BEIRUT, Lebanon – Dozens of Syrian opposition groups merged last month to form a unified army, at a time when rebel factions are increasingly divided and have suffered a string of defeats at the hands of pro-government and extremist forces.
Led by the opposition’s interim government in exile, the Unified National Army (UNA) aims to boost opposition forces both on the ground and in negotiations at the eighth round of peace talks set to start within the next month. However, experts and analysts warn that the move is not likely to alter the dynamics of a war that is now tilted in Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s favor.
Since January, rebel factions have lost territory to pro-government forces around Damascus, in the central Syrian province of Homs, and in southern Syria along the border with Jordan. In Idlib, the only opposition-held province in Syria, al-Qaida-linked militants have overtaken many Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated groups.
The U.S. recently ended its support for rebels and, along with Saudi Arabia, allegedly told the opposition to accept that Assad will remain in power. Even the U.N.’s special envoy to Syria has questioned whether the Syrian opposition would “be able to be unified and realistic enough to realize they did not win the war.”
The Unified National Army
The Turkey-based Syrian Interim Government (SIG) and the Syrian Islamic Council (SIC), a group of Syrian Muslim clerics, proposed the merger in late August, and within a week, more than a dozen groups had joined, according to AFP.
Overall troop numbers are not available, but at least 44 FSA groups operating mostly in Aleppo and Idlib province have signed up to the UNA – including the Levant Front, 13th Division, Mutasim Brigade and the Nasr Army.
Two FSA factions in southeastern Syria have also signed up, but the Southern Front, a coalition of some 50 FSA groups based in Daraa and Quneitra provinces, said they want to see signs that the UNA will, in fact, be unified, before joining.
“We are waiting to see some productive steps, and if the brigades in the north really commit to the national army and take it seriously before we take a position on the initiative,” a Southern Front leader told Syria Deeply, requesting anonymity.
Jaish al-Islam, a hard-line militant group with a strong base in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, has also joined. As has Ahrar al-Sham – which was one of the strongest rebel groups in Idlib before the al-Qaida-linked Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) recently seized its positions.
In an attempt to give the force a real military structure, the SIG has sought to create a defense ministry that would preside over the UNA’s operations. They have also appointed Salim Idris, a defected Syrian army general, as chief of staff and General Mohammad Faris, also a defector, as defense minister.
The group’s funding has yet to be officially announced, but opposition delegates met with Qatar’s foreign minister in Doha last month, as part of a series of visits to “friendly and sisterly countries,” according to Nizar Haraki, the Syrian opposition’s ambassador to Qatar.
Jawad Abu Hatab, prime minister of the SIG, told Syria Deeply the opposition forces already had money. Better organization, rather than external funding, would be key to its success.
The UNA has both military and diplomatic objectives, Abu Hatab said. Militarily, the UNA would form “one command” to help deploy the opposition’s military skills more effectively, he said.
“When we create a command that includes all of the opposition factions, we will have central decision making and we can use this power in the best way,” he said.
“We can develop them [the factions] from militias into a regular army that has a leader, and rules, and knows its rights and duties,” he said.
Diplomatically, military cohesion will help the opposition put up a united front at peace talks held in Geneva and Astana.
“The army will give some weight to the opposition, so it will be stronger in negotiations and impose its respect on the international community,” he said.
But even if the armed rebels unite, the opposition is still divided in its approach to resolution. Some elements insist Assad must step down as part of a peace deal, while others are more flexible about other solutions that would bring an end to the conflict.
Major Ahmed al-Hassan Abu al-Mundhir, head of the UNA’s political bureau, is part of the former. He insists that “toppling the criminal regime” is among the main aims of his fighting force.
Although SIG officials maintain that the idea of unified army dates back to at least 2015, Kyle Orton, an analyst at the Henry Jackson Society think-tank, said the suspension of covert CIA aid to U.S.-allied rebel groups and HTS dominance over Idlib are “important factors in having made this [the creation of the unified army] possible.”
Orton said that initiative also partially stems from the opposition’s need to differentiate itself from extremist elements such as al-Qaida and the so-called Islamic State.
“Previously, the rebels, for very good practical (not ideological) reasons, were averse to openly adopting an antagonistic position toward HTS,” he explained. “That is not less of a concern and instead, both politically and militarily, there is more incentive for rebels to differentiate themselves from HTS.”
However, by positioning itself against HTS, the UNA could run the risk of a fatal confrontation.
“Whether the [Unified] National Army could or would stand up to HTS is an open question,” Orton said. “If HTS demonstrates quickly, it can attack the [Unified] National Army without incurring collective rebel and/or Turkish reprisals, then the whole idea falls.”
The new rebel coalition will likely be focused on northern Syria and would be backed by Turkey, he added. Ankara has yet to comment publicly on the project.
“The [Unified] National Army would be in its essentials a Turkish-backed enterprise,” Orton said. “There might well be some funding from Qatar.”
According to Sam Heller of the Century Foundation, the initiative “won’t be seen as a major new vehicle for support and influence.”
For Heller, this is partially because the idea of a single rebel army does not take into account the geographic distribution of the opposition in Syria.
Having lost their major stronghold of Aleppo last December, remaining rebel territory is divided into patches in Syria’s south, southeast and northwest. This makes the prospect of unification untenable.
The FSA-linked Martyr Ahmed al-Abdo brigades and Lions of the East are a prime example of this. Both groups have agreed to form part of the UNA. However, their bases are far out east in the Badia desert near the Iraqi border in areas isolated from rebel-held territory.
“There is a reality of a fragmented regional opposition versus an opposition united in principle,” Heller said.
For Fares al-Bayoush, a former officer with the FSA-linked Free Idlib Army, the UNA’s lack of military expertise, in comparison to that of the Syrian army, condemns it to failure.
“A military more than 50 years old is different from … an army still in its infancy,” he told Syria Deeply.
He also expressed skepticism over the possibility that rebel groups could unite under one umbrella, given the opposition’s history of divisions.
Divisions within Syria’s opposition groups are potentially the greatest roadblock for the success of the deal. Jaish al-Islam, for example, has been heavily involved in rebel infighting in Eastern Ghouta, primarily with FSA group Faylaq al-Rahman, over territorial control in the besieged area. Even within the FSA, there have been divisions throughout the conflict over coordination with Salafi rebel groups who extol more hard-line religious ideologies, such as Ahrar al-Sham.
“I have no intention of participating in this project,” Bayoush, who was a member of the opposition’s military delegation at the Astana talks in January, said. “The participants in the project lack seriousness, and it represents a repeat of previous errors, and it lacks longevity.”
Even Syrian civilians who have recently taken to the streets in protest, calling on the opposition to protect them from extremist elements, are not convinced that the UNA will work.
Qusay al-Hussein, from Maarat al-Numan in Idlib province, said, “[The UNA] is not expected to succeed, because at its most basic level it is not a national army: It is an army following foreign agendas, not national ones.”