Analysis: Was Astana Meeting on Syria a Success?
|Leader of the new faction created by Nusra: Abu Jabir al-Sheikh
In past, when the U.S. administration and the Russian government attempted to solve the Syrian crisis, their efforts collapsed because they failed to reach an agreement on identifying and separating terrorist groups from non-terrorist groups, or groups that are willing to negotiate a political settlement from those who don’t. Then, after a single meeting held in Astana, which was convened by Russia, Turkey, and Iran, armed groups in northern Syria appear to be separating themselves along those lines. If that process continues, the Astana meeting would have achieved what many meetings have failed to do.
Even before the end of the Astana meeting, which was attended by representatives of about ten armed groups in Syria, the powerful group formerly known as al-Nusra, launched a preemptive war against the groups that took part in the meeting. Nusra accused them of signing on a deal that will isolate Nusra and label it as a terrorist organization, which will allow forces of the various coalitions operating in Syria to attack it.
Seeking protections from Nusra, smaller armed groups quickly moved to join stronger Islamist groups. According to Ahrar al-Sham, on Thursday alone, six rebel factions, including Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups, joined its ranks.
Ahrar al-Sham, which presents itself as a mainstream Sunni Islamist group, sided with the FSA groups and said Nusra had rejected mediation attempts. It said that any attack on its new members will be tantamount to a “declaration of war.”
The groups that joined Ahrar al-Sham are: Alwiyat Suqur al-Sham, Fastaqim kama unmirt, Jaysh al-Islam–Idlib branch, Jaysh al-Mujahidin, and al-Jabha al-Shamiya–west Aleppo branch.
Ahrar al-Sham is considered a terrorist group by Moscow and did not attend the Russian-backed Astana meeting. But it said it would support FSA factions that took part if they secured a favorable outcome for the opposition.
These steps taken by Ahrar al-Sham created an internal crisis for the group. A number of its leading figures resigned and there were reports that some factions within the group left and joined Nusra.
On Friday, and underscoring the titanic shift that took place after the Astana meeting and other developments around the world, Nusra, which had changed its name to Jabhat Fath al-Sham, announced that it is dissolving itself and merging with four other armed groups to form a new faction calling itself Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. This new coalition consists of Nour Eddine Zenki Movement, Liwa al-Haq, Jabhat Ansar al-Din, and Jaysh al-Sunna. They called on other armed groups to join them.
These events are extraordinary. Some have criticized the Syrian government for accepting settlements with armed groups and allowing their fighters to move to Idlib. It seems that Assad’s government has had a long term strategy after all. With the infighting that is going to start soon that now new alliances are formed among the rebels, his forces may not have to fight these armed groups. They will battle each other to near extinction, given their propensity to see an enemy in every one who disagrees with them. The Syrian government will then move in and retake the province form the exhausted survivors without major losses.