A number of recent reports indicate that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is losing ground in Aleppo to government forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad, whose relentless aerial bombardment and an intensified ground campaign have led the FSA to withdraw from several key neighborhoods and supply routes. In addition, the FSA faces growing pressure in Aleppo from the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS or ISIL). Having suffered recent setbacks in their Iraq campaign, due in part to U.S. airstrikes, the IS appears to be redoubling efforts to capture new territory in Syria to bolster its credibility. In Aleppo, the FSA is now fighting a two-front war against forces loyal to Mr. Assad and the IS and appears to be losing on both. If Aleppo falls, which many now predict, it would signify a major strategic loss and symbolic blow to the Syrian revolution that began over three years ago. One growing concern is that fighters and supporters of the embattled FSA will pivot to more extremist groups, and each loss for FSA is a win for IS recruitment in Syria. Facing strong odds of losing control in Aleppo, what might be the next step for the FSA and their civilian supporters? Would they be willing to embrace the IS or reconcile with Assad forces if the FSA is vanquished in Aleppo? Our research in Syria attempts to shed some light on these important questions.
Since August 2013, we have been conducting survey research in FSA-controlled territory of Syria. To date, we have completed over 300 survey interviews including active and former FSA fighters and civilians in Aleppo and Idlib, as well as fighters loyal to various Islamist groups including the Islamic Front, al-Nusra, and the IS. We also interviewed refugees who fled from Aleppo to Turkey. Through our research, we sought to gain a better understanding of what motivates rebel fighters to fight and for whom? We also examine reasons why some civilians flee abroad while others remain inside perilous conflict zones like Aleppo. Our data, though imperfect in many ways, allows us to compare goals and motivations of different actors in Syria’s ongoing civil war. We summarize some of our key findings below:
Civilians in Aleppo
Many Syrian civilians inside Aleppo and Idlib are war-weary and increasingly frustrated and disillusioned with the FSA. Most Syrian civilians we interviewed revile both the Assad regime and the IS, but also feel that the FSA is weak, corrupt and incapable of beating either. Some believe that the Assad regime and IS are actively coordinating attacks against them, or at least that the Assad regime and IS are more dedicated to defeating the FSA than fighting one another. Despite continuous assault by Assad’s forces and the IS, many civilians stay in Aleppo because they have no money, networks, or resources to travel to safety in Turkey. Though some also stay to help FSA fighters, most are there to protect their homes and families. Our research suggests that Syrian civilians would see the seizure of Aleppo by Assad forces or the IS as primarily an occupation. Regarding the Assad regime, civilians we interviewed are more willing to negotiate for peace with the Assad regime than rebel fighters. If Assad’s forces capture Aleppo, those with financial means may flee to the countryside or abroad. Others, if permitted, would likely remain in place and would not actively challenge the Assad regime for fear of reprisal. Similarly, we believe some civilians remain on the sideline in ongoing battles between FSA and the IS. If the IS takes control of a given neighborhood, those with the financial means would attempt to flee. Most, however, are likely to remain in place in their homes rather than actively oppose an advancing IS, again for fear of retaliation. Either war, the defeat of FSA in Aleppo would likely deepen an already horrific humanitarian catastrophe in Syria today, especially if the Assad regime and/or the IS engage in reprisal attacks and score settling against civilians in former FSA-held territory.
Refugees in Turkey
The Syrian refugees we interviewed in Turkish cities and camps also express war-weariness and a longing to return to their homes. Like civilians inside Syria, refugees we interviewed also strongly oppose both the Assad regime and the IS. Refugees also expressed support for a peace process and negotiating with the Assad regime to end the war. We do not have evidence to suggest strong support for the IS among Syrian refugees displaced from regions like Aleppo.
FSA Fighters in Syria
Compared to civilians, many FSA fighters are still committed to the goal of military victory and revenge against the Assad regime for its crimes. Those who have quit fighting for FSA have done so because they believe the FSA cannot win and that there are no alternative groups they would be willing to join. Some FSA fighters, however, hold moderate Islamist groups like the Islamic Front in high regard, and have left the FSA to join these groups because they feel these groups have better leadership, are better organized, less corrupt, and more committed to defeating Assad. FSA fighters oppose extreme Islamist groups like Al-Nusra and especially the IS, which is brutally attacking their forces near Aleppo as well. Overall, we believe FSA fighters are mostly dedicated to the cause of defeating the Assad regime and preserving their tenuous hold on Aleppo. We think there is strong evidence that, if the FSA is defeated in Aleppo, FSA fighters and their active supporters would regroup in the countryside and continue their fight. Some might join moderate Islamist groups, but few would be drawn to extremist groups like the IS in its current posture of attacking and killing them. If the IS were to gain from a withdrawal of FSA in Aleppo, we believe it would be primarily through fresh recruitment rather than transfers from FSA and other moderate groups.
“Islamist” Fighters in Syria
There are many groups that travel under banners of Islam in Syria, including brigades working with or in support of the FSA. Virtually everyone we interviewed is a Sunni Muslim, with deeply-held religious views. What distinguishes some moderate Islamist groups from more extreme groups like the al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra Front and the IS, is a weaker commitment to building an expressly Islamic State or Caliphate and a stronger commitment to fighting Assad and protecting their communities. We refer to groups like the Islamic Front as moderates because they fight alongside the FSA, are willing to tolerate ethnic and religious minorities, and envision political pluralism within the framework of Islamic law. Many of the fighters we interviewed in moderate groups like the Islamic Front (mainly Ahrar ash-Sham), are driven by the same goals and motivations as FSA fighters – they support the Syrian Revolution, they want to defeat Assad and hold his regime accountable for crimes against the Syrian people. Building an Islamic state is not the top priority for many fighters in these moderate groups, who generally view both the Assad regime and the IS as mutual enemies, but not FSA. Indeed, some fighters have left the FSA to join groups like the Islamic Front because they believe these groups are better organized, less corrupt, and take better care of their fighters. We would expect that the defeat of FSA in Aleppo could draw more fighters into the ranks of moderate groups but not the IS. FSA fighters and moderate Islamist groups are driven by shared political grievances against Assad.
To summarize, we believe evidence is limited that Syrian civilians, Free Syrian Army fighters, and moderate Islamist groups like the Islamic Front would willingly shift their support to the IS, should the Assad regime seize control of Aleppo. Most people we interview strongly oppose both the Assad regime and the IS. We suspect that the seizure of parts of Aleppo by either the Assad regime or the IS would be treated as a hostile occupation, prompting those with means to flee and regroup in safer locations. FSA and moderate Islamists would retreat and regroup in the countryside and continue fighting. Among civilians, those without means to travel will stay in place, but are unlikely to actively resist either the Assad regime or the IS due to fear of reprisal.
Also, despite dire conditions in Aleppo today and, indeed, throughout this civil war, many people we interviewed are wary of the United States, and support for U.S. military intervention has been mixed. Civilians in Syria and refugees abroad are most receptive to Western diplomatic intervention, including efforts to engage in negotiations with the Assad regime and possible deployment of UN peacekeeping forces to the region. FSA fighters want Western military aid to shore up their defenses to defeat Assad. Moderate Islamists like the Islamic Front, however, view the United States as an enemy, along with Assad and the IS, and strongly oppose greater U.S. or Western involvement in the conflict. If the deterioration of the FSA pushes more people into the moderate Islamist groups, Western intervention is unlikely to improve views of the United States.
Finally, while the IS appears to be a very adaptive, strategic, and well-funded organization, we do not think it is capable of building broad-based support among former FSA, moderate Islamist groups, and their mutual supporters given its current brutal posture toward them. Most fighters and civilians we interview in Syria fear and revile it now. The IS has vast resources, which it could use to expand its reach in Syria, possibly winning support among uncommitted civilians, but it would need to spend a great deal of capital in order to gain their trust. The IS might win over more Syrian converts were it to prioritize the defeat of the Assad regime and equip fighters expressly for this purpose. However, we believe most Syrians in rebel-controlled territory will continue to see the IS as an occupying force bent on dominating and subjugating them for its own ideational purposes. They will not necessarily support the IS, but they may also feel powerless to stop its advance.
Vera Mironova is a PhD candidate at University of Maryland, Loubna Mrie is a Syrian freelance journalist, and Sam Whitt is assistant professor of political science at High Point University.