Saturday. At least 73 Hazem fighters were killed, 80 anti-tank TOW missiles and other sophisticated weapons provided by Washington and its allies (France among them) fell into Jihadist hands. Could the Hazem collapse spell the end of all so called moderate armed Islamist opposition in the Alep and Idleb region in the north of Syria? Be that as it may, the rout comes after last November’s disintegration of the Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF– an alliance between Islamist forces and former members of the Syrian army) set up in 2013, also supported by the US and beaten out of its fiefs of Deir Sinbel and Jabal al-Zawiya (in the north of Syria, near Idlib).

A moderate, 5,000-strong opposition force

On August 8th last, when Barack Obama decided to intervene against the Islamist State (IS), everything seemed to conform to Washington’s plans. An international coalition was set up, of which Paris was a member. As Obama was against sending ground troops, he planned to set up a moderate, five-thousand strong opposition force against IS in the following months. Washington immediately pinned its hopes on Hazem. The CIA knew this group well; it was to serve as a corner stone for the constitution of that so-called “moderate” opposition force. Saudi Arabia and Qatar approved. Riyadh even attempted to persuade its US ally to include al-Nora and Djeich al-islam Jihadists in its strategy. Turkey, which wished a role as indispensible actor, and which initially opposed strikes against IS (to which it gave a free rein in Kobane) balked at the US plan. An agreement was signed between the US and Turkey on February 19th to set up and train these so-called moderate opposition groups from late March onwards. Arabia and Qatar accepted to host the training sites.

But with the wiping out of Hazem Washington’s plans are crushed. For beside al-Nosra front and IS, the two main forces in the Syrian Islamic-Jihadist galaxy, there remain only the Levant Front, which is dominated by Djeich al-islam and Ahrar Cham Salafists, whose numbers are significant in the region of Damascus and Deraa near Jordan, and several dozen small Islamic nationalist groups who change sides as opportunity commands : now with al-Nosra as in the eastern districts of Alep and Damascus, now with IS as in the camp of Yarmouk (in the suburb of Damascus) or in Deir Zor (in the east of the country). And then of course there are YPG Kurds, but these do not figure in the US plans.

On the battlefield, despite the US air strikes and dissension among the insurgents, the front lines have changed but little. Even though Bashar al Assad’s army, with the help of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iran’s pasdarans, and Shiite Hazaras (remote descendants, these, , of Gengis Khan’s Mongols that live astride Iran and Afghanistan), boasts of recovering lost ground: on March 5th, it killed al-Nosra Front’s military leader Abu Hamam al Chami, and over a dozen of his officers at Al-Houbeit near Idlib. On March 7th, Abi Ahmed al Djazraoui, one of IS’s military leaders, was killed by a Syrian strike. Last September, it succeeded in wiping out the Ahrar Cham command, after doing away with its chief Hassan Aboud and about fifty of his officers at Idleb. Better still, Bashar’s army is about to take advantage of the spring thaw to loosen the Jihadist vice around Damascus and regain control of Golan over al-Nosra Front and its allies. In the north of the country it intends to drive the Jihadists out of the eastern districts of Alep and to regain the town of Idleb.

But the success of that offensive depends on the choices that the Obama Administration will make, and these, according to John Kerry, might include “military pressure” on the Damascus regime in order to oblige it to accept a “political transition”. It might also include an evolution in the relations between Washington and Tehran. It also depends on Israel, who favours an al-Nosra rule over Golan and makes no scruple of striking the Syrian army whenever it tries to dislodge al-Nosra, as was the case on January 18th last. Another constraining factor for Damascus is the tension between the régime and the Alawite community as a result of the heavy losses incurred by the young Alawites in the four years of the conflict : the Alawites are the backbone of Bashar’s forces.

Despite all this, the evolution of the situation on the battlefield, characterized by a slight advantage for Damascus and the fact that the Islamist galaxy, although fragmented, is dominated by IS and al-Nosra Jihadists, no doubt partly explains why the National Syrian Opposition (the opposition that lives in exile) has shifted its position: for the first time it does not make the toppling of Bashar al Assad a pre-requisite for a negotiation with the Damascus régime.

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