Despite changes to the factional map of Syria since 2011, armed groups deployed in their local communities have remained the basic unit and the most important factor in military developments in the conflict.
The first Syrian groups that took up arms in the conflict, including officers who defected from the regime to form the Free Syrian Army (FSA), grew out of fighting groups that were an extension of local communities, until attempts were made to organize them as factions or within military coalitions.
As jihadism spread in Syria, polarization and disputes among the fighting groups grew. Military might, funding and strategy all play a role in their success, but the potential resilience of each of the major armed groups also rests on group’s relationship with local communities.
Idlib is at the heart of these developments. Over time, the Idlib governorate has become the main gathering point both for Islamist and jihadist groups on one hand (most notably Jabhat Fateh al-Sham), and for activists and non-ideological armed rebels on the other hand, most notably the Free Syrian Army.
The Free Syrian Army
The FSA enjoys a large social base, clout across a wide geographical region and a powerful arsenal, but it has remained fragmented and lacked a unifying structure beyond the Free Syrian Army label.
FSA factions vary in their capacity to gather the local community to fight alongside them. This can be influenced by their popularity, past transgressions against the community, the cohesion of their leadership, the structure of the factions themselves and the charisma of their leaders, as well as each faction’s control of its territory. The fragility of some factions’ political positions or their failure to respond to calls for unity have led to local doubts about their legitimacy and whether it is worthwhile for the local communities, and sometimes for each factions’ own fighters, to defend them.
While foreign support for the FSA has given them access to plentiful arms and finance, it has weakened their ability to unify and increased the insistence of their leadership on setting up their own entities. Support has been cut off several times from factions that had set up alliances and integrated with other factions, while some elements have been lured into breaking away. Having multiple donors with different policies have additionally hurt relations and increased disputes between the factions. Though to some extent Islamist groups must grapple with similar problems, they have acutely affected the FSA’s ability to fight and to stay coherent.
Jabhat Fateh al-Sham’s propaganda has also worked to nurture doubts among FSA fighters, announcing that its dispute is only with those factions’ ‘deviant’ leadership. FSA factions have also not worked to build a solid sense of belonging or a fighting ideology among their fighters – especially new recruits – against the jihadists, in contrast to the strong fighting ideology the jihadists adopt against their rivals. This has further weakened the organization, legitimacy and support base of some of these FSA factions.
Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (Jabhat Fateh al-Sham)
These weaknesses were exposed when Free Syrian Army factions in Idlib and nearby parts of western Aleppo and northern Hama provinces rapidly collapsed the face of attacks by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) coalition –which is dominated by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) – despite the larger size of FSA factions compared with the number of JFS fighters in the area.
Though the FSA realized that it was targeted as a whole by JFS, it continued to mainly act in a factional fashion: whenever the jihadists targeted certain FSA factions, other FSA factions stayed neutral or acted only when directly attacked, and sometimes tried to reach individual agreements with JFS. This eventually facilitated HTS’s military take-over of Idlib.
The takeover does not mean that the governorate’s local communities have all pledged allegiance to JFS. Right now, HTS has dominated Idlib militarily, but this is not necessarily an indicator of longevity of control.
FSA factions’ structural weaknesses and internal crises were the most important reason for their lack of cohesion over the long term and their weak response of late to HTS. But their regression and fragmentation does not necessarily mean that fighters and the local factions that make up the FSA will also disintegrate. Nor is their local base of support in most major towns in rural Idlib and Aleppo eroding. This local base continues to back the FSA’s revolutionary and popular slogans and reject the influence of the jihadists despite the FSA’s lack of a central, unifying military force.
In contrast, despite the fact that JFS has been able to build support networks in Idlib, it has largely not managed to create a wide social support base. Its military model relies mainly on using its own forces such as Qata’ al-Badia (in eastern Hama), the al-Nusra Army (an organized military elite force within JFS) and foreign fighters, with only temporary and tactical cooperation with other local factions.
JFS has been able to consolidate its influence far more easily in areas that saw less activism at the outbreak of the revolution, stayed under regime control for longer or where local communities did not gain experience in revolutionary activism or develop their own brigades, such as in Salqin, Harem and Idlib city, even if the local communities there do not support or accept the jihadists.
For example, in a campaign that JFS launched following the Astana talks of January 2017, the group was able to seize large ammunition stores belonging to FSA faction Jaysh al-Mujahideen in al-Halazoun (in the western countryside of Aleppo), as well as bases of al-Jabha al-Shamiya faction, while barely facing any resistance. Internal divisions inside Jaysh al-Mujahideen and the fact it did not control its own territory meant that many Jaysh al-Mujahideen fighters had little enthusiasm to defend al-Halazoun against JFS.
In contrast, fierce clashes continued for almost a week close to Jabal al-Zawiya, and JFS jihadists there were unable to defeat Suqur al-Sham faction (a member of Ahrar al-Sham). This faction enjoys strong support from the local community in the town of Sarjah and its surroundings, whose residents saw the JFS attack as an attempt by an invading force to ‘occupy’ their area.
The Ahrar al-Sham movement has tried to keep a middle ground between these two sides and gain dual legitimacy – both jihadist and revolutionary – while increasingly leaning (recently, more or less completely) towards local revolutionary forces rather than the JFS camp.
The Ahrar al-Sham movement resembles the FSA in its structure of local factions, but it has an institutional system and an ideology that has helped its cohesion relative to the FSA’s, its expansion and its ability to sometimes rival JFS. In the absence of prospects to resurrect the FSA as a unified organization, the above factors gave Ahrar al-Sham an opportunity to present itself as an alternative umbrella organization to the FSA and a more moderate alternative to JFS.
But Ahrar Al-Sham does not have strong links with the local community in all the areas it exists in and its factions do not always operate as a unit. In the face of the prospect of attack by HTS, some factions brokered local agreements with JFS and joined HTS, while some of those who chose not to join decided to stay neutral and not fight HTS.
For example, in Atarib, whose fighters were the backbone of the Hazm movement that Jabhat Al-Nusra destroyed in March 2015, HTS has still not been able to stop popular demonstrations against it or consolidate its control over the town. The same is true in Maarat al-Numan, where angry protests against Jabhat al-Nusra (later JFS and HTS) forced it to withdraw from the city, even though the 13th division (a local FSA brigade) had not been able to defeat it militarily.
The scenes of local community resistance against HTS have been repeated in Saraqeb, Atareb and other towns during the last battle between Ahrar al-Sham and HTS. This has led to maintaining those towns under the control of local councils and either the expulsion of HTS from those towns or the prevention of HTS from breaking into them.
The persistence of local dynamics
Throughout the duration of the Syrian conflict, local communities have to a large degree preserved their allegiances and their initial responses to the popular uprising as well as the character of the armed groups that emerged from it. The original local bases of the uprising and the early bases of support for the FSA, such as Jabal al-Zawiya, Maarat al-Numan, al-Atarib, Kafranbal and Saraqib, have held onto their local revolutionary spirit and rejected, sometimes through force, the influence of JFS and the jihadists. JFS has been able to crush some factions in those areas, but it has not been able to fight the local community.
As Islamists sweep through Idlib, it is important to remember that military control is not an indicator of local community support.
Ahmad Abazid is a Syrian writer and researcher interested in Syrian affairs, Islamic groups and Wahhabism. He writes for several e-newspapers and research centres.