In this conversation for STATUS/الوضع, host Bassam Haddad talks to Aron Lund about the state and status of Syria’s rebels, more than five months after the battle for Aleppo. Lund addresses the aftermath of the rebels defeat in east Aleppo in December 2016 and the significance of this loss for the opposition in general as well as the armed groups. Bassam also asks Lund to elaborate on what he thinks explains the pattern of mergers and factionalism among rebel groups over the years. The conversation ends with Lund addressing the manner in which he conducted research and what most surprised him along the way.
This conversation is divided into four parts. Select and click on the player above!
- Status/الوضع – Part 1 – Introduction to the the Aftermath of “Aleppo”
- Status/الوضع – Part 2 – What Did the Rebel’s Loss Represent?
- Status/الوضع – Part 3 – What Explains the Pattern of Mergers and Factionalism Among the Rebels Over Time?
- Status/الوضع – Part 4 – What was most surprising to you during the coverage of Syria? How did you conduct yoru research?
Aron Lund is a fellow at The Century Foundation. He is a Swedish writer on Middle Eastern affairs and has written extensively on Syrian politics. Between 2013 and 2016, he edited the site Syria in Crisis for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he was also a nonresident associate in 2016. He is a fellow of the Centre for Syrian Studies at St. Andrew’s University. His publications include two Swedish-language books on Syrian politics, Drömmen om Damaskus (Stockholm, 2010) and Syrien brinner (Stockholm, 2014), the English-language Divided They Stand (Brussels, 2012), as well as several reports and book chapters published by, among others, the Carnegie Endowment, the Swedish Institute for International Affairs, and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). He has an M.A. in Arabic from the Oriental Studies Program of Uppsala University in Sweden and has studied Arabic in Damascus, Algiers, and Cairo.
Transcribed into English by Charles Berger
Bassam Haddad (BH) – Good afternoon everyone, we are here with Aron Lund, a fellow at the century foundation and a very well-respected journalist working on Syria. Someone whose work has been followed by Syria experts, journalists, and the laypersons alike. And we are very happy and lucky to have him with us today. Hi Aron.
Aron Lund (AL) – Hi, thank you.
BH – How are you?
AL – I am fine, how are you?
BH – Good. Good. I again am very happy to have you join Status, (al Wadha), for your first interview, perhaps one of several to come and we would like to talk with you a bit about Syria casually. Specifically, about the post-December situation after the takeover by the regime of the entirety of the city of Aleppo and the aftermath in terms of the developments within the rebel groups movements, and what is it exactly that you have, for instance, observed as a trend or pattern and if you can end with where, where you think we are now?
AL – Right, okay, big question. Well, I mean I think that what happened with Assad and the government recapturing eastern Aleppo was, I mean, it has become symbolic or emblematic of sort of, not the government winning or the opposition losing, but a tipping point in the war I think, and really the seeds of that were, I mean, it was already happening. But eastern Aleppo finally falling to the government was kind of the point where everyone, and by everyone, I mean, in this, the international community, the western states, the United States, because they sort of recognized the [Unclear (02:12)] you know this is not, the rebels are not, they’re not winning. And that sort of, everyone’s been sort of reformulating their approach to the war since then, I think. And I mean, the trends were clear already, I think, that the rebels, I mean they were under siege in Aleppo since Spring 2016, and they tried to break out, and at one point they sort of broke out, but then they were pushed back in again. And, I think the real tipping point here was much earlier, it was probably, you know, if I have to find a single moment, it was the Russian intervention. Russian-Iranian escalation in September 2015 – that was when things really changed, I think. And since then, I think we’ve seen the Syrian opposition it’s been coopted, what remained of the insurgency has been coopted by outside players in one way or another, and the, in the South of course, Jordan and the governments working through Jordan, have sort of, they have accepted to deescalate in the South and refocus their attention on the Islamic State and, and other Jihadi groups in that area, at the expense of the war against Assad. And, in the North, we’ve seen more or less the same thing with Turkey, when they pushed into the area northeast of Aleppo, with (Anfab?) and Jarabulus and these places, in August 2016 and basically Turkey reconciling with Russia in the Summer of 2016 as a consequence of, you know, sanctions and just Turkey realizing the war wasn’t going their way. And the PKK, through various front organizations was rising in Syria, and that, I mean, we are now seeing Turkey focusing much more narrowly on Turkish interests at the expense of the war against Assad, as well. They’re still his enemy, they still want him gone, but they’re not really pushing for that in the same way as before. They’re pushing to secure their own border against, and to weaken the Kurdish groups.
And then what really remains of the insurgency, the independent insurgency, that is still sort of primarily focused on toppling Assad, on the one hand, you have some pockets of territory like the east of (Houtha?), east of Damascus, and you have a few towns north of Homs, (Rostam?), Talbisa and these places, and a few other enclaves inside regime territory, but then really, it’s the northwest, inland basically, and some, you know, adjacent areas, in like western Aleppo, countryside, and north Hama, and a little speck of territory in northeast Latakia as well. So, and that part of the insurgency which still has backing from abroad, from Turkey, and Qatar, and even the US in some ways, that could, I mean, that still threatens us, or the Syrian government in many ways, but it’s also, I think, it’s gone too far down the Islamist route, you know. The former, the group now called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly (Shaat al-Sham?), and before that the Nusra front, which was al Qa’ida’s main [Unclear (05:54)] they really are the most powerful faction in that area of Syria right now. And the second most powerful faction, which is the only group that can really balance them in some way, with the proper amount of international support and so on, that’s Ahrar al-Sham, which is also a pretty strict, fundamentalist group striving for theocracy and rejecting democracy, and understands, you know, is understood by and by, by the US and others, and they don’t want that group to win either, it is maybe Turkey and Qatar and other governments, and of course private funders abroad, and the Gulf and so on, could still support that insurgency, just to spite Assad, and spite Iran, and spite Russia, and prevent that area from falling.
In Turkey’s case, because they don’t want the refugees and so on, but the idea that anyone would seriously back that slice of the insurgency as a contender for power in Syria, I think that’s not happening. Idlib, it will… is more likely to turn into a sort of a, as some people on the opposition side say, you know, it could become the heart of Syria, it is turning into an area that will be at some point regarded the way people in the West now look at Raqqa. This is sort of the jihadi badlands, we are not backing anyone, that we just want to get rid of this territory, and that is a tragedy, of course, for the civilians in that area, but the political effectiveness of the opposition has not really had any, there is no area where the Syrian opposition really has, can use as a staging ground to go for either a military victory or even a political solution, that would sort of incorporate that environment in some way. So, I think in some sense, the Syrian opposition, however we define that, they have already lost the war, and they can redefine the war as just fighting to stay in the game, and you know, sure, you can do that, but it is not the same thing as they were fighting for in 2012, 2013, 2014 and so on, so that’s my take.
BH – Do you think we are witnessing, as some have said, the end of the military option? Not as in the end of the use of force to fight the regime and its allies, but sort of the end of a military option as far as nearly all the opposition factions are concerned, whether they are civilian or military. Is it that we are getting to that juncture, or that we have gotten to it, at least in part, or is, in your view, based on your work and observations and research, is it something that is going to be a matter of regrouping and then everyone is going to jump on the bandwagon again, in light, of course, of the various fissures and infighting that we have been witnessing?
[This article is published jointly in partnership with STATUS.]