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Thursday, March 17, 2016
This report assesses the most powerful Syrian armed opposition groups
on the battlefield as of March 16, 2016 and details key aspects of each
group, including the group's leadership and perspective on Jabhat
al-Nusra, that will need to inform American strategies in Syria...
Syrian Armed Opposition Powerbrokers
By Jennifer Cafarella and Genevieve Casagrande
This report assesses the most powerful Syrian armed opposition groups on the battlefield as of March 16, 2016 and details key aspects of each group, including the group's leadership and perspective on Jabhat al-Nusra, that will need to inform American strategies in Syria. The armed groups examined in this report include groups that currently receive American support, groups that are potential American allies, and groups allied to al Qaeda in Syria that stand to gain additional power in the next year. This report updates part of the assessment of the armed opposition that ISW released in October 2015, titled "Syrian Opposition Guide," which detailed all prominent armed opposition groups in Syria at the time. The report also lays the foundation for an upcoming report that outlines the requirements to produce a Sunni partner in Syria as a component of any course of action to destroy ISIS and al Qaeda in Syria.
Jabhat al Nusra is poised to capitalize on further Sunni alienation in Syria, increasing the threat it poses to the American homeland. Jabhat al Nusra is a strong and capable battlefield force, whose contributions to the war against the Assad regime have allowed it to build a complex network of relationships with Syrian armed groups. It uses this prestige to isolate and eliminate, when possible, groups that receive American support or refuse to tolerate its own ideology. It openly opposes the negotiations and has accused the opposition delegation of treason. It is capable of spoiling a political agreement through spectacular attacks or other forms of escalation, and likely will do so. ISIS is also capable of acting as a spoiler, and likely will seek to exploit Sunni alienation to cement its control over populations in eastern Syria.
Creating a partner from Syria's armed opposition will be difficult, however. This opposition remains diverse and fractious in the sixth year of the war. Opposition groups frequently merge and disassociate, producing a dynamic churn that makes understanding the opposition challenging and developing policies to support the opposition difficult. The opposition is highly unlikely to cohere into a stable, unified structure in the near future without significant outside support and leadership. Ongoing meetings between major armed factions in Turkey to create a unified opposition body show some promise, but failures to do so in the past indicate that we should be hesitant to trust newly declared structures, which are often penetrated by Jabhat al Nusra and similar elements. Developing a strategy to defeat Salafi Jihadi groups in Syria will almost certainly continue to face the challenge that no one armed actor speaks for even a plurality of the Syrian Sunni population that opposes the Assad regime. Nevertheless, there are identifiable powerful groups that shape general trends within the armed opposition and play leading roles in military operations and governance. Some of these groups offer the U.S. an opportunity to build an indigenous Sunni partner to defeat ISIS and al Qaeda in Syria, but only if the U.S. applies leadership, works smartly, and allocates sufficient resources.