Inexplicable is the fate of Syria. Its ongoing conflict has claimed the lives of more than 2,00,000 people and sent 16 million Syrians out of their homes. A donor’s conference for the humanitarian crisis in Kuwait raised $3.8 billion, less than half of what the United Nations had requested. Only half of the pledges are generally honoured, so the gap is significant. The World Food Programme’s Elisabeth Byrs said that “a critical shortage of funding” has led to a retrenchment of aid. Malnutrition and illiteracy lie on the horizon for Syrian refugees.
Conditions within areas held by the Bashar al-Assad government remain perilous. In late February, Syria’s parliamentary speaker Muhammad al-Laham announced that diesel prices would be doubled. Increased transport costs for scarce goods, depleted foreign exchange and increased military expenditure has weakened the Damascus government.
Meanwhile, in the camps of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State(IS), funds remain for radical fighters. The going rate is about $400 for Syrian fighters and twice that amount for foreigners. Most other goods such as housing are free. With anaemic support for the humanitarian relief operations and with a drained Damascus exchequer, extremism appears attractive. No doubt then that it is the extremist fighters of the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and IS that remain motivated on the battlefields of Syria.
The Syrian Arab Army, the government’s force had been found to be wanting early in the conflict; it had been trained for a different kind of war. Morale is uneven amongst the Syrian forces; they are exhausted by what appears to be an endless confrontation. Better trained for the fight had been Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that entered on the side of the Damascus government in 2012. Hezbollah has firmed up a perimeter around Lebanon and secured the entry points to defend against any challenge to its base. It is not clear if Hezbollah and other militias will once more lead the struggle against the recent swift gains made by al-Nusra and IS.Swift gains
Al-Nusra alongside the various outfits of the anti-Damascus bloc seized the provincial capital of Idlib near Turkey’s border. Now two capitals of Syria’s 14 governorates are outside the control of the Assad government. The first to fall was Raqqa, now the capital of IS. Despite U.S. and Gulf Arab bombardment, IS remains in control of its redoubt. Idlib did not fall to IS, but to the al-Nusra (which was set up by IS in January 2012). Despite indications that an assortment of fighters participated in the defeat of the government forces, it is clear now that al-Nusra is in charge of Idlib.
Idlib’s capture appears to be far from symbolic. Over the past few months, al-Nusra has fought off any attempt by Western-backed rebels to carve out a place for themselves. In March, it overran the positions of Harakat Hazm, the U.S.-backed “moderate” rebel group. New weapons, more fighters and resupply from across the Turkish border allowed al-Nusra to regroup to take Idlib. Al-Nusra sources say that they have received a fillip from these new resources. As they made small gains in March, fighters who had previously fled into Turkey returned to fight under its black flag. One al-Nusra source said that rather than make a dash to Aleppo in the north, they would turn southwards to take Daraa, where the civil war began in 2011. Indeed, not long after taking Iblid, a massive car bomb went off on March 31 — an act of terror to hurt the morale of the Syrian armed forces. The next day, al-Nusra and the Southern Front (Free Syrian Army) seized the Syria-Jordan Nassib border crossing, only 20 kilometres from Daraa. With control in Idlib and Daraa, al-Nusra has opened up resupply routes from Turkey and Jordan.
A few months ago, al-Nusra seemed unable to make any major gains — and yet, within a month, it has secured a provincial capital (Idlib), a crucial border crossing (Nassib) and driven a wedge into Syria’s western backbone, the roads that link Damascus to the north-western coastline. Some of this is likely because of the assistance it has received from regional players, including — mysteriously — Israel. Jabhat al-Nusra took the government’s last reconnaissance station in southern Syria at Tal al-Hara after Israeli warplanes bombed the troop detachment there (according to the UN Disengagement Observer Force based on the Golan Heights). Israel has also allowed wounded Jabhat al-Nusra fighters to enter the country for medical treatment, a situation that mirrors the kind of porous border that IS has enjoyed with Turkey.
The most dramatic turn of events came when IS engaged its sleeper cells and its combatants from the Ghouta plains to sweep into Damascus’ largely Palestinian neighbourhood of Yarmouk. About 18,000 residents remain in this besieged area that once housed ten times the number of people. The UN has struggled with various factions, including the Assad government, to gain access to Yarmouk with humanitarian supplies. Hunger has stalked the shells of these homes. But that was nothing compared to the atrocity that has now befallen Yarmouk. The Palestinian group that has taken up the defence of Yarmouk, Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, allied with Hamas, continues to battle IS and its various allies, but to no avail. Beheadings have begun in Yarmouk to compound the hunger and the desolation, a situation that the UN’s Chris Gunness called “beyond inhumane.” Amidst the chaos arises the spectre of al-Qaeda and IS sweeping across not only the desolate parts of Syria but its most populated zones. The Carnegie Middle East Center’s director, Lina Khatib, recently wrote a report in which she argued that al-Nusra is more pragmatic than ideological. “Nusra’s pragmatism and ongoing evolution,” Ms. Khatib wrote, “mean it could become an ally in the fight.” In other words, she proposes that the faltering Western search for a military ally could be found in al-Nusra. It says a great deal about the broken horizons over Syria that the West would find its allies amongst al-Qaeda, even if the actual fighters are motivated less by ideology and more by the ferocity of the organisation. The history of such groups in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Chechnya and elsewhere shows that the hierarchies of these fronts make the actual motivations of the fighters less important than the orientation of the leadership. Al-Nusra’s moderation is merely in that it would not declare an emirate before it has seized Damascus. This is what separates it from the impatience of the IS.
Hope for peace in Syria might no longer vest in the exhausted population. Arms and promises of victory come from regional powers who would like to see the conflict continue at whatever cost. The new accord between the P5+1 and Iran offers the potential for a new road to open up. King Salman of Saudi Arabia welcomed the deal, as did the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. The political implications of that nuclear deal might be a bargain between at least two regional rivals, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Dangerous conflicts in Syria as well as in Yemen, where Saudi airplanes continue their bombardment, delivers the advantage to al-Qaeda. Lessening the chaos is imperative. One way forward would be to cease pouring fuel into Syria’s apocalyptic fire.
(Vijay Prashad is Professor at Trinity College, Connecticut, U.S.)