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No End in Sight: On the Ground in Syria

The other notable Salafi group, Jabhat al-Nusra, is smaller and thought to be linked to al-Qaeda. I did not see members of this group in the city. But I would suspect that a similar combination of extreme zeal and limited effectiveness may well characterize it. In general, the Saudi record suggests that Riyadh is good at creating terror organizations, less good at creating effective military groups. I think this is borne out in the Syrian context.

-- And the Muslim Brotherhood groups?

The main group in Aleppo which has been reported as receiving Muslim Brotherhood support is the Tawhid Brigade. This is the largest rebel group in the city. I interviewed one of the commanders of this Brigade and spent some time with a group of its fighters. They are well-armed, well-equipped, and well organized, and were without doubt the most impressive organization I saw in the city from an organizational and military point of view. They also gave the impression of discipline and commitment. The commitment, of course, is to Muslim Brotherhood-style Sunni Islamism.

Reports suggest that this group receives support from the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey, and Qatar. This would make sense in terms of its outlook. The commander that I spoke to acknowledged this support but said that it consisted of “relief materials only.” He also said that Tawhid’s receiving of support from the “Islamic states” had led to tension between the brigade and the leaders of the Free Syrian Army.

-- And the non-Islamists?

Non-Islamist battalions organized loosely under the banner of the Free Syrian Army proliferate in Aleppo, with each battalion having its own name and all belonging to the Aleppo Military Council, which coordinates the military campaign in the city. While all units claim officially that their weaponry is taken from regime soldiers, the uniform appearance of the units suggests that there is external support. From where? From available evidence the most likely source is Turkey, but perhaps also from private Syrian businesspeople living outside of the country. There have also been reports of Western involvement in training of forces in Turkey. It is important to note that the secular Free Syrian Army commanders are many in number and are keen to stress that the rebellion does not consist solely of Islamists.

-- So this war should be expected to go on for some time?

I think so, yes. There is currently a stalemate in the civil war in Syria, with neither side able to advance and to deal a decisive blow against the other. The rebellion is well-manned, determined, and organized. But the regime structures also show no signs of collapse. The regime clearly has a shortage of manpower. On the other hand, it retains its artillery and most importantly its aerial capacities. The rebels have no real answer to regime air power, and the regime is currently launching daily airstrikes against rebel-held areas, causing heavy loss of civilian life. The rebels last week launched an offensive in Aleppo designed to drive the regime from the remaining areas it controls (the rebels hold 60-70% of the city on the ground). But the offensive rapidly ran aground, reportedly due to shortages of ammunition, and the stalemate appears not to have been broken.