We are about to enter a new and probably final phase in the simmering Syrian civil war. Until recently, the Free Syrian Army was a poorly trained, inadequately armed and largely disorganized military force. It had a few successes in the early days but was unable to hang on to those gains.
Its commanders were mostly in Turkey pleading for heavier arms. And the US and Turkey were unwilling to give them what they want fearing that these same weapons could be used against them at the end of the conflict. Hard lessons from Afghanistan or Chechnya are still fresh on people's minds.
But lately, the rebel forces seem to be on the rise. They seized the country's largest hydro-electric dam, they took over a large military base in the north and they now claim total control over Hasaka province, Syria's oil rich north-east region.
It is clear that the rebel forces are now much better equipped and trained. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are leading the way to get them rocket launchers and multiple grenade launchers. Most of them are purchased through United Arab Emirates and transported through Turkey.
The Rise of the Salafists
The other development is the continuous inflow of jihadist fighters. They seem to be originating from Saudi Arabia and Yemen for the most part. Saudi Arabia has always been very keen to push its extreme Islamist citizens hoping to get rid of them in Jihad-like conflicts.
The most notorious brigade is the Al Nusra Front whose fighters distinguished themselves with their discipline, bravery and ruthlessness. While some claim that they are linked to Al Qaeda in Iraq, I find this irrelevant as I consider the "brand" Al Qaeda irrelevant. What is relevant is Al Nusra's clear salafist roots and its desire to establish a strict Sharia based Sunni fundamentalist regime in post-Assad Syria. Already, there is deep resentment towards them and many skirmishes are reported [link in French] between Al Nusra and other "brigades" fighting under the banner of Free Syrian Army.
These two factors represent a serious post-conflict problem. Syria's ethnic and religious mix and a well equipped victorious Sunni fundamentalist army are unlikely to lead to a peaceful settlement. The longer the civil war continues the more radicalized these Sunni fighters will become. And when they toppled Assad's regime after a long and protracted war, they will not be inclined to act with tolerance and benevolence.
Russia is also increasingly worried about its position in post-Assad Syria. They know that their man is about to become a footnote in Syria's history. But they are not in a position to form an alliance with Sunni fundamentalists that make up the bulk of the FSA. Chechen fighters would be amused.
The only card they have is to offer themselves as an honest broker that can force Assad to a peace deal. And this is what they offered recently. But, unfortunately for them, the Syrian National Council did not take the offer seriously.
Despite Turkey's prominent position against Assad from the beginning, Russians have been careful not to criticize Ankara. And it seems that they now look at Turkey as their entry point in post Assad Syria.
Another interesting development was a new agreement between the Syrian Kurds and FSA. Last year a similar agreement was signed between them but it did not hold. The two sides have been clashing since November. The Islamist forces entered the city of Ras al-Ain to seize a strategic crossing on the Turkish border and they met with resistance from Popular Protection Units (YPG) who are attached to PYD (which is an offshoot of PKK in Turkey). The cease-fire negotiated by Michel Kilo, a well-known dissident, has been in effect on and off.
The key in all this, as I mentioned before, was the Kurdish peace initiative in Turkey. Turkish government had to acquiesce (finally) to what the US has been telling them, that without dealing with the PKK they have no way of controlling events in the region. In fact, if Northern Syria was controlled by PYD, the PKK would have two regions (the other being Northern Iraq) from which to battle Turkish forces.
Talks have been going on with Ocalan for months and he has just announced that he was going to have a momentous declaration on Thursday.
Once this arrangement in place, I expect the Syrian knot to be cut with the appropriate Alexandrian flair.
Incidentally, if you have been following this blog and my hypothesis about the region you might appreciate this bit of news: the Syrian dissidents have just chosen a new government in Istanbul. It is led by Ghassan Hitto who is an American citizen (an IT executive from Texas) and he is of Kurdish descent.
Need I say more?